How Do You Take Criticism?
Insights from an old letter.
Also of Interest
Recently several people have asked me, "How do you deal with harsh criticism?" In each case, the inquirer had felt stung by what they felt were unfair attacks on him or her. In this internet age, anyone can have their views censured unfairly by people they don't know.
So what do you do when that happens? Here is the gist of the counsel I give people when they ask me about this. For years I've been guided by a letter by John Newton that is usually entitled "On Controversy."
The biggest danger of receiving criticism is not to your reputation, but to your heart. You feel the injustice of it and feel sorry for yourself, and it tempts you to despise not only the critic, but the entire group of people from which they come. "Those people …" you mutter under your breath. All this can make you prouder over time.
Newton writes: "Whatever … makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit." He argues that whenever contempt and superiority accompany our thoughts, it is a sign that "the doctrines of grace" are operating in our life "as mere notions and speculations" with "no salutary influence upon [our] conduct."
So how can you avoid this temptation? First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides. There is usually such a kernel when the criticism comes from friends, and there is often such truth when the disapproval comes from people who actually know you. So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own shortcomings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.
If the criticism comes from someone who doesn't know you at all (and often this is the case on the internet) it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. I am often pilloried not only for views I do have, but also even more often for views (and motives) that I do not hold at all. When that happens it is even easier to fall into a smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. "Pathetic …" you may be tempted to say.
Don't do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace. Newton talks about it like this:
Meet Our Editorial Advisors
More from Christianity Today