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Responding to Criticism: Part 2  

In my last post I discussed some listening practices that are extremely helpful when receiving criticism. In this short article I will explore how to discern if the criticism is helpful or hurtful.  

Some Criticism is Misinformed     

Not every criticism you receive is on target. Some miss the mark by a country-mile. Though some contend that there is a kernel of truth in any and every criticism, it is important to realize that some critics are off-base and ill-informed. I was once told, rather aggressively, that I am preaching the Gospel but living like Satan because I have a tattoo on my arm. I was informed that the book Leviticus clearly forbids tattoos. A word of advice before continuing: if you feel the urge to tell your pastor he is living like Satan (which is not a compliment!) please have the courtesy to make an appointment first.   

In this particular situation I gently pointed out that in that same chapter of Leviticus we are told, “Do not plant a field with two types of seed,” (Lev. 19:19), “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (Lev. 19:19), “Do not eat meat with blood still in it (Lev. 19:26), “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard,” (Lev. 19:27) and “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoos on yourself.” (Lev. 19:28)   

I quoted these Levitical laws, not to make light of scripture (I think these commands served an important function at the time), but, rather, to point out the fact that this gentleman was ignoring these other commands and yet did not seem overly concerned about his neglect being demonic, hypocritical or anything else for that matter.   

I went on to point out that the levitical prohibition against marking one’s skin had to do with caananite rituals and the cutting of one’s body for the dead and, though I obey the timeless priniciple underlying this command of not wedding my Christianity with other false spiritualities and pagan rituals, the cultural application of Leviticus regarding ‘tattoos’ is no longing binding.   

In fact, if one were to read through chapter 19 of Leviticus one would find many moral principles we still follow and some which have fallen by the wayside. This is not the result of Christians cherry picking the verses we happen to like, or that jive with our cultural context. Rather, it is the result of reading the Old Testament through the lens of the New and applying the finished work of Christ to the Levitical laws.   

Jesus fufilled the sacrificial laws, and the civil laws are, in many ways, no longer binding because we are no longer under a theocracy as Israel was. We don’t, for example, stone those children who dishonor their parents. And thank God for that! There would be none of us left! (See Romans 13 for the New Testament shift away from theocracy).   

The various moral laws, reaffirmed by the teaching of the New Testament, however, are still binding on the Christian, which doesn’t include the types of Levitical laws I’ve listed above about wearing two-types of fiber etc. It is a significant mistake to pull out this one verse on ‘tattoos’ and beat a fellow Christian with it, all the while remaining blissfully unaware of the context in which it is found.   

I go on this long excursion to simply show that some criticism is just plain misinformed and provides you with a helpful teaching opportunity.

Criticism that Should be Celebrated       

There is also criticism that is directly related to our calling as Christians or our aderhence to biblical truth. I have had people write entire blog posts criticizing a teaching I gave on biblical sexuality. The person did not criticize my tone or my manner of communicating, critiques from which I could learn much. Rather, they were directly criticizing the teaching of scripture for which I was a mouth piece. There is nothing for me to change, or renounce in this instance, there is just the reminder the world and its values are not a friend of God (James 4:4). These types of criticisms need to be shaken off as we fix our eyes on Christ and His call on our lives, rejoicing that we were considered worthy to endure criticism for His sake.  

Questions to Ask When Criticism Comes     

Some critics are very helpful. We shouldn’t assume that all criticism is negative or wrong-headed. Instead, when criticism comes we need to pause, pray, reflect, and consider the source. Here are some practical questions we can ask ourselves to help us evaluate the criticism:  

  • Does this person care about me?
  • Do they have wisdom and insight?
  • Do they reason from within a biblical framework?
  • Are the criticizing an idea, or are they attacking me?
  • Are they themselves invested in the project they are criticizing?
  • Can I turn these critics into coaches that will help me get better?
  • Is this a criticism I have heard from others as well because, if so, it is likely that it is revealing a blind spot in my life?     

After the criticism comes, these are questions we can prayerfully ask ourselves, all of which will help us sift through the wheat and the chaff and determine the nugget of truth contained in much of the criticism we receive.

How do we Get Good at Receiving Criticism     

It will never be easy but, how do we get good at receiving criticism? Sande’s insights, shared in the last blog post, certainly help at a practical level, but what about at a heart level?  

Pastor and author, Timothy Keller, likes to say that the Gospel informs us that, “We are more sinful then we imagined but more loved than we ever dared to hope for.” I think that Keller is right, so how do these two truths, flowing out of the Gospel, help us receive criticism?   

If it is true that I am more sinful than I ever imagined, if I believe that at a heart level, than I will know that I am a sinner who makes mistakes, who messes up; in other words, I have weaknesses and blindspots.” I believe all of this is an implication of the Gospel, therefore, I should be open to receiving correction. I have blind spots and I am not perfect, leaving me open to the real possibility of legitmate criticism.   

At the same time, if I believe that I am more loved and, therefore, more secure in my worth, than I ever dared to hope for, then criticism won’t shake me to the core of who I am. Criticism won’t destroy me, or take all of my joy, because my security and my identity are rooted in the fact that God, whose opinion is the only one that will ultimately matter in the end, loves me more than I will ever fully comprehend. My identity, worth, value and significance cannot be taken by the critic. These two truths, implied by the Gospel, help me to receive criticism without being destroyed by it.   

In the end, as I believe Billy Graham once pointed out, our critics can be turned into coaches who help us grow in godliness. Critics can be coaches and all good coaches are constructive critics. Critics may be spurs in the saddle of God’s sanctifying process for our lives.  

So, do you have any critics in your life that you can start thanking God for?