Criticism seems to be a normal part of life that we never really, fully appreciate. At an early age, we try to teach our kids to accept criticism and to grow from it. We tell them to be “thick-skinned.” We explain that they should let harsh words roll off them “like water on a duck.” There is also incredible value in finding “the kernel of truth” from any criticism. Maybe these are all just clichés that we know are right, but are still very difficult to welcome when criticism knocks on our door.
Elbert Hubbard said, “to avoid criticism – do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” The cynic in us says, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism” (Harrison’s Postulate). And then, there’s Oscar Wilde’s conclusion (set to verse in Wicked) , “no good deed goes unpunished!”
We intuitively recognize the difference between constructive criticism from friends and just plain criticism, don’t we? Chuck Swindoll says about critics, “When you’ve been kicked by a donkey, consider the source.” With critics, it can feel like the person only cares about how our words or actions affect them. With critics, there is usually something we have said or something we have done that they don’t like; and the implication is that what they don’t like is — us.
During certain periods of life we can feel the weight of criticism beginning to drag us down. And during those times we are tempted to spend more time justifying, excusing, and rationalizing than trying to understand and benefit from criticism. Most often, when criticized, we pull away and distance ourselves from people thinking that we can avoid further hurt or frustration if we’re not so close.
It’s during the moments when we are non-defensive, however, that we become painfully aware of how constructive criticism can be a real compliment to us.
“Instruct a wise man, and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man, and he will learn more.” Proverbs 9:9
Constructive criticism offers the possibility to build us up, to be better, to meet our full potential, and, in most cases, to simply grow up.
Constructive criticism, however, is easiest to swallow when it comes from people who we know genuinely care about us. We take constructive criticism far better from friends because most of the time we feel uplifted rather than beat down. Allen Frans, a long-time friend from college, often told me that “a friend stabs you in the heart, but an enemy stabs you in the back.” Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Maybe our acceptance of criticism has more to do with how we perceive the person and his/her motives. With friends, we know they respect us, love us, and want to build us up (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Could it be, however, that the truest, best constructive criticism comes from God Himself? Doesn’t He know the truth about who we really are? Doesn’t He know how we’ve personally failed? Doesn’t He know our every thought, attitude, and word (Psalm 139:4)? Every one of us has compiled a long and sorry record as sinners and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious life He wants for us (Romans 3:23). That’s a harsh reality that most of us prefer to glaze over in generalities or just ignore altogether. When faced with God’s specific truth about our personal sin, our lives can become filled with regret that leads to despair. But what we really need is repentance that turns us toward grace, that leads us home, that leads us back to God.
Through His Word, by His Holy Spirit, and sometimes through others, God confronts us with the truth of our selfishness – our sinfulness – to restore our broken relationship with Him. Like a true friend, God speaks the truth to us in love. As a Friend who is closer than a brother, God’s Son, Jesus, went even further to prove His love for us by offering Himself in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to Him. Faithful are the wounds of our Friend – Jesus.
As a pastor, I’ve had my share of criticism – constructive and otherwise. Often, I need to be more thick-skinned. But, I also need to be open to the truth of who I am and what I’ve done, regardless of the source, to make sure I don’t become hard-hearted. God uses criticism of all kinds and from all people for us “to grow up in every way until we all reach maturity” (Ephesians 4:11-15).
When criticism comes my way, I need to listen, then ask God for wisdom, seek feedback from friends, and, where necessary, grow up in every way that the Lord reveals – regardless of the source He chooses to use. We walk by faith in God, not by fright of others or what they might say and do.
At other times, when the Lord prompts me to speak a loving word of truth into a friend’s life, I must make sure that my motive is only to help others grow up in their relationship with Christ (Ephesians 4:15). Before opening my mouth in criticism, I need to make sure that I am loving them in a way that gives them what they need the most, not just trying to get what I want or like myself. I need to make sure it’s not selfishness or hardness that they see, hear, or feel, but rather, tender compassion for them as a friend.
Heavenly Father, let harsh words of others roll off “like water on a duck.” Let truth, even when it’s painful, stick like glue. Help me be more thick-skinned, but not calloused. Help me speak truth in loving ways to others just as You have to me. Make me more like Your Son, Jesus, from the inside-out (1 Peter 2:21-25) as I follow Him.