Christians are called to a life of constant self-improvement. “Leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity…” (Hebrews 6:1). “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation…” Without the desire to make ourselves stronger, smarter, more faithful, and more mature, we would never become the fully-equipped people that we are supposed to be! “Each of the above-quoted scriptures call for a conscious effort of self-improvement. Only by becoming a better person can I meet with God’s approval. Few things remain static, including the development of character. So I must pull myself up through purposeful and conscious efforts or aimlessly allow myself to be pulled down by the cares and forces surrounding me. I have a daily problem, but it is also my daily opportunity to enrich my character and ennoble my life” (The Christian’s Everyday Problems, Brownlow, 118).
Often, the daily opportunities for spiritual development come in the form of criticism from other people – whether we are the ones criticizing or are accepting the correction. It is beneficial, therefore, that we spend some time understanding the concept of criticism, and how we can improve ourselves at both ends of the critical exchange. Why is criticism important, though? Is it not the way of the world that we all ignore the problems of other people and mind our own business? “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction…” (2 Timothy 4:2). Without constructive, scriptural criticism, there is no doubt that falsehood will creep into our lives and destroy the work of the Lord. Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word” because a time will come, and indeed has already come, that many will fall away and choose to live undisciplined, “un-criticized” lives. If we do not work diligently at teaching and reproving each other, sharpening each other as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), we may find ourselves deep in sin and at the threshold of condemnation.
I want to start with this section because it is absolutely important for all of us to learn how to take criticism before we think we have the right to dispense it. “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1). This verse makes it clear that the way we open ourselves up to receive true knowledge is through correction, through discipline and rebuke. If we do not believe that we need discipline, what kind of people will we become? How will this attitude affect our development as individuals? First, we must ask ourselves how much we love discipline. When somebody approaches us and offers advice on how we can improve ourselves, or correct a fault in our actions, do we love it? Do we live for criticism? Certainly, it is a difficult thing to do because discipline always feels painful for a time. But we must realize that without it we would never grow. Preachers who are never criticized will go on saying the same insensitive comments, or making the same grammatical errors. Employees who continually do a task incorrectly will continue in that as long as their supervisor allows it. We live in a society that, in general, avoids confrontation. We do not like telling people they are wrong, nor do we like being told the same! Fortunately, when criticism is given and taken correctly, it only hurts momentarily and eventually leads us to advancement. “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:7-11). Consider the analogy in this section of scripture. While we were children, our parents had to punish us for the foolish things we did. While no children giggles merrily at the thought of the rod, most of them look back with gratitude for their parents when they consider the consistent and fair discipline dispensed to them.
The importance of accepting criticism cannot be emphasized enough, for without it our growth would be static. In any undertaking, we should be willing to avail ourselves of the opinions and perspectives of those with more accumulated wisdom than ourselves. The wise person never sets out to remodel a home without consulting a contractor, or seeking the advice of a specialist. Thus is the point behind Proverbs 15:22, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.” Without a guidebook, instructions, or a professional looking over our work, many of our plans become quite frustrating. Even the most patient of us will grow weary of making mistake after mistake. Is it not the same way with our spiritual lives? If consultation with a home renovation project is essential, how much more is wise counsel to the revitalization of our souls? It is a foolish person who thinks he can go through this troublesome life without asking others where they find their strength, or how they make their marriages work, or how to raise children, serve God appropriately, seek His will, and especially make it to Heaven. Rather than try to accomplish all things on our own, we ought to be willing to take the advice and criticism of others – advice is almost always free, but its worth is far greater than gold! Also consider Proverbs 11:14.
Come to grips with your imperfection
Nobody knows everything, so how proud would a person have to be to reject criticism that could potentially lead to vast leaps of self-improvement? In the same way, nobody is perfect in the eyes of God (Lamentations 3:39, Romans 3:23), so we must humble ourselves enough to admit when we have sinned. If another person calls us on that sin, and offers a solution to the problem, it is our duty to be grateful and accept the rebuke with an open heart. Notice in Matthew 18:15-17 that God’s expectation at each step of rebuking a sinner is repentance. Ideally, we should never have to bring two or three witnesses with us because the honest, loving rebuke of a Christian in private should lead to repentance.
