How well do you take criticism? Are you defensive and reactionary or do you listen, sift and ferret out what may be helpful? You cannot live life without being criticized by family, friends, coworkers, bosses, the church and your enemies. So how do we process criticism with a Gospel paradigm? What would that look like?
First of all, let me define what I mean by criticism. I am using criticism in a broad sense as referring to any judgment made about you by another, which declares that you fall short of a particular standard. The standard may be God’s or man’s. The judgment may be true or false. It may be given gently with a view to correction or harshly in a condemnatory fashion. The source might be a friend or an enemy. But whatever the case it is a judgment or criticism about you that you have fallen short of some standard.
Most would agree that criticism is tough to take. Who of us does not know someone with whom we walk on eggshells lest they blow up? Criticism is often withheld because of a fear of retaliation. I will admit that I too, do not like criticism and often find it hard to take. I would much rather be praised and commended than rebuked and corrected. I would rather judge than be judged and I have a sneaking suspicion I am not alone in this. We seem to be hardwired toward defensiveness in the face of criticism.
Why are our hearts and minds so instantly engaged and our emotions surging with vigor in our defense? We defend that which we regard as something of great value. We think it is our life we are saving. We believe something much larger will be lost if we do not use every means to rescue it. Our name, our reputation, our honor, our glory are in danger of being lost. If I don’t point out that I’ve been misunderstood or falsely accused then others won’t know I’m right. And if I don’t point out my rightness, nobody else will. I will be scorned and condemned in the eyes of others.
Do you see the idol of self righteousness here, the desire for self justification? Because of this idolatrous desire for self justification, we destroy our ability to listen, learn and benefit from criticism.
Thus, for the sake of our pride and self righteousness and foolishness we are filling to suffer the loss of family, friends, spouse or loved ones. Sometimes, some of that destruction results in the shape of a truce that tolerates a cold war. We will no longer allow ourselves to “go there.” We stay away from the landmines that will explode in anger and retaliation if we so much as raise the forbidden subject of my mistake, my error or my sin. This is how marriages end, friends become alienated and couples split. There must be a better way between a thin truce of détente and surrounding ourselves with “yes men” and a “sledgehammer killing flies” approach in defending ourselves against criticism. Is there another way? Thank God, there is.
The ability to hear and heed correction and criticism is commended in Scripture, particularly in Proverbs (Proverbs 12:15, 13:10, 17:10, 13:13, 9:9, 15:32). There is a gain in taking criticism. How can we move away from always being quick to defend ourselves against any and all criticism and see it as a gain? The answer is through understanding, believing and affirming all that God says about us in the cross of Christ.
Paul summed it up when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20a). A believer is one who identifies with all that God affirms and condemns in Christ’s crucifixion. God affirms in Christ’s crucifixion the whole truth about Himself: His holiness, goodness, justice, mercy and truth as revealed and demonstrated in His Son, Jesus. At the same time, in the cross God condemns the lie, deceit, depravity and idolatrous heart of sinful man. How do we apply this in processing criticism?
First, in Christ’s cross I agree with God’s judgment of me. I see myself as God sees me, a sinner. In regard to my sin, the cross has criticized me, judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively and truly than anyone else ever could. The cross is offensive to fallen human nature and its passion to think well of itself. This revealed knowledge permits us to relativize other’s criticism and judgment of us by saying that is just a fraction of it, the tip of the iceberg, as it were.
If the cross says anything, it speaks about my sin. The person who says, “I have been crucified with Christ” is a person who is well aware of his own sinfulness. You’ll never get life right by your own unaided efforts because all who rely on observing the law are under a curse (Galatians 3:10). Thus, the cross does not merely criticize or judge us; it condemns us for not doing everything in God’s law. Do you believe that? Do you feel the force of that criticism? God’s judgment is thorough.
The crucified person also knows that he cannot defend himself against God’s judgment by trying to atone for his sins by good works. To claim to be a Christian is to agree with what God says about our sin. It is certainly not flattering but it is patently true. Nothing worse about us could ever be said.
Second, however, in Christ’s cross I agree with God’s justification of me. This is the good news. I not only agree with God’s judgment of me but I also agree with his justification of me as a son. Through Christ’s work God justifies the ungodly.
Pride breeds quarrels, and quarrels are often over who is right. Quarrels erupt in our idolatrous demand for self justification, but not if I learn how to apply the cross to myself. The cross not only declares God’s just verdict against me as a sinner, but also His declaration of righteousness by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is the only sure foundation for the soul. I no longer feel the need to practice self justification but now boast not in myself but in Christ’s righteousness freely given to me. If you truly internalize this, the whole world can stand against you, denounce you, judge you, and criticize you, you can reply, “If God has justified me, accepts me and will never forsake me, why should I feel insecure in the face of anybody’s criticism?”
So how do we deal with or process criticism? We do so by agreeing with God’s criticism of us in Christ’s cross. No one can criticize me more than the cross already has. And the most devastating criticism turns out to be our finest mercy. If we know ourselves in the light of the cross’s verdict we can respond to any criticism, even mistaken or hostile criticism, without defensiveness, bitterness or blame-shifting. We do not have to defend our righteousness any longer because we have Christ’s righteousness.
If I know myself as crucified with Christ, I can now receive another’s criticism with this attitude; “You have not discovered a fraction of my guilt. Christ has said more about my sins, my failures, my rebellion and my foolishness than any man can lay against me. I thank you for your corrections. They are a blessing to me and a kindness to me. For even when they are wrong or misplaced, they remind me of my true faults and sins for which my Lord and Savior paid dearly when He went to the cross for me. I want to hear where your criticisms are valid.”
We no longer have to fear man’s criticisms for we have already agreed with God’s criticisms. And we do not ultimately look for man’s approval for we have gained by grace, God’s approval. In fact His love for us helps us hear and see correction and criticism as a kindness.