08 February 2012

A Passing Thought on Receiving Criticism

Seems to me there are two wrong ways to receive criticism and one right way.

By "criticism" I have in mind love-sent but hard words from a believing brother or sister that are meant for our good, in the spirit of so many NT passages (neglected by many today, first and foremost by me) that call us to exhort, rebuke, and sharpen one another. I'm not thinking of meanness, backbiting, word-wars, etc. All of that is simply to be ignored. We shouldn't meddle in it. Doing so is futile. It's only self-progagating.

And, for every one rebuke, I expect there should be something in the neighborhood of about 50 affirmations. Or 500. Or so.

Also, this is not a post about giving criticism. That's equally worthy of reflection, and requires just as much wisdom. But not what we're talking about now.
Wrong way #1: Reject consideration of it. This is the path of the fool as depicted in Proverbs, James, and elsewhere. We resist correction because we are sure we know better. We subtly think that teaching is a one-way street (us to others), never a two-way street.

This is not to say everyone ought to listen to everyone equally. If I teach a Sunday School class on Romans that includes in the audience Doug Moo and a high school sophomore, and both of them offer critique, I will more readily receive Moo's words than the high schooler's. And I will be right to do so. Moo generally understands Romans better than I do, and is more experienced pedagogically; and I generally understand Romans better than the high schooler, and am more experienced pedagogically. It would be foolish to receive both critiques with the same weight. A call to receive criticism is not a call to abandon discernment.

The big point of this blog post, moving on, is that outright rejection is not the only way to resist correction.

Wrong way #2: Reject consideration of the critique inwardly, while receiving it outwardly.

This is the path not of the fool but the hypocrite. The Pharisee. The white-washed tomb who looks nice on the outside but inside is full of bones. We smile and thank the brother for the critique. We bemoan how much we have to learn. Offer zero self-justification verbally. Give a hug of gratitude.

But internally we are resisting truly weighing what has been said.

Why, then, would we act to the contrary?

Because we are more concerned with what we look like than with what we in fact are. Our desire for godliness has not passed that crucial threshold of our desire for the appearance of godliness (cf. 2 Tim 3:5). Justification by what others think still outweighs justification by God. (On top of that, we know, of course, that our brother is misguided. He means well, but the poor chap's off--if he were a bit more mature he would doubtless see things my way, so no need to give serious reflection to what's being said.)

This instruction-resistance-disguised-as-humility, along with being prideful in the same way as #1, is a form of works-righteousness. Disbelief in the gospel. Thinking that in order to be whole/at rest/secure, we need to appear to be something on the outside that we are not on the inside. Why? Because we think that if others saw us as we really are, we would lose something. But in the full approval won for us by Another we cannot lose anything, no matter who knows what about us. The only way to lose is to hide who we really are, for then we lose our sense of Him.

To put it differently: #2 is still idolatry, just as much as #1. The idol has simply changed. The idol in #1 was self. We are justified because we are right. The idol in #2 was human approval. We are justified because we are viewed as humble, as the kind of person who can receive criticism.

#2 is not only more subtle but more devious. We still think we're above criticism (as in #1), but to this we add artificiality. It is a double sin: the pride of #1 combined with the hypocrisy of #2. #1 may be ugly, but at least it's honest ugliness.

Right way: Receive the critical words, consider them. Fill your heart with a sense of God's undentable delight in you as his son or daughter, filter the criticism through wisdom, ponder what has been said, leave behind what was sincere but wrong as far as you can tell, seek the counsel of others if needed, remember that Christ's blood covers all offenses, and redirect your life accordingly.
All this is not to overlook the many, many, many frivolous things that are said--especially online--that may contain a hint of truth but are so off that they ought to be rejected outright and forgotten. I'm talking about the accusation or slander or haughtiness paraded as brotherly sharpening and love for truth. It is not humility to take such words to heart. It is wisdom to ignore them.

And, there will be many cases when, after honestly examining our hearts and perhaps seeking counsel from a trusted third party, a well-meaning and love-sent critique will simply be misguided and should therefore be ignored and forgotten following sober assessment.

So: can you humbly receive criticism from a brother? Truly receive it, and not just externally so that you appear to be humbly receiving it, thereby simply diverting from the idol of self-sufficiency to the idol of human approval? Our motives are always mixed, of course--probably never in this life will we receive a criticism without some degree of impure hypocrisy at play.

We all stumble in many ways. I need to grow in receiving criticism truly. I invite you to join me.


Tim Wilcoxson said...

A very helpful reflection. I'm thankful for your wisdom Dane.

Steve Cornell said...


Very well put! Goes nicely with Collin Hansen's piece on Burnout http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/02/07/how-to-pull-out-of-the-burnout-spiral/

Craig Larson said...

Wow. Thank you for articulating the sneaky reality of the inner morphing Pharisee whom we each need the Spirit's help to authentically engage. Wrong way #2 and your closing paragraph on mixed motive are particularly valuable. What senseless relational strife can be bypassed by embracing correction as a holy growth opportunity and rejoicing at the presentation of hard truth to our inner being.

Rick Beard said...

Thank you for the post. I have a man in my church that opposes me at every point, it seems. It makes it extra difficult that he is a former pastor here. So 2 Tim 2:24-26 has been in my mind lately. I need a continual reminder on this.

Jonathan Pearson said...

I know in my own life that I am very guilty of #2. I hear criticism and appear to take it outwardly, but on the inside I am rejecting every point that is being made. It is something that I am continually working through in preparation for the ministry I believe God is calling me to.