Life Together: Thinking Critically about Criticism

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Everybody loves criticism. Until they are the one criticized. I’m often asked about criticism. Here are some thoughts.

One of the joys of exhorting from the Word of God, is that every Sunday before corporate worship, I get to sit under the criticism of the Word. The writer to the Hebrews states: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). As the minister of the Word (the servant of the Word) sits before the Word before the Sunday in his study, it pierces him first before it pierces the congregation.

One of the joys of preaching through the book of Hosea, was that Hosea leaves no one untouched by the criticism of the Word. There is an application for the congregation: “Now let no man contend, or rebuke another; for your people are like those who contend with the priest” (Hosea 4:4) There is an application for the Pastor/elders/deacons: “Hear this, O priests! Take heed, O house of Israel! Give ear, O house of the king! For yours is the judgment, because you have been a snare to Mizpah and a net spread on Tabor.” (Hosea 5:1)

Bonhoeffer writes in his book ‘Life Together’:

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

Hyper-criticism begins when the Christian no longer listens to God’s Word or places himself under the authority of God’s word. Hyper-criticism ends when Christians are no longer willing to listen to one another. Bonhoeffer again:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God to.”

Criticism is not a bad thing. King David delights in the glory of criticism. He may have been remembering the criticism he received from Nathan the Prophet: “Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil; let my head not refuse it.” (Psalm 141:5). But notice: he wants the righteous to strike him, not the wicked. The blow of the wicked is from an enemy. The blow of the righteous is from a friend.

Criticism is inherently an action that must be tied into love for God’s Word. It can and should be an act of love that is tied into the truth: “but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ-” (Eph. 4:15).  Sincerity in love can involve criticism as well: “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.” (Rom. 12:9)

The fine line between destructive and constructive criticism is sometimes blurred by sin. Sanctification means that we are pursuing the building up of our neighbour. Christian love means that we pursue the building up of the body of Christ, and the Apostle Paul gets very practical at all times. He ends off Ephesians 4 by bringing clarity to communication: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph. 4:31-32).

Criticism is a fun one. As a seminarian, I find a lot of people want to make sure that I am able to take criticism. I usually just tell them that I am pretty bad at it. I find that I get the hardest hitting criticism in the study as I prepare a Sunday sermon. John Knox once wrote: ““I have never once feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.” Thankfully, the criticism of the Word always points us to the grace of God and His transformative power.

I find that all too often we are focused on the wrong sources, and I believe this is a source of some serious problems in the church at large. We talk at the wrong times and listen at the wrong times. We criticize and respond to criticism based on our feelings rather than the Word.

Hebrews 4 encourages self-criticism: “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.” (Heb. 4:11) But then it focuses on courageous service to Jesus Christ: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:14-16) Because of Jesus, any Christian can lean into criticism.

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” Psalm 119:9

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