Let’s admit it—no one likes to be criticized. It causes intense internal pain. David captured the experience well: “[They] have sharpened their tongue like a sword. They aimed bitter speech as their arrow” (Ps. 64:3). He was stabbed by words. I too know what it’s like to be stabbed! I’ve been criticized for the way I lead and don’t lead. I’ve been criticized for my facial hair, I’ve been rebuked for things I’ve written or not written. I’ve been castigated for concluding a prayer “in the precious name of your Son, Amen” instead of “in Jesus’ name.” I’ve been rebuked for working too hard and for not working hard enough. I’ve had lies told about me, insinuations made about my character, and been told that I’d be better off being a 3rd grade teacher rather than a pastor. Wouldn’t they be appalled to find out I actually became a university and seminary professor! Some have thought I’m too easy on people in counseling and others have called me a bully. How am I to process this? Do I just get bitter? Do I allow myself to get cynical about people and ministry and withdraw?
Let’s allow Scripture to give us direction. It tells us, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31); therefore, all must be received and responded to as an act of worship. Through the years of criticism, these are some principles that the Lord has helped me develop to cope in God-honoring ways.
One of the many ways that doing the painful work of understanding how the treasures/worship of our own hearts impacts us is that it either humbles us or hardens us. I don’t want to be hardened, so it has humbled me.
Whoever is truly humbled will not be easily angry, nor harsh or critical of others. He will be compassionate and tender to the infirmities of his fellow-sinners, knowing that if there is a difference it is grace alone which has made it! He knows that he has the seeds of every evil in his own heart. And under all trials and afflictions he will look to the hand of the Lord, and lay his mouth in the dust, acknowledging that he suffers much less than his iniquities have deserved [emphasis added].
Pulling the cover off the false worship tendencies of my soul has revealed that there is great work to be done. Here is the stark reality: my critics don’t even know the whole truth. It’s actually worse than they think! If they did know the thoughts and intentions of my heart they would probably wonder why I’m in ministry. I can think when receiving criticism, “Is that the best you’ve got?” I still don’t like it but it helps me to respond without getting bitter.
Genesis 3 did more than send us to hell – it distorted our perspective on life and ourselves. We actually think we’re pretty great or else it wouldn’t hurt so much when we’re criticized. Yes, pride is the root of all sin.
This truth helps me stay realistic about myself. Others see me more clearly than I see me.
Another immensely helpful truth is to remember the absolute control of our God. I state it like this:
Romans 11:36 is abundantly clear and reveals how there are mysteries to the workings of God. Paul writes, “for from Him and through Him and to Him are all things,” and this would include criticism.
Remember what David wrote in Psalm 64:3 (quoted above)? He’s realistic. Yes, the words stab me, penetrating like an arrow, but they would not be able to do so unless God allowed them to get by the shield, which is Himself.
Consequently, please consider the next point.
Romans 8:28-29 teaches that God uses all circumstances to refine and teach me for this purpose. Therefore, these circumstances not only come through the hand of God, but they come for a purpose, which is to help me grow to be more like my Savior.
I desperately want to be like Him. I need to be thankful for people who help me positively along this path, but also for those who help me in a negative way.
Criticism can help accomplish this by revealing what must be important to me. The heart is at least partially about the emotions, so when someone criticizes and it stirs my emotions, the criticism must have touched something that is important—a treasure— and I must consider if it is a greater treasure than the Lord (Matthew 12:34-35).
Recognizing that criticism reveals what I treasure, I must also consider whether the criticism has weight.
A number of years ago I was criticized for not being a loving pastor and I heard this from more than one person. It was hard for me to hear because, just the opposite, I thought of myself as a super loving pastor (see point two above). I sacrificially studied for sermons and made hospital visits, and dutifully did all that was required. I could not ignore it though—more than one person was noticing it.
Here’s a biblical handle for this principle: if more than one person is telling you the same or a similar thing, you’d better listen. I am basing this on Deuteronomy 19:15 which states that offenses are to be confirmed by two or three witnesses (repeated in other places like 2 Corinthians 13:1).
In conclusion, remember that…
I am so thankful for the truth that I don’t have to play God in another’s life. He is the just judge who will wipe away all tears and will righteously make all things right. Truth will be revealed.
Applying these principles has helped me apply the sage advice of Stuart Briscoe who says, “A pastor must have the hide of a rhinoceros, the mind of a scholar and the heart of a child.” If I do not apply these principles I’ll have the skin of a new born baby, a brain consumed with resentment, and a heart full of cynicism. Therefore, I think I like my principles for dealing with criticism!
What principles help you receive criticism? Which one of the six principles resonates with your soul the most and why?
Ernie Baker is the speaker at the 2018 Transform Biblical Counseling Conference. Learn More at transformconference.org