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There is a thin line between constructive feedback and criticism. Positive, timely and even critical feedback is good, necessary and healthy. We must encourage and create a culture where there is room for healthy, positive and when necessary critical feedback. Because it can help people to do better, change for good and it's necessary for overall growth.
But on the other hand, criticism and especially constant nagging criticism can be very demotivating, discouraging and can wear people down emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. In an ideal world, Christians would know better and would do away with constant negative criticisms. But the fact of the matter is that Christians can be the most outspoken and vicious critics of one another. Often that is cloaked under the guise of critical feedback but it requires no expertise to discern ungodly motives behind such feedback.
It should not surprise us to know that the office of a pastor is one that is exposed to the possibility of criticism from various sources. Unless a pastor is terribly naïve, it would be fair to say that all pastors are aware of this peril when they answer the call. But even though criticism is part of the package, it seems that many pastors are often not equipped to handle it well.
I once asked a seasoned pastor how he handled criticism and he said, “Well, every Christian leader should know the three E’s of criticism.” My ears perked up and I wanted to know what he had to say. He went on to tell me that the 3 E’s were: Expect Criticism, Examine Criticism and Endure Criticism.
These 3 E’s of Criticism have been stamped in my mind, not knowing that as soon as I would wade into the waters of ministry that these 3 E’s will prove to be a life-saving mantra so to speak. So here are the 3 E’s of criticism:
1. Expect criticism:
Basically, if you are in any form or shape of leadership, you would be naïve to think that ministry would be all smooth sailing. We would be kidding ourselves if we thought every individual would be fawning over us. Instead if we were doing things right, it’s very likely that we will have our fair share of critics, contrarians and folks who like to disagree and dislike everything being done by those in the leadership or even folks who just don’t like anyone around them.
When criticism comes knocking at our door, we shouldn’t be taken by surprise, instead we should embrace it. Remember we can embrace it only when we have been expecting it. It is normal to face criticism when in leadership.
I would go so far as to say that if no one ever criticized us for anything we did then either we might be running a totalitarian and authoritarian regime in which no one can dare to speak up, or we might be bending over backwards to please everyone around and living a life of constant compromise with no conviction whatsoever.
At the risk of repeating myself, I want to reiterate what I said earlier: it shouldn’t surprise us when we receive criticism. We should expect that there will always be detractors who will doubt our intentions and who will ascribe motives and who will assume things about us.
2. Examine criticism:
We should expect criticism not because everyone around us is waiting to pounce at us when we slip, but because it is inevitable that we will err and make mistakes, and our actions do deserve to be criticized many times.
Humility demands that we recognize our own weakness and not be taken aback when criticized by others. Sometimes when we become adept at controlling our emotions and reactions, we might feign humility and give a pretense of taking correction when all we are doing is listening from one ear and letting it out from the other.
A godlier response would be to take a pause and think about the criticism that is being levelled at us. We must ask ourselves if there is anything that is vaguely true in this criticism. And if there is something that is true, then we need to repent or apologise if need be. We need to certainly see to it that we have responded positively and made necessary corrections.
But the irony of this suggestion of self-examination is that it’s very likely that we will give ourselves a clean pass. Therefore, along with self-introspection it might be best to ask our wives about this criticism and humbly accept her views. It would also be wise to ask our friends and co-workers regarding this. Unfortunately, some of us are too afraid to ask others about our lives because we fear that it might be what we don’t want to hear. But if we really want to grow in godliness this might be the best route to take.
So, when faced with criticism let’s receive it with humility, examine ourselves, ask ourselves hard questions, allow others to help us see our faults and see if there is any truth in what is being said and then go on to make necessary amends.
Because I think a man with a truly humble heart knows that he is weak and is quick to accept feedback and act upon it. He is not afraid of examining his own heart and does not justify himself at the drop of a hat. When criticized for anything by anyone, the first reaction wouldn’t be to be defensive but to ponder upon it and to think about it and take necessary measures to bring about changes.
Having said this, it would also be important to understand that sometimes people will criticise for the sake of criticising. And we need to be able to discern that kind of criticism which is intended to only tear down, but not to build. I recently heard this line somewhere and I think there is a lot of truth in this sentence, “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticise.” We will do well to not take to our hearts such kind of criticism.
3. Endure criticism:
Well, not only should we expect and examine criticism, I think we also need to learn to endure it. As long as we live, we will inevitably be facing criticism from someone or the other, because of our own sin and because of the shortcomings in the lives of those who are around us. This cannot be a one-off or one-time event. Therefore, we must brace ourselves to endure criticism, some of it well-deserved and some underserved, some that we need to pay attention to and some that we need to ignore.
A friend of mine once recounted an incident concerning a well-known preacher who was being criticized by someone for being proud. People around him said, “Aren’t you concerned by these comments?” He apparently said to them, “Not really. Actually, I’m much worse than that and if they have that opinion of me then there must be some truth in it.” When I heard this response I was taken aback. How could he remain so calm and not care for his reputation and offer at least some defense. But I guess, that man was truly humble and was being mistaken by others to be proud. Instead of taking offense and trying to justify himself, he instead was quick to recognize his own sinfulness and not lash out at that person. He also understood that one of the perks of being in ministry is that one has to be under public scrutiny constantly, and it is impossible to please everyone and to match up to everyone’s expectations.
So brothers, you must not be disheartened by constant criticisms that you might be facing in ministry. If you have practised honest self-examination and have allowed people around you, including your wife, to speak into your life regarding these criticisms then you must endure them. People around us are watching us and seeing how we respond to criticism. Ungodly outbursts of anger and attempts to justify one’s action at the expense of maligning others will certainly not glorify God and are not the right way to respond to criticism. Instead, we are called to humbly, gently and patiently endure all sorts of criticism. Don’t be a Christian porcupine: constantly ready with needles to attack in self-defence!
Well wise pithy sayings are often very pleasing to one’s ears, but putting truth into practice is another thing. Unfortunately, the man who taught me these truths himself was not able to put it into practice when he was subjected to massive criticism regarding a specific pattern of behaviour in his life. He ended up being very defensive, which further damaged his reputation. He was eventually put out of ministry. I still love that man, respect him dearly but it’s terribly sad to see his ministry end in this manner.
It has been a huge warning for me personally. Incidentally, I write this post to remind myself of these truths as I have faced immense criticism and personal attacks over the last few years, and more so in recent times. I write this not as an expert or as one who has attained a certain standard but one who is trying to put it into practice.
Having said this, sadly, I have myself failed at many times to expect, examine and endure criticism, even though I have repeated this mantra to people around me so many times.
Unfortunately, I have at times responded unwisely to criticisms that were sometimes necessary, but other times unwarranted, harsh and personal. But with time, growing maturity, with the help of my wife and friends around me, and of course the work of the Holy Spirit, slowly but steadily I’m growing in my ability to expect, examine and endure criticism. I hope and pray that the Lord will help you also to do the same.
Photo by Luke Richardson on Unsplash