How to take criticism well

Let me say up front that I do not have a formula for enabling anyone to enjoy criticism. No one finds pleasure in being told he is wrong, that she needs to change the way she does something, that an apology is in order. Even the most accurate and helpful criticism can be painful when it arrives. How much more an unfair accusation flung our way.

Simply stated, there are two kinds of criticisms: the fair and the unfair. The truthful and the slanderous. The well-intentioned and the mean-spirited.

If you live long enough, you will encounter both kinds. How you deal with them will determine a thousand things about your character and your happiness.

Chuck Swindoll has something to say that fits here:

Anybody can accept a reward graciously, and many people can even take their punishment patiently when they have done something wrong. But how many people are equipped to handle mistreatment after they’ve done right? Only Christians are equipped to do that. This is what makes believers stand out. That’s our uniqueness. (from “Bedside Blessings,” a daily devotional)

I’m recalling an early news talk program (a few years back) that was dealing with this very thing. The talkers were wondering something about Sarah Palin.

A shooting had occurred at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona. The shooter, clearly unbalanced, left blogs and notes to express his fear about the way politicians were leading this country. No sooner had this become known than liberal spokespeople began attacking and blaming right-wing conservatives for excessive rhetoric which inflamed the passions of deranged and unstable citizens.

Sarah Palin was in their crosshairs.

What Mrs. Palin did was to strike back. She did what she has made a career of doing: finding a microphone to unload on the problem-causers in this country. She took no prisoners, but was eloquent in defending herself and attacking her attackers.

Some of the program talkers pointed out that if she aspires to high office, she is going to have to learn to take the criticism, whether just or unjust, and not strike back at everyone who criticizes her.

They’re right. Regardless what we think of the justness/wrongness of the accusations, one who wants to lead this nation is going to be the focus of a hundred criticisms a day. If he/she responds to each one, there will be no time for anything else.

No one enjoys being criticized.

I once found myself on the elevator with Jim Mora, then the coach of the New Orleans Saints football team. After introducing myself, I told him that pastors can identify with coaches, since we also do our work on Sundays and then have to sit idly by while our constituents tear it apart during the week. He laughed and said, “Yes, but they don’t run down the preacher on television and newspapers.” I thought of saying we would be willing to endure that for the kind of money he makes, but decided against it.

Anyone in the public eye is going to be criticized. Sometimes it’s just and you had it coming. Sometimes it’s so unfair you shake your head and wonder what planet the accuser is living on.

Sometimes you respond. Sometimes you don’t.

The more visible you are, the more your opinion and leadership count, the more critical it is you have close advisers who can help you decide what to respond to and in what way.

Sometimes in Scripture, the Lord’s servant responded to the criticism.

In Galatians, Paul defends his apostleship. In II Corinthians, he defends his apostleship and his ministry. In Romans, he defends his gospel and his preaching.

Did he not respond to other criticism? Possibly, but since his writings are all we have of these exchanges, the evidence seems to be lacking.

No one exemplifies this better than Moses.

Moses was wearing himself out handling the endless stream of disputes between the Israelites. His father-in-law Jethro watched this debilitating parade and approached him. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Why are you the only one sitting as judge? You don’t have time for anything else!” (Exodus 18:14)

“What you are doing is not good,” Jethro told Moses. “You cannot do this alone.”

One wonders how Moses took it when his father-in-law followed that up with, “Now listen to me. I will give you some advice.”

To his credit, Moses listened well and heeded the wise counsel to set up layers of judicial courts to deal with problems, leaving only the heaviest issues for himself.

The quality of character which is necessary for one to take criticism and use it wisely is not a secret: meekness. It is for good reason Scripture tells us Moses was the meekest man on the earth.(Numbers 12:3).

Meekness is strength under control. It is definitely not weakness, not timidity, and not even remotely cowardice. Moses was blustery in a lot of ways and the very definition of strong. Yet, he took the slanderous criticism thrown at him as his daily diet and made his complaints known to the Lord in prayer.

Uncontrolled strength retaliates with force. Controlled strength takes it in and considers whether the criticism might have merit.

David teaches us how to handle criticism, even the unfair kind.

One of the minor characters who appears in David’s story is Shimei, a descendant of King Saul. The story is found in segments, in II Samuel 16 and 19 and I Kings 2.

David’s son Absalom was leading a rebellion. As David and his entourage left Jerusalem, they headed down toward the Jordan valley. The hills and roadsides are barren there, enabling one to see vast distances. On one of the hilltops, this fellow Shimei hurled rocks and curses at David.

“Man of bloodshed!” he called out. “Get out! And don’t come back. The Lord is repaying you for all the misery you brought on the household of Saul. He’s giving the land to your son Absalom! Murderer!” (II Samuel 16:7-8)

David’s nephew Abishai, one of his generals, said, “Sir, if you’ll let me, I’ll go up and take off this fellow’s head.”

David answered, “You and your brothers! Can’t we agree on anything? Maybe this fellow is cursing me because the Lord told him to do it.”

“Look,” he continued, “my own son is trying to kill me. How much more this Benjamite. Let’s leave him alone. Maybe if I’m merciful to him, the Lord will be merciful to me.” (16:10-12)

That response is worth considering. In fact, it contains three great principles for the servant of the Lord who is being attacked:

1) Maybe this is a word from the Lord. So, listen to it.

2) Put it in context. Understand it.

3) If I am kind to the attacker, perhaps the Lord will bless me as a result. Use it.

As they went along, Shimei continued to harass them but David and his people ignored him.

Now, fast forward. Absalom is dead, the insurrection has been put down, and David is returning to Jerusalem. Shimei is shivering in his sandals knowing he’s in big trouble with the king.

According to Second Samuel 19:16ff, Shimei was one of the first to meet David at the Jordan to welcome him home. There’s a big crowd there, everyone assuring the king that “we were on your side from the beginning.”

Shimei wades the Jordan to meet David on the east bank. He drops to the ground and calls out, “Please don’t hold me guilty, king. I don’t know what I was thinking that day! I know I have sinned. In fact, I’m one of the first of my tribe down here to meet you.”

With that, Abishai turned to David. “Now, will you let me put him to death? Please? Is it okay now?”

David said to Abishai, “You’re talking like my enemy. Should any man be executed in Israel today? Do I not know that I’m the king in this country?” He turned to Shimei and said, “You will not die.”

Consider the three principles in David’s response as great insights for dealing with penitent wrong-doers:

1) Anyone counseling vengeance is your enemy.

2) Today is a day of good news. It’s a time to celebrate, not to kill or be killed.

3) We have nothing to prove, and we prove nothing by revenge.

As for the rest of Shimei’s story, check out the first few chapters of First Kings.  We will just say it doesn’t end well for him.

Now, let’s all go forth and work on developing thicker skin.  Smiley face goes here.

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