Receiving criticism well (even when it’s terrible)
I remember my first “critique” in art school. It was Drawing 1 and when the professor walked around the room and gave his thoughts on our homework, he didn’t hold anything back. I remember several students in tears as the professor pointed out how bad everything was. Anyone who has ever gone to an art school knows about the “critique”. Part of the creative process for artists and designers is putting their work in front of other creatives and allowing them to tell you how to be better. Over time, you learn to appreciate this vital step because, if you remain receptive, it helps you grow in your craft.
However, another challenge comes to the artist/designer when they start working in the “real world” for those who are not creatives. When they show their work, they are critiqued again. But this time, often the criticism is just bad. Often, the feedback is not very helpful because your client/boss is not an artist or designer and says how they feel, often with little understanding of the creative process or rules of design. This is very frustrating, especially for young creatives. But, if they are receptive, the ability to see past the unhelpfulness of the bad feedback and discern the underlying desires and responses of the critiquer becomes an invaluable skill.
Receiving criticism as a pastor
Although criticism became a profitable part of my design process, the kinds of criticism that come when you are an influencer or a leader are different. Even the best parents get criticized by their kids, bosses by their employees, coaches by their players, presidents by their citizens, and pastors by their congregants. Often, the criticism a pastor gets is more profound than, “I don’t like that color on the logo.” It can call their competency into question (“I’m not a fan of your preaching,” “I don’t really think you know what you are doing,” “I really think you should have said that this way.”). It can call their character into question (“Don’t you care about what I think?” “You think you know everything, don’t you?” “I think you love being in control. That’s why you didn’t follow my advice.”). Sometimes, any decision you make will make people unhappy and you will need to hear how unhappy it made them.
When I was called to ministry out of the design world I lived in, I did so out of a deep desire to obey God, follow his leading, and love the people he was calling me to pastor. When those things to which you feel called are criticized, it’s hard to not take them personally. It cuts to the very depth of your soul. But criticism is a part of life. And it can be a glorious gift of God’s grace to help us grow.
5 ways not to respond to criticism
Our sinful nature wants to respond to criticism in ways that are unhelpful. Unfortunately, I am guilty of all of these examples.
1) To get defensive and fight back
When we take things personally, we may be tempted to fight back. We can assume that they wanted to hurt us. We can retort every suggestion with all the reasons “why” we did what we did. But this is never helpful. Often it fuels conflict and makes both parties unreceptive.
2) To become bitter and resentful
We may listen in the moment but allow the criticism to fester in our hearts, making us think badly of the one who criticized us. We may start critiquing them in our minds, convincing ourselves that we are better than them.
3) To reject all criticism, even the good stuff
Another way we can “protect” ourselves is to just decide to never receive any criticism we are given. This is the easy road but a destructive one. We need people in our lives who can help us grow, call us out, and gently correct us.
4) To become overwhelmingly discouraged
This is my tendency. We may receive the criticism and take it too deeply that we allow the enemy to condemn us. We question everything. We spiral into depression. We consider quitting. Although this seems more noble, it can be the most destructive of all.
5) To think we don’t need to grow
Pride is a killer. When we believe we have it all figured out, criticism is just a sign of how much other people are wrong. If we adopt this mindset, we will probably hurt others and remain blind to all the areas we need growth.
So, how do we respond to criticism? Although I have much to grow in this area, here are four things I believe we can do to receive criticism, even if that criticism is unfair, unhelpful, and unloving.
1. Resolve to see all criticism as a gift of grace
Yes, even the terrible criticism. Proverbs is riddled with verses on the benefits of rebuke and criticism. Wise men love those who reprove them (Prov. 9:8). Bad things happen to those who ignore correction, but the one who listens is honored (Prov. 13:18). Those who listen to reproof will be surrounded by wise people (Prov. 15:31). Even if that criticism hurts, it is a good thing from those who care about us (Prov. 27:6). Apollos benefited from the correction of Ascilla and Priscilla (Acts 18). Peter was corrected by Paul (Gal. 2). David was corrected by Nathan (2 Samuel 12). There are numerous examples of where we are to call one another out, sharpen one another, address sin, and correct each other.
Truly, God will use all that happens in our lives to make us more like Jesus. Even the harsh word or the thoughtless comment or the ignorant remark. All of it, God uses to glorify himself by refining us. We cannot fight against the reality of criticism. We also cannot let criticism drive us to bitterness, anger, or self-righteousness. Just read the sorrowful account of King Asa in 2 Chronicles 16, who wouldn’t listen to criticism and became hard-hearted till his death. Instead, resolve in your heart to see God’s grace in every criticism, either in his strength to endure a harsh word or his refining fire to cleanse you of every impurity.
2. Remind yourself that character is more important than reputation
Paul had a lot of critics. He had entire movements opposing him, looking for any way to “afflict” him (Phil. 1:17). He also knew that it would be easy to do things to get people to like him. But this would have been wrong. I think this is why he tells the Thessalonians that everything he told them he spoke, “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4). He didn’t “seek glory from people” (1 Thess. 2:6) because it was God whose opinion mattered. And God wanted Paul to do what was right, even when his reputation was being defamed.
We cannot always control what people think of us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care how people think of us. But as important as our reputation might be, our character is far more important in God’s eyes. He sees our hearts, he sees what we do when no one is looking, he knows our intentions and our weaknesses. Even if people despise you, let it not be because you were proud and defensive. Do what is right, strive to be like Jesus, and trust that God’s pleasure is enough to satisfy you. Man’s pleasure is an empty well. We must care more what God thinks.
3. Learn to “exegete” the heart behind criticism
I remember the moment when I received a particular criticism that I thought was ridiculous. I was convinced they were wrong. However, after God’s working in my heart, I made a resolution in my mind: every criticism has something in it that I can learn from. This is an important skill in the design world. When your client says, “I think that poster would look better if it was neon orange!” it can be easy to think, “Well, that’s stupid.” But over time, you start to learn how to find the “heart” behind the