Listen to all criticism
Admittedly, there are times when all of us do not feel like getting criticized. When we are in a particularly good mood, or when we feel like we have just accomplished something great, that is the least ideal time to take a beating from somebody else. Beyond that, we have a tendency to ignore certain criticisms when we “know what’s coming.” There are times, for instance, when we continually make the same mistakes, either out of ignorance, stubbornness, or simply because we have not put in appropriate effort to remedy the situation. But if we persist in the making the same error, it is very likely that others will continue to offer the same criticism. From the perspective of the one being criticized, this is called nagging. Young, cocky athletes feel like they are being nagged when the coach gives the same advice practice after practice. Evangelists who tend to preach consistently long sermons feel like they are being nagged when numerous Christians ask them watch the clock better. Children feel nagged when their parents have to tell them to do such and such a chore every single week! The problem with this perspective, however, is that it places the blame in the wrong place. Chances are good that if we feel like we are being constantly “nagged” about the same supposed problem, it is not the rest of the world that is at fault! We are told quite clearly that if we resent correction, we are acting foolishly (Proverbs 15:10, Proverbs 9:7-8).
Take advantage of the consultation of wiser Christians
“Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored” (Titus 2:3-5). There are some wonderful lesson in this section of scripture. First, notice that the older Christians are addressed first, showing that stability and fidelity in a congregation begins with the eldest members. When the older men and women live as good examples, it gives the younger parents models to which they can look. The younger parents can then be examples to their children, as well as the newly weds, who can be role models for the teenagers, and so on down the line. There is so much that rides on the good example of the “older men and women.” Are our elder members living this way? After self-examination, could you hold yourself up to the most dignified standard possible, and be unafraid of taking on a role of leadership and responsibility? Do our younger married couples live excellent lives? Are their marriages stable, their young children well-behaved, their careers in order? Do our teenagers live in an exemplary manner, so that their friends at school have no doubt about their moral character? The point is that we should never resent the advice of older, wiser Christians – it is their mandate from God to be role models, to teach, to encourage, to lead by example, to be sound in faith, doctrine, and love. So, the question that must be asked of this congregation: Have we utilized the knowledge of people older and wiser than ourselves? When we have a problem, or are confronted with a difficult question, do we go to our elders, or a man from the church who is known for his understanding of the Scriptures? When we have trouble with our children, do we seek the guidance of older parents who have successfully raised and reared progeny? Do those young men who aspire to preach one day approach the older preachers of the congregation? Let us never forget the example of King Rehoboam, who rejected the consultation of the elders and sought the advice of his peers (1 Kings 12:1-11).
What about “bad” criticism?
In opening ourselves up to criticism from others, there is always the possibility that we will be faced with criticism that is misguided. What should we do in response to this? There is no doubt that there are many people who are in error on Bible truths, having misinterpreted the Word and are unaware of a more accurate interpretation. It is for this reason that we must be careful not accept every criticism as valid – I would not consider the consultation of a denominational pastor as requisite, nor would I necessarily change my life for the sake of a Christian who binds matters of his or her own opinion on others. There is, of course, a graceful way to handle these kinds of critics, so let us consider some biblical examples. David, in 1 Samuel 17:28, was criticized by his older brothers for wanting to survey the battle field and challenge the Philistine giant, Goliath. Having been thoroughly rebuked by his brothers, David could have accepted this critical analysis and left the Israelite encampment. Instead, though, he rejects the wisdom of his brothers and stands up for the integrity of the Lord’s army – and the Almighty Himself! When we are harried by other people for doing things that we know are good and righteous, we should never be afraid to respond with faith in the Lord! Let us not be ashamed of our desire to fight God’s battles – whether it is on the bus with a complete stranger, or in a debate with a close relative who refuses to obey. What we can learn from the story of David’s brothers is that our critics do not always have righteous motives behind the things they say. It is entirely likely that Eliab and the other men of Israel who mocked David were simply criticizing him because of their own cowardice. The same can be said of the Pharisees, who criticized Jesus because He intimidated them, or of the Jewish leaders who were jealous of the crowds that gathered around the apostles (Acts 5:17, 13:45). What is perhaps the most difficult kind of criticism to accept is that which is both true and which stems from unrighteous motives. “It is hard for us to see ourselves as others do or hear our words with the same connotation that others hear. At times a person will distort what you have said, but you may still be able to see how you could have stated your point more clearly. In such circumstances an apology and correction is in order even when your detractors are not so benevolent, Yes, it can be embarrassing and humiliating, but people will respect you more if you are willing to admit when you are wrong. Further, you will be surprised by how much trouble can be averted by demonstrating such a spirit” (Preparing the Young Man to Preach, Kercheville, 107). In the end, no matter how an unrighteous person may criticize us, if we learn from our mistakes and admit them, taking responsibility for our words and actions, we will end up being the moral victors that day!