How do we respond to criticism? Christie Anne Luibrand looks at ways to handle criticism that helps us grow or tears us apart.
Crit·i·cism - the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.
At some point in life, everyone becomes the brunt of criticism, whether in professional, personal settings, or even online. In fact, it has never been easier for someone to voice their opinion. Sometimes criticism is meant to help you grow as a person. A friend approaches you with something you said that was hurtful in order for you to know the impact of your words. A spiritual advisor is concerned by some of the decisions you are making, and seeks to discuss other options. Yet there are also times when criticism is destructive. How can one differentiate between the two? How should we, as Christians, respond to criticism?
Taming the Tongue
When reflecting on Scripture about this topic, I found myself reading James Chapter 3 over and over again. I'm going to include a large chunk of this chapter here, because there is so much truth and wisdom to be found there:
With (the tongue) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can salt pond yield fresh water.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For where jealousy and ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:9-18)
Therefore our mouths are sources of great beauty, truth and love, but also of great evil. Words have meaning, and we should remember to put weight behind what we choose to say. Fraternal correction is done with love, gentle words, and based on facts. Alternatively, when vile language, unkind/unfair judgments, and assumptions are used, this is not of God.
When we receive criticism we should discern whether it is from God or from the enemy.
- What is the intention of the person who is criticizing me? Was it to help me grow? Or was it to make me hurt?
- In what manner was this criticism given? Were they Christ-like? Was it pure, peaceable, gentle open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits? Was it without hypocrisy?
- Will making the changes suggested bring a new strength to you? Fraternal correction may sting, but it is often because it is challenging you to become a better person.
Responding to Destructive Criticism
If you have reflected on the above and come to the conclusion that the criticism was not full of wisdom and love, do not turn inward. Do not allow that attack (which is what destructive criticism is) to bring you hours of rumination. Often when we spend hours crying over hurtful words we are not accomplishing the tasks God has put before us. Look outward rather than self-evaluating. Pray, practice charity, and focus on your vocation. St. Cyprian of Carthage put it this way:
Persevere in labors that lead to salvation. Always be busy with spiritual actions. In this way, no matter how often the enemy of the soul approaches, no matter how many times he may try to come near us, he'll find our hearts closed and armed against him.
The Letter to the Romans challenges us as Christians to not repay evil with evil, but to overcome evil with good.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them...Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord". To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. (Romans 12:14-20)
It may go against human nature to do good to those who criticize or persecute you, but God's ways are not our ways. Many times to bring peace we must rise above our own feelings. (If someone is abusing you, that is not the same -- and I have written about that here.) Respond with kindness, and see what happens. In my personal experience people tend to be thrown off by those acts of charity and reflect upon their actions.
When You were Destructive
Yet what are you supposed to do when you were the one who gave destructive criticism? This is hard to admit but it is important to do so. I have done it many times in my life, so you are not alone. As James chapter 3 stated, "from the same mouth come blessing and cursing". Often there is a kernel of truth to something we may criticize someone for, but that truth is lost when we wrap it in bitterness or jealousy. It is no longer wisdom, but "earthly, unspiritual, and demonic."
Turn first to the sacrament of confession. Admitting the sin of harming another person is an important step, and reconciliation allows you to heal your relationship with God. Next, pray that God give you the courage to seek forgiveness from those whom you have sinned against. Asking for forgiveness is not always easy to do.
I was once told by a priest that confession used to be conducted in a public square, because our sin affects the entirety of the Church. When we commit a sin, we have sinned against those around us! When he told me that, I could no longer ask for forgiveness only in the confessional; I realized how important it was to heal the Church as a whole by taking accountability with people as well.
If you are still in touch with the person whom you have hurt, the simplest way to ask for forgiveness is by admitting what you did and having an open and honest dialogue. Let that conversation be peaceful by using "I" rather than "you" statements, centering it around how you are seeking to improve, and then making a plan for how you can both move forward. Then do the work!
If you are no longer in contact with the person who you have hurt, pray for them. While it may not feel as satisfying as a conversation with them, it will heal your heart. Often prayer allows a softening of our hearts and lets us see people as God sees them. Ask that God heal their hearts as well. Daniel 9:9 says that "the Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against Him."
How has God helped you discern between constructive and destructive criticism? How has God given you strength and courage to ask for forgiveness when you have been destructive?
Copyright 2020 Christie Anne Luibrand
Image copyright 2020 Christie Anne Luibrand. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Christie Luibrand, MSW, LISW is a therapist turned stay-at-home mom with two little ones. She blogs at Her Daily Fiat where she writes about motherhood, faith, and wellness.