Terms such as rebuke, reproof, correction and admonishment are all forms of it, and even “instruction” carries with it an element of criticism.
“Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14).
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).
When it comes to the subject of criticism, most of us apply the phrase, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. Receiving criticism can be difficult. At one end of the scale we can be like the ice hockey goalkeeper, who is well protected, and deflects everything that hits him, or at the other end we can be like a sponge that absorbs every word as true and helpful. Neither of these extremes is appropriate so we must strive for the right approach to receiving criticism, and also to giving it.
The Lord can use critics to guard our souls from sinful tendencies. He uses His people to speak the truth to one another in love, and this includes critical truth. If I only listen to those who affirm my every word and deed, then I am eliminating a God-given aid for spiritual growth.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Proverbs 27:6).
So, we need to listen to our critics but, at the same time, to realize that critics are not always right.
What guidelines could we follow, then, in receiving and giving criticism? Here are three things to consider:
Realize the proper goal of criticism is growth.
The chief goal in any Christian relationship should be to help others grow into Christlikeness. This does not mean that the recipient will not hear painful words but that the message will be delivered with the good intention of building the person up, rather than tearing them down so we can look better (in our own eyes).
Likewise, when we receive criticism, we must have an attitude of wanting to grow in Christlikeness, recognizing that we are not the finished article. The pride of protecting ourselves and how we are perceived needs to be defeated. Sadly, that pride is often inflamed when someone speaks corrective words to us, and our natural reaction is to defend ourselves and deflect their words onto someone else or make excuses for the things they are criticizing.
Provide encouragement in criticism.
When the Lord Jesus addresses the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, there is often a word of encouragement for what they have been doing well and/or in terms of the blessing they will receive if they change their behaviour. This, then, is a biblical model for us.
Whenever possible, our criticisms should be served with a healthy portion of encouragement. This is not a tactic to avoid hurting feelings but a practice of asserting that God is working, and will work, in the hearer, despite their failings, and is looking to aid them in their growth.
When we receive criticism, we can look for encouragement in the words and ask clarifying questions that may bring help to draw out that encouragement.
Be thoughtful in criticism.
Every believer is a “work in progress” and every area of life needs improvement, but the person who offers criticism should not be seeking to address every area of the other person’s life. Be thoughtful as to what needs to be said, when it should be said and how it should be said. Not everything that could be said needs to be said.
Often, criticism can be given hastily and without thinking about the ultimate goal. Considering what to say will greatly benefit both speaker and hearer.
“Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20).
When we receive criticism, it is good to consider what has been said. Most criticism will have at least a kernel of truth that will be helpful. Even if I think that a criticism is misplaced, I shouldn’t be too quick to deflect every word. Maybe my actions or speech have made my critic’s words plausible.
Whilst we don’t want to create a culture of critics who are constantly eyeing one another for mistakes, we do want to be believers who have such love and care for one another that we are willing to engage in deep, graceful, helpful, sometimes painful conversations that have the aim of producing Christlikeness in each other and thus bringing God much glory.