Taking the Sting Out Of Criticism

Time tested paths to peace while under attack

"One day a man met Spurgeon on the street, took off his hat and bowed, and said, 'The Rev. Mr. Spurgeon — a great humbug!' Spurgeon took off his hat and replied, 'Thank you for the compliment. I am glad to hear that I am a great anything!'" With some well timed words, Spurgeon took the sting out of the criticism. He knew how to respond to his faultfinders.

Many leaders struggle with appropriate ways to handle fault-finding. Some are able to turn a simple snide remark into a skirmish, a battle, and then all out war. Peace eludes them. The body of Christ wrenches in pain over the resulting turmoil.

Leadership and criticism go hand in hand. Harsh words come with the territory. What we do with criticism, our reaction, will magnify or minimize hurtful words. Our challenge is to find creative ways to take out the sting and maintain peace.

After 23 years of observation, prior mistakes, and well given advice, I have found four time tested means to peace while under attack: (1) Silence, (2) Settlement, (3) Sorrow, and (4) Strength.

1. Silence

Augustine said, "Lord, deliver me from the lust of vindicating myself." Some criticisms are best left alone. To respond is to aggravate our detractor. Ecclesiastes 3: 6 says, "There is a time to keep, a time to cast away." We should keep our reactions to ourselves and cast away valueless judgments of others. Verse 7 goes on to say, "A time to keep silent and a time to speak." Silence speaks volumes.

The story is told of a judge who had been frequently ridiculed by a conceited lawyer. When asked by a friend why he didn't rebuke his assailant, he replied, "In our town lives a widow who has a dog. And whenever the moon shines, it goes outside and barks all night." Having said that, the magistrate shifted the conversation to another subject. Finally, someone asked, "But Judge, what about the dog and the moon?" "Oh," he replied, "the moon went on shining — that's all."

Knowing when to respond and keep silent is best decided by asking, "Can I respond to this criticism in a holy manner?" I Peter 1:15 says, "But as he which hath called you is holy, so be holy in all manner of conversation." If you cannot, avoid replying.

At my first church, plans were made to put in a huge chandelier in the sanctuary. Rumblings began to surface. As church leaders we were convinced the action was right. We shared our convictions … though feeling it needed no response. We were confident the chandelier would speak for itself. Once in place, the criticism ceased. One such comment characterized those who had voiced their disapproval, "I was against it at first. Now, I know not why."

When using silence, consider the following:

Will your use of silence cause a problem to fester? If so, move quickly to address the issue.
Will remaining silent give a cooling off period for all parties involved? Silence is golden at such times.
Will silence keep peace by refusing to make something larger than what it may appear to be?

2. Settlement

Sometimes our critics have valuable insight. "The National Association of Suggestion Systems, a 900-member trade organization based in Chicago, says a quarter of the 1.3 million suggestions received by its member companies were used. The result showed that companies were able to save over $1.25 billion and award employees $128 million for their bright ideas."

As church leaders we could learn from the business world. A little humble pie of recognizing our critic's views goes a long way in settling oppositions' voices. Proverbs 15:33 says, "The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility." "By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honor, and life."(Proverbs 22:4)

Humbling ourselves while admitting we don't have all the answers quiets the rumblings when we are wrong. Settle the matter in this way. Adopt our critic's suggestions. Agree with their analysis. Acknowledge we were wrong. It will be hard to do at times, but great at bringing peace.

Recently, I caught flack over asking two strong voices, a soprano and tenor, from other churches to assist us in our Christmas musical. The telephone call from an irate choir member pointed out my mistake. By bringing in these voices I was telling the choir, "I don't have confidence in your ability to do this musical". Even though in reality I wasn't saying that, the perception of members said otherwise.

I immediately clarified my intentions but felt I needed to settle the matter. I asked the two voices to not sing — apologizing for having to take that action. The musical went well. Confidence was restored. Peace reigned.

When using settlement to handle criticism, please consider:

Are you considering using settlement over a life and death matter? If so, don't. Some things are worth dying over. Most criticisms, though, aren't over death defying issues. Settle and move on.
Are you settling over just the criticism and not extraneous issues? Don't lose focus. Do what you have to do to settle the criticism but nothing else.
Are the actions you take going to truly settle the matter or will it only put off a renewal of criticism later? Settlement is still worth trying initially. If it surfaces again, settlement may not be the answer.

3. Sorrow

Our attitude after criticism solidifies people's reactions — good or bad. By approaching the fault-finding with a sorrowful spirit — sorry for the offense, mistake, or perceived wrong without admitting an offense, mistake, or wrong was committed — we save ourselves grief that a haughty or proud spirit brings.

