I would like to begin this article by asking a couple of questions which are rhetorical in nature: Are you better at receiving criticism or giving it? Would you rather be on the receiving end or the giving end of criticism? If we will admit it, most of us are a lot better at giving criticism than we are at receiving it! Yet, there are times when we find ourselves either as the critic or as the one who is being criticized. Since this is something that can have a profound effect upon ourselves and others, we need to learn how to both give and receive criticism in a way that is beneficial and productive. Let us consider some principles from God’s word which will help us toward that end.
What is criticism? Why is it that when we hear the word it seems to always produce negative feelings? That shows that our view of criticism is a rather limited one and perhaps too negative. The truth is that all criticism is not necessarily bad. While dictionaries point out that it involves the act of criticizing, especially disapprovingly, they also define it as “a review, article, or commentary expressing a critical judgment.” However, that “critical judgment” could be a favorable one! We must realize that all of us are playing the role of a critic one way or another as we pass judgment on different things. In fact, as you read this article, you are forming an opinion as to whether or not I’ve done a good job in putting this material together.
There are two kinds of criticism: Constructive criticism and destructive criticism. As Christians who are interested in building up the cause of Christ, we should want to engage in the former and not the latter! There are people who are sometimes overly critical of others and who seem to delight in finding fault. Yes, they are zealous to pass harsh judgments even if they have to engage in nit-picking or hairsplitting to do it. It was that very kind of spirit and behavior that Christ condemned in Matt 7:1-5. Please read those verses at this time. What was Christ condemning here? No, it was not all judging of any kind (Matt 7:15-16). Instead, Jesus was teaching against unrighteous judgments. Our Lord is condemning rash and uncharitable judgments and the disposition to condemn without proper examination. That’s what Christ is dealing with here—judging that comes from surmise, insufficient premises, or from ill will. The Master is telling us not to cultivate a harsh, faultfinding spirit that looks on the bad side of persons and actions and that seeks to see evil in order to find fault and complain. Then Christ illustrates what we all know to be true; the faultfinding spirit usually runs to the harsh extreme of finding “motes” in the lives of others, while overlooking the “beam” in one’s own is a good question for all of us: Are we as hard on ourselves as we are on others? Do we direct criticism toward ourselves as eagerly as we direct it toward others?
A fault-finding spirit can be a destructive thing and it is classified as a sin in God’s word! In Rom 1:29,along with fornication and murder, Paul mentions “malignity.” This word literally means “bad manner,” and it refers to “an evil disposition that tends to put the worst construction on everything.” Have you ever “maligned” someone? We usually do it to those we feel malice toward; no matter what they do, we delight in questioning their motives and character. We need to be careful lest we cultivate a faultfinding attitude which causes us to lose all objectivity in dealing with others. If people perceive us as a “faultfinder,” obviously our criticism of others will not be received as helpful or constructive!
How can we engage in constructive criticism? Let me give you two things to think about. We are basically dealing with two things: Manner and motive. First, when we approach people what is the manner in which we direct our criticism? Are we as eager to compliment as we are to give a negative comment? If the only time I ever approach someone to talk to them about their behavior, it is to criticize and find fault they are not going to be very open to my words and suggestions. However, if they see within me some objectivity, as they perceive that I am dealing with them from a standpoint of love and respect, they will probably be willing to consider my criticism and act accordingly. If we want to engage in constructive criticism, we must maintain a good balance between the positive and the negative. Let me offer this advice to parents: Be careful not to constantly criticize everything about the church in front of your children. If all children ever hear is how bad and hypocritical the preachers, teachers, leaders, etc. are, that’s bound to have a destructive influence upon them. A balance needs to be maintained. While you don’t want to produce a negative attitude in your children by being overly critical of the church, on the other hand we shouldn’t raise our children to believe there are never any church problems. However, remember this: When you are in a critical mood, the easiest thing to do is criticize. It doesn’t take a lot of effort or ability to express an opinion. It’s one thing to tell others how it ought to be done, and it’s another thing to roll up your sleeves and show people how to get it done.
Second, what is our motive for criticizing? This is most important! Are we doing it to be helpful or to tear down? The truth is that sometimes it is done out of impure motives, just as when Judas criticized Mary for pouring the costly perfume on Christ (John 12:5-6). If we will offer criticism in the right way and for the right reason, we’ll be able to bless others by our actions.
Let’s deal with the other side of the issue now. Let me point out when we are on the receiving end: (1) Remember that everyone has room for improvement. I’m not too good or so perfect that I couldn’t benefit from some criticism or advice that someone might offer me. Neither are you! Sometimes we need help to see our mistakes and where our weaknesses lie, (2) Remember that the truth is the truth no matter the source. Even if it comes from an enemy, if there is some truth to it, we need to profit by it. Yes, we can actually gain from the criticisms that were. intended to hurt us! Also, realize that our enemies will often do us a favor in that they will tell us the truth when our friends won’t, (3) Consider this: Why do we allow negative comments to discourage us by concentrating on the negative more than the positive? If someone, for example, were to give me five compliments on this article, but then they offered one negative criticism, why am I prone to concentrate on that one negative comment, perhaps even to the point of discouragement? Again, maintain a balance, and (4) Finally, remember that if you are never criticized by anyone for anything, it must be because you’re not doing anything! If you are doing something and trying to put forth an effort, get ready for it, because someone will find reason to criticize sooner or later. Don’t be discouraged by unjust criticism. Even our Lord was criticized— for eating with sinners (Matt 9:11), because of his family and poverty (Matt 13:55), because of the community where He lived (John 1:46), and for allowing a sinful woman to touch Him (Luke 7:36-39).
In conclusion, the next time you are criticized, do the following: Take it into consideration; think and pray about it. If the criticism is fair and just, learn from it and thank the person for their comments. If after prayerful study, you decide that you are in the right, then ignore the advice and keep on doing what you know is right!
Originally published in The Old Paths Advocate, February, 1998