Unless we are cabbages or total nonentities, every one of us will have our critics. That criticism will come from people near and dear, as well as from others not-so-near and perhaps especially not-so-dear!
What we do with criticism determines in large measure the kind of person we become, for it can either hurt us irreparably or help us immeasurably, depending on our attitude to it.
Criticism comes in different categories. Some of it is malicious, hostile and destructive, while some of it is creative and benevolent. At times it is cruel. At other times, kind. Often it is of necessity both cruel and kind. In any event, unfortunate is the man who has no critics. “Beware”, said Jesus, “when all men speak well of you.”
Yet when we know we are under criticism all kinds of attitudes and emotions tend to grip us. First of all is the desire to retaliate and return criticism for criticism, gossip for gossip and slander for slander. Of all reactions this is the one most to be resisted, for its consequences in polarising relationships and damaging other souls are incalculable.
If our antagonists would hurt us that is their business, and they must stand before God and be faced with the consequences of their own actions, for “on the Day of Judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matthew 12:36).
But for us to hurt our antagonist is another thing altogether, for it traps us with them in the folly of their ways, and compounds the overall problem. The attitude of Jesus impressed Peter very forcibly and led him to note, “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return, when He suffered, He did not threaten, but He trusted to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
First cousin to retaliation as a reaction is that of self-vindication. Saint Augustine knew this and prayed, “God, deliver me from this insatiable desire to vindicate myself.” Self-vindication is equally futile. For if the criticism is unfair or malicious, we can leave God in His own way to vindicate us, and if it is merited and in order, then far better to bear it in silence without squealing. But the promise of Isaiah 54:17 is so special and so comforting:
“‘No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me’, says the LORD.”
All this leads to the conclusion that while we should not answer our critics, and should certainly not retaliate against them, we should by no means ignore them. For in spite of our initial protestations, we usually realise, if we give ourselves the time, that our critics, even the malicious and destructive ones, do often have a point. They see things to which we are blind, and if by faith we will let it be so, our critics can become instruments in the hand of God to chasten us and push us on to self-correction and creative spiritual growth. With such an attitude our critics cannot hurt us- at least not for long- and more often than not they can help us to higher and better things.
As such they are worthy of that act of “blessing” which St Paul exemplifies. Says he, “When reviled, we bless: when persecuted, we endure: when slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Corinthians 4:12). Criticism creative and charitable, is always part of the healthy give-and-take of normal life, but for the Christian it has to be set in the context of the New Testament standard which is “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy toward all men” (Titus 3:2).
A prayer: Lord, help us to be under your control in both the taking and the making of criticism.