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Critical Dynamics of Criticism

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It is probably fair to draw the conclusion that there is a universal dislike for personal criticism and correction. Nothing reveals the pride that resides in each one of our hearts so much as being on the receiving end of criticism.

Giving or receiving criticism is one of the most difficult yet most necessary parts of a believer’s life in a fallen world. It is also one of the difficult aspects of Gospel ministry. No one likes to be criticized—and most of us do not enjoy having to confront others. In whatever station of life we find ourselves we will be susceptible to criticism.

If we’re honest, we would have to admit that we would rather criticize others by means of sinful gossip and slander than go to them in a forthright and loving manner. We would rather dole criticism out than have to be subject to it ourselves. Our aversion to criticism often comes from the fact that we have far more sinful pride alive in our hearts than we would ever want to admit.

Joel Beeke once explained how most of us so often respond to criticism:

Criticism will come; and when we don’t respond to it rightly, it will promote smugness, it promotes an unforgiving spirit, it promotes backbiting on our part. We tend to judge those who judge us. We tend to return evil for evil. We end up doing to others what others do to us. We binocularize their faults, bring them seven times closer and, when it comes to our own thoughts—because we become so self-defensive—we turn the binoculars around and we make our faults seven times smaller.”

We often fail to receive a legitimate criticism in humility because of the manner or delivery by which others have confronted us. In similar fashion, we fuel the rejection of our criticisms of others when we do not bring criticism to them in a loving, wise and gentle way. It is vital that we learn to assess criticisms. Content and manner are the two of the essential vehicles by which we can assess the giving and receiving of criticism.

The criticism that we give or receive may be right or wrong in the content of criticism. Additionally, it may be right or wrong in the way of its delivery. There are essentially five categories by which we may assess the criticism that we are both called to give and receive. Criticisms may be:

(1) Altogether wrong in content and in delivery.

(2) Partially right in content but wrong in delivery.

(3) Partially right in content and right in delivery.

(4) Altogether right in content but wrong in delivery.

(5) Altogether right in content and right in delivery (This is almost never the case when giving or receiving criticism). How we assess the criticism that we are either giving or receiving is paramount to our ability to live in such a way that is pleasing to the Lord.

Simply acknowledging that these categories exist does not mean that it is easy to assess any given criticism. It is remarkably difficult to make proper assessments for a variety of reasons.

First, most of us want to think that others are entirely wrong whenever they bring any criticism to us. We love to turn a blind eye to our own sin.

Second, most of us blow up (whether internally or externally) over what part of a criticism might be wrong, rather than welcome what part of it is right. Third, we are all ready to write off criticisms that are brought to our attention when it comes from someone with whom we have not had a close relationship. After learning how to assess criticism, we desperately need to learn how to then cope with criticism.

In his 2008 Philadelphia Conference of Reformed Theology talk, “Persevering in the Face of Criticism,” Joel Beeke offered the following 11 solutions to this problem for Gospel-ministers who undergo severe criticism:

1. Consider Criticism Inevitable.

If you are a true believer or a pastor in a true church, you can be assured that you will be the object of criticism. Beeke explained, “Dead churches don’t criticize, living churches do. Expect it. After all, Jesus said to his disciples, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” Be open to criticism. Criticism will come.”

2. Consider the Source.

When criticism comes, we have to ask the following questions: “Whose criticizing you? Is it coming from an officer-bearer, a mature believer, a babe in grace, an unbeliever or a fringe member of the church—a highly critical individual?” Generally speaking, the more we sincerely welcome constructive criticism, the more our ministry and our relationships with others will benefit from it.

We need to be open; we need to welcome people as they express their concerns and complaints; but, we need to be careful not respond excessively to every complaint. We must consider the quantity of the complaint and the quality of the complaint. We someone raises criticisms, we have to ask ourselves, “How significant is this particular persons criticism on this particular item?”