We are sad when we do something that offends people. All of us would love to evade reproof. "To avoid criticism," says Elbert Hubbard, "do nothing, say nothing, be nothing". Yet, we know effective ministry requires doing, saying, and being.

A sorrowful spirit breaks down defenses that critical people put up. It says our doing, saying, and being was not intentionally meant to offend. Since it did, we are deeply apologetic that our action or inaction didn't meet their approval.

A sad countenance can get a king's approval as well as minimize a fault-finding person's criticism. Nehemiah shows what happens when you approach someone with a sorrowful spirit. "Wherefore the king said unto me, 'Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art sick? This is nothing else but the sorrowful of heart'." Nehemiah went on to make his request … "And it pleased the king."

Sometimes our sorrowful spirit can open the doors to making request. It may be to ask them to listen with an open mind as we share why we did or did not do as their criticism suggest. It may include a request to give it time to work — saving their faultfinding for later if so desired. Such request … from such a spirit … may indeed please the critic.

If it pleases or not, we must avoid the danger in thinking every criticism is meant to bring about our downfall. Such thinking is less than Christian. "The wicked flee when no man pursueth". (Proverbs 28:1)

Most critics only want what is best. "When we are non-defensive, we become aware that constructive criticism is a real compliment to us. The person offering it is usually uncomfortable in doing so, but if he is willing to endure the discomfort in order to help us, we should listen and appreciate his suggestions. He runs the risk of arousing our enmity, but he cares enough for our welfare to take this chance." Our approach with a sorrowful spirit raises the comfort level to the place real needs and shortcomings can be addressed in a rational way.

A short while ago, a parent got her feelings hurt when she found out she was not being relied upon as part of an inner circle of chaperones for a youth trip. The four who were had been on trips with me for four years. They knew the what, when, and how of how I did tours. The offended parent did not. After explaining my dependence upon these four ladies — and that the trip would not be possible without them — I knew I wasn't very convincing.

The next day provided an opportunity to express my deep sorrow. The lady had gone into the hospital. Approaching her by sharing my deep regret over her hurt, I could sense the walls between us coming down. By the time I held her hand and prayed, peace was between us.

When utilizing sorrow, reflect on the following:

Is your sorrow genuine? Your face, emotions, and mannerisms should convey your deep anguish. Don't try to fake it.
Is the timing right? Right after a heated exchange may not be the best time. Allow heads to cool.
Is pride keeping you from expressing any sorrow and remorse? If so, confess it. Let God humble your spirit. Without it you may be victor over your critic but lose standing with the ultimate Judge.

4. Strength

Winston Churchill was a pillar of respect and strength. "During his last year in office, he attended an official ceremony. Several rows behind him two gentlemen began whispering, 'That's Winston Churchill. They say he is getting senile. They say he should step aside and leave the running of the nation to more dynamic and capable men.' When the ceremony was over, Churchill turned to the men and said, 'Gentlemen, they also say he is deaf!'" Such frankness is sometimes necessary.1

Scripture says, "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John … they marveled." (Acts 4:13) "And now, Lord, behold their threats: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak the word." (Acts 4: 29) We too can leave our critics marveling when we speak the truth with boldness. Some criticisms are just blatant lies and require correction. To allow them to go unanswered is to reap harm to the body of Christ.

Before responding with boldness to our critics, consider asking ourselves:

Does their criticism affect the cause of Christ? If not, tone down our answer.
Is the faultfinding personal or does it have a wider influence? If personal, respond accordingly.
Is the criticism completely false or only partly? If only to some extent, we must retort less boldly.
Does the criticism contradict basic church doctrine? If so, address it quickly before it spreads.

Peace at any cost should never be our goal in dealing with criticism. The foundations of our faith must never be compromised in order to please a critical faction. Critics flee when truth prevails. Speak boldly the truth and God will see us through any repercussions — and bring His peace.

Our church recently took a stand. We live in a community with a strong Mormon influence. Because of their differences in basic beliefs, we chose to show the film, "The Mormon Puzzle". Risking the alienation of community leaders, as well as members of our own church whose children had intermarried, we went ahead with the viewing. God took the film, used it, and left us stronger for having spoken boldly in this matter — and the community is still functioning with our differences.

Criticism doesn't have to sting. When we begin to apply silence, settlement, sorrow, and strength, it diminishes — melting away into nothingness. Faultfinding will still come but, with use, these criticism busters will limit the number and ultimately … help bring peace.

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