By Ryan Connor
Criticism cuts deep. It cuts marriages apart. It cuts friendships to shreds. For those in church leadership, criticism cuts the legs out from under their ministries. Criticism cuts us down. But it can also cut us open and show us what we might not otherwise see. Criticism may present opportunities for important and needed change. In short, criticism cuts both ways.
Criticism is an insult attached to a complaint. The problem is blamed on a defect in the other person’s character, typically with global terms like always and never. For example, a spouse may complain to her husband, “Honey, you forgot to pick up the milk.” Or, she could criticize him: “I can never count on you. You always forget something.” A friend might complain: “I’m disappointed that you quit coming to our small group.” Or, he could criticize his friend: “You never stick with anything.”
Before we consider how to effectively handle criticism, we must first restrain the critical spirit within us. Paul says, “But you, why do you criticize your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before the tribunal of God” (Romans 14:10).*
Criticism may be an attempt to build up oneself by cutting down others. Paul cuts through these games we play with criticism and declares that everyone is on the same level. James simply says, “Don’t criticize one another, brothers” (James 4:11).
With God’s help, we may learn to manage our use of criticism. But that may not prevent others from criticizing us. We too often respond to criticism in kind, supposing that the best defense is a good offense. This typically leads to arguments and escalating conflict. To effectively handle criticism, we must recognize and manage our tendency to become defensive. Most of us respond to criticism instinctually by trying to fight back.
We must admit that we, like all people, tend to become defensive when we feel attacked by criticism. This insight will begin to help us respond more effectively to criticism. I call this the “stop and think” technique. Your mother taught you this when she instructed you to “stop and think before your speak.” It applies to just about everything, including how we respond to criticism. Do not just react emotionally. If you need a moment to calm down and collect yourself, then take it. You will never be able to effectively handle criticism unless you learn to manage your emotionally defensive reactions.
A Bid for Personal Connection
A critic may come across as insensitive, rude, or mean. And sometimes that is exactly the problem. But not always. In personal relationships, criticism is often a bid for connection.
A husband who criticizes his wife’s cooking is just plain stupid. But a man may criticize his wife for bringing her work home in the evenings because he misses spending that time with her. Sure, he ought to share his feelings and express himself without criticism. But that would require a level of maturity and insight unavailable to him when he feels hurt or upset. So, instead, he makes a critical remark. Understandably, his wife feels unjustly attacked and becomes defensive.
For the next hour, the two of them fruitlessly argue about the value of her work and how he fails to appreciate it. The cycle of criticism and defensiveness increases the disconnection in the relationship.
Learning to see criticism as a bid for connection is not easy, but it can be done. Next time you find yourself on the receiving end of criticism from a spouse, family member, or friend, ask yourself, Is this a bid for connection? Then, ask the critic what he or she needs from you. Express your care, love, affection, appreciation, or whatever seems appropriate. Offer some connection as a response to criticism. It may sound crazy, but it works. “A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
We also must unpack the emotional baggage attached to criticism. Do this by listening more carefully to the critic’s words. Resist the urge to interpret and read all sorts of motivations and insinuations into what the other person is saying. Scripture condemns such thinking as “evil suspicions” (1 Timothy 6:4).
Do not assume you know what the other person is trying to say. When criticism is a bid for connection, the goal is to move away from reacting emotionally and defensively, and moving toward problem solving for greater connection.
Criticism in personal relationships is not always a bid for connection. In these cases, you may need to set some clear boundaries with people who are mean-spirited and critical. It may require verbally setting limits (such as saying, “Your words are very hurtful and mean; I need you to stop criticizing me”). It may require getting help (from a mediator, pastor, counselor, etc.). It may require physically setting a limit (e.g., leaving the situation, calling the police). Matthew 18:15-17 offers a model for addressing this kind of interpersonal problem in the church.
Remember, the goal of setting clear boundaries is not necessarily to cut off the relationship. The goal is to clarify what you can and cannot accept in the relationship. Clear boundaries may help the critic learn to consider your feelings and communicate complaints without criticism.
Leaders who try to defend themselves from every criticism will run themselves ragged and waste valuable energy. Nevertheless, effectively handling criticism is an essential skill for Christian leadership.
Nehemiah understood that effective leadership often requires ignoring criticism. His opponents wanted to meet and discuss their criticisms of his work. Nehemiah answered, “I am doing a great work and cannot go down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3).
Leaders need to understand that criticism is almost always little more than a distraction. Nehemiah ignored his critics and refused to give them the time and energy that belonged to his ministry. As persistent as his opponents were, Nehemiah held his ground. He explained, “Four times they sent me the same proposal, and I gave them the same reply” (6:4). Nehemiah teaches us that leaders must never let criticism distract us from the work!
Moses is another good example of the kind of character necessary to effectively handle criticism. Moses demonstrated the ability to endure criticism without giving up.
Moses dealt with critical and malcontented people. They complained about the bitter water (Exodus 15). Moses took the criticism to God, and God made the waters sweet. Then the people complained about the lack of food (Exodus 16). So God gave them manna. Then they complained about the manna and said they wanted meat (Numbers 11). Moses took the complaint to God, who gave the people quail. Still the people complained.
Consider that Moses stood before the burning bush. He stood before Pharaoh. He parted the Red Sea. He endured and overcame many challenges in his service to God. But the people’s grumbling and complaining was almost more than he could bear. Nevertheless, Moses had the character to withstand the criticisms of the people. The Bible says, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any man on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). It was Moses’ humility (some translations say “meekness”) that enabled him to effectively handle the criticisms of the people.
Meekness (humility) is often mistakenly confused with weakness. Moses, however, was no wimp. He once witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Scripture says, “Looking all around and seeing no one, he struck the Egyptian dead” (Exodus 2:12). Meekness is not weakness.
Jesus described himself as “meek and lowly” (Matthew 11:29; see also 2 Corinthians 10:1, King James Version). Jesus was not weak. He had all the power in the world. He could have called upon 10,000 angels to punish his persecutors! It was the selfless restraint of his power that made Jesus “meek and lowly.”
Leaders who are insecure, or who are interested in consolidating their power, will struggle with criticism. Moses trusted God and knew how to roll with the punches. Learn to take criticism like a boxer takes a punch: relax and roll with it instead of resisting and fighting back.
Moses also knew how to listen to criticism when it was valid and helpful. Christian leaders need to have people around them who are willing to offer a critical perspective and challenge them.
Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was that kind of person. When Moses explained how he went about his work, Jethro replied, “You will certainly wear out both yourself and these people who are with you, because the task it is too heavy for you. You can’t do it alone” (Exodus 18:18). Jethro gave Moses some helpful criticism and Moses listened.
In order to effectively handle criticism, we must not react emotionally and become defensive. Recognize when criticism may be a bid for connection, and set clear boundaries when a relationship is not safe. Leaders must ignore distracting criticisms from opponents, but be willing to learn from the valid criticisms of those who are truly on their side. And remember, roll with the punches.
*Scripture quotations are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible, unless otherwise indicated.
Ryan Connor serves as senior pastor with Amity (Oregon) Christian Church.