How to Receive Criticism

Feedback has been called “the breakfast of champions.” Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time eating it. So often we misinterpret this feedback or constructive criticism as a personal attack, and in pride and anger we counterattack in self-defense. What we could have received as positive stepping stones, we turn into stumbling blocks. How can we learn to receive personal criticism in a God-honoring way?

1. Maintain an attitude of humility. This is the most important (and most difficult) thing of all. Probably every time we get offended at a critical word, the root of the problem (in our own hearts) is pride. Proverbs 13:10a says, “Only by pride cometh contention” (KJV).

I once heard a moving story of a godly pastor raked over the coals by a deacon. Once he had patiently listened to all of the brother’s accusations against him, he responded with something like this: “Brother, the case with me is far, far worse than what you have said. If you knew me better, you wouldn’t think so well of me. But as for the truth of God’s Word, I must be faithful to it and must continue to preach it to the best of my ability.” The humble response of the pastor broke the bitter heart of the deacon, who began apologizing. “Oh no, brother ________, there’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done! I’m the one who is in the wrong.”

What a demonstration of God’s truth that “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1 ESV). If the pastor had defended himself and counterattacked the deacon, the whole situation would have turned out for the worse.

2. Give an honest ear to every criticism. Not every criticism will be valid, but it’s likely there is a grain of truth in what is being said. A rule of thumb should be, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Only by patiently listening will we benefit from the criticism, correct any misunderstandings, and right any wrongs. Most of us don’t even think about trying to benefit from criticism, however. That sounds as ridiculous as benefiting from a heart attack. But criticism is not like a heart attack; it’s like the chest pains that alert us there is a problem.

Just as wisdom dictates that we see a doctor when the chest pains come, so we should respond quickly to reproofs. Proverbs 15 reminds us it is prudent to regard reproof (v. 5) since the person who hates reproof will die (v. 10; see also vs. 31-32).

3. Repent and make appropriate restitution. There are criticisms that will be honest and just. When we receive criticism revealing sinful attitudes, words, or actions, we should thank God for these and repent. We show our repentance by changing a sinful attitude or by seeking forgiveness from the one we offended with our words.

4. Consider—but do not dwell on—all criticisms. There are times when people will criticize us for things that are not sinful. “I don’t like the way you dress.” “You really should smile more often.” “Do you have to sing so loud?” “You really shouldn’t preach with notes.”

These criticisms are not based on biblical and moral principles but on personal preference and opinion. They may be rooted in personality, temperament, and background differences and are probably better left unsaid.

When these come, consider them . . . but not too much. In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon advocated that every preacher needs a blind eye and deaf ear to certain things, since “you cannot stop people’s tongues, and therefore the best thing is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken.”

Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 agrees: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.” In other words, God expressly forbids us to listen to some criticisms and complaints. Simply remember that words are wind, and that you, too, have sometimes harshly criticized others over petty things.

5. View criticism as a way God makes us more like Jesus. Oh, how crucial this is! God’s sovereignty in our lives is so practical. Believing that God uses even others’ evil words for our good will keep us from so much bitterness and resentment.

In 2 Samuel 16, when Shimei cursed David in Bahurim, Abishai said to David: “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head” (v. 9). David humbly responded, “Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today” (vs. 11-12). David knew that God was in control of this cursing enemy and that He could use it for good. How much more should we trust God to use personal criticism for our good.

Making It Personal
*Are you approachable and teachable? Do friends, family members, and church members feel comfortable approaching you with constructive criticism?
*Have you learned to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful criticism? Can you turn a blind eye or deaf ear to unhelpful or ill-meaning words?
*Do you humbly welcome criticism, believing that God will use it for good in your life?

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