Criticism: Humankinds’ Companion

To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. – Elbert Hubbard

Criticism is humanities’ escort, something almost everyone will experience. Whether it is in athletics, academia, education, politics, ecclesial matters, or business, criticism is a hallmark of humanity.

How criticism is handled can determine life’s directional course. Take former chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, Denice D. Denton, taken from The Chronicle of Higher Education and a Forbes.com article by Christine M. Riordan:

"Denice D. Denton came under fire immediately and often during her 16-month tenure as chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, which ended with her apparent suicide in 2006. . . . In addition to the harsh criticism, which came from the typical antagonists of public-university leaders—student activists, employee unions, alumni, state lawmakers—the chancellor was a pariah to some conservative bloggers as well. The denunciations were often deeply personal.”

What could have led to Denton’s death is a challenge almost all of humankind will have to deal with, in one-way shape or form.  Criticism can either make someone stronger or tear him/her down.

Leaders experience great criticism and one Biblical leader who experienced it was Moses. Criticism can be a great friend, and some will argue, the most important entity in the area of growth if it is constructive. But criticism is not always productive and often times flows out of less than altruistic motives. Moses receives much criticism from Israel’s self-regarding motives; through his experience we can see that:

  1. Criticism arises from an unsatisfied heart (Exodus 16: 1-3ff)
    One month had passed since Israel’s departure from Egypt. Exodus 16:2 states that the community of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron and painted Egypt as a land of plenty.  The nation forgot that God had delivered them from an Egyptian slavery and was leading them into a land filled with abundance. Oftentimes, people do not criticize out of a thankful heart but a heart that is unthankful.
     
  2. Criticism arises from an unbelieving heart (Exodus 17:1-7)
    Israel now is camped at Rephidim and tests the Lord, requesting water. The actual request is not sinful but the condition of their heart in questioning whether or not the Lord is present and able to provide causes heartache.  Moses names the place Massah for Israel testing God and Meribah for their rebellion and quarrelling. Exodus 17:7 states “ . . . they tested the LORD saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?" When one struggles with faith, criticism is often a companion to unbelief.
     
  3. Criticism arises from an insecure heart (Numbers 12)
    Miriam and Aaron, Moses’s older siblings, both confront Moses on his Cushite wife. Both the older siblings state in Numbers 12:2 "’Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn't he also spoken through us?’” It appears the older siblings are jealous of Moses’s standing as God’s special leader and display sibling rivalry. They should have been proud and supportive of their younger brother, seeing that God was using him in an exceptional way and not threatened by his youth. When people perceive themselves in an inferior light and possess egos that are easily threatened, criticism of someone in a “special” standing or circumstance can erupt.

We know from the Bible and life that criticism is inevitable; therefore, how does one prevent it from destroying the soul? The Bible offers much advice:

  1. When criticism comes, discern if it is beneficial or unhelpful
    Proverbs 12:15-16: “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise person listens to advice.  A fool shows his annoyance at once, but the prudent overlooks an insult.'” Some criticism can lead to our growth and is meant for our betterment but some of it comes out of a self-regarding heart like Israel’s. When criticism comes, discern if it is meant for one’s benefit or as an attack.
     
  2. If criticism is constructive, embrace it
    Proverbs 15:5: “ . . . whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” One of the best things to help us grow personally, professionally, emotionally, and physically is constructive criticism. The Bible says use constructive criticism to your advantage—learn and grow from it to make yourself better.
     
  3. If criticism is unconstructive, discard it
    After Pastor Rick Warren’s son committed suicide due to mental illness, he and his wife experienced criticism and vitriol no grieving parent should ever have to face. In a CNN interview with Piers Morgan, Warren said his response to this was that he and his wife Kay just ignore it. As was written above, criticism often flows out of a heart that is self-seeking. Proverbs 19:11: “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” Unconstructive criticism is not worth our time; discard it and throw it away. Doug Fields of Youth Specialties wrote in Church Leaders that if someone sends a critical email anonymously, he deletes it. If one signs their name, he will read it and usually respond in a neutered tone like: “thanks for the input.”
     
  4. Regardless of the motive of the criticism, do not respond immediately
    Proverbs 18:13  “The one who answers before listening– that is his/her folly and shame.” Most criticism is not worth our time or energy but the natural inclination is to fight back and retaliate. Regardless of whether one chooses to respond or not, have a minimum of 24 hours to calm emotions and restore some semblance of rationality before responding. Silence usually is the best response especially if it is unconstructive criticism born from a self-centered heart.
     
  5. If there is a response, respond with kindness, not malice
    Proverbs 15:1-2  “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” Author Donald Miller tweeted: “I confess I’m tempted to shame people who shame me.” This is natural but never beneficial. Jesus, while dying on the cross asked the father to forgive the people who were hurling insults at him. Criticism will come and it will hurt. Naturally, we want to hurt back. If there is a response, do so with kindness, not returning evil for evil. Matthew 5:44-45  “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Responding through prayer and forgiveness is probably the best way regardless if there is a direct response.
     
  6. Take it before the Lord first and foremost
    Exodus 17:4:  “Then Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.’” Moses dealt with a lot of criticism and the biblical text reads that Moses’s first action to handle Israel’s complaining was to bring it before the Lord in prayer, bearing his heart and soul to God.
     
  7. Take it to a community
    Galatians 6:2  “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” It is always helpful to involve others since they will be more rational and emotionally detached from the situation. Doug Fields in Church Leaders says that he often brings criticism he has received to his small group. Oftentimes, the small group will affirm Fields that the criticism was unwarranted, but there are those moments when his small group can help Fields navigate through the hurt and see that there is something to gain. Fields even lets someone from his group respond on his behalf.

Criticism is inevitable. Learning to deal with it in a healthy manner will go a long way into the fitness of the heart and soul for the long-term.

Michael Chung currently teaches Bible and Theology at Houston Baptist University. He can be reached at mchung@hbu.edu.