Criticism Is A River That Flows Both Ways

One of the most profound ironies in a life that has shown many profound ironies is that I have devoted so much time and effort to developing and practicing and perfecting the art of criticism while being a person who tends to be particularly disinclined to appreciate receiving it.  This tendency is by no means a new one–over a decade and a half ago one of my close friends commented quite insightfully that both of us liked dishing out criticism but that neither of us liked to receive it.  That is, I think, a rather pointed aspect of our times in that people find it easy and pleasing to criticize other people and institutions for being fallen and flawed but seem distinctly unwilling to receive criticism from those institutions or other people in turn.  We want to teach but not be taught, we want to criticize while seeing ourselves as above criticism, which undercuts the legitimacy of our own criticism and should allow us to develop some empathy with others who dislike receiving criticism as much as we do.  But the prestige of being a critic (something I must admit I find a bit baffling) and the importance of viewing oneself as being above criticism tends to hinder our development of either consistency in our behavior or empathy with other human beings who are not so unlike ourselves.

If we look at the example of the Bible, we consistently see that godly leaders and godly people in general are demonstrated to be highly accepting of criticism.  A couple of examples should suffice.  David, in Psalm 141:5, tells us:  “Let the righteous strike me; it shall be a kindness.  And let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil; let my head not refuse it.”  And David practiced what he preached; remember the way that he graciously dealt with the criticism of Nathan the prophet when it came to his sin with Bathsheba.  Most kings would have punished their prophets for revealing such private sins to public scrutiny and promising divine judgment, but David repented and saved not only his kingdom but also his salvation.  This is a point worth remembering.  The Apostle Paul, no shrinking wallflower when it came to delivering pointed criticism at others (see, for example Galatians or 1 Corinthians), was also quite adept at handling it as well, as we can see in Acts 23:4-5:  “And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?”  Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’””  After this acceptance of the validity of the criticism, he then goes on and makes an able defense of his beliefs and splits the Sanhedrin over the issue of resurrection.  Far from our own contemporary hostility towards the receipt of criticism, even in the face of frequent criticism of others who happen to disagree with us or act or think or believe differently than we do, godly people in the Bible are consistently portrayed as being humble and reflective and self-aware in the face of criticism.

On the other hand, those who are viewed as ungodly are shown as being thin-skinned and unable to accept rebuke.  This should be a caution to us.  Proverbs 17:10 reminds us that:  “Rebuke is more effective for a wise man than a hundred blows on a fool.”  If rebuke is not effective in helping us to reflect on our ways, then the Bible’s judgment is that we are fools.  Mark 3:1-6 shows us an example of being thin-skinned in the face of criticism and rebuke and correction, and the picture is not a pretty one:  “And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.  And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.”  Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent.  And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other.  Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.”  After being corrected by Jesus Christ for their self-righteous judgment of His practice of healing on the Sabbath, rather than repenting like a David or Paul in the face of valid criticism, the response of the thin-skinned Pharisees was to plot on how to destroy Jesus Christ because they were unable to take the criticism to heart and reflect upon it and change accordingly.

Indeed, it is my own firm (albeit personal) belief that this bi-directional flow of criticism between people and other people and people and institutions is what accounts for the importance of fellowshipping together spoken of by the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 10:24-25:  “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”  One of the most important aspects of our commitment to institutions and fellowship is the need both to help purify and encourage other people through godly criticism as well as the need for us to be encouraged and improved through receiving and reflecting upon criticism from others as fuel for our self-reflection.  This is not to say that all criticism we receive will be just, any more than all of the criticism we dish out will be just, but rather that in developing an attitude of seeking what is worthwhile to consider in criticism we will be better and more godly people for it, and certainly more just and considerate in the way that we handle rebuke and criticism directed at others.

We live in a day and age where there is a great deal of prestige and social honor to be gained in being a critic.  Ordinary people are encouraged to give critiques for the products and services that they pay for, people like myself enrich our libraries and occasionally our bottom line through our skills at criticism, and being a skilled and able critic is viewed by many as akin to being a prophet, which has a great deal of prestige in our culture, albeit often separated from the corpus of biblical law that gave legitimacy to prophets.  Yet the prestige given to critics combined with our own misguided and inaccurate belief that our behavior is beyond criticism makes it difficult for us to accept criticism from others.  It is as if we all want the prestige of being a critic but none of us wants to accept what may be valid about the criticism of others.  We are all biased by our perspectives and experiences and often by our self-interest but we want to think ourselves perfectly objective and fair in the criticisms we dish out, even as we find it impossible to charitably view the understandably biased and often unfair criticism that we receive in turn from others.  It is clear that we frequently have more in common with the thin-skinned and easily offended and self-righteous Pharisees that were so hostile to Jesus Christ and to the early Church of God than to the heroes of faith in the Bible whose example we wish to follow.  Let us therefore profit from the observation and reflect accordingly on what it would take for us to be both more gracious in rebuking and criticizing others where it is due (and it is often due) as well as more gracious in dealing with the unjust and harsh criticism we often receive from those who are as socially awkward and lacking in empathy and self-awareness as we ourselves so often are.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Criticism Is A River That Flows Both Ways

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    This is a very thoughtful blog. Whenever I feel the sting of a reproving remark or critical word, it is usually because a grain of truth exists. This is different than the offense of right verses wrong or a disagreement of opinions. The former is purely objective and the latter can be discussed by digging deeper into the frame of reference to understand the points that can bear credence to an opposing thought. These things sharpen the mind.

    Criticism is different. It comes across as a personal attack and the one on the receiving end–in order to profit from the experience–must withhold his natural instinct to reject the message and stop the impulse to immediately react to the incoming attitude. Taking the time to sift through the fog of negativity–perceived or real–and one’s own natural flare-up over it to analyze what the detractor actually said takes great self-control and maturity. But the reward is realized by finding those pieces which actually apply and using them to bring forth inner change. I’ve faced angry personal criticism to the point of degradation, but when I mentally stood back and carefully studied the words hurled at me (minus the adjectives, wrong conclusions, and unwillingness to hear my side), I found some nuggets that I could work with. Sometimes the chastisement comes through a more palatable channel, such as a sermon, but it can have the same impact. We need to look at ourselves first and find the grains and nuggets. When we look directly at others, their eyes are lens reflecting us. The spec we see in theirs is a reflection of the beam in our own.

    There may be multiple people in one’s life who communicate this way and it is often up to us to rise above it, as you stated, to become better human beings because of those experiences. We may know the offenders well enough to tell them gently how they are coming across–when we are calm enough to do so. With others, we simply bite the bullet while always remembering to treat them and the world at large the way we wish to be treated. When it is right and proper to speak up, a wise, tactful and prudent teacher will emerge from a talented, witty and worldly critic.

    • Yes, while I often wish that people who sought to advise others were more tactful and gracious in their messages, I too have found a great deal of insight an wroth to be taken from seriously considering and reflecting even over highly imperfect communication.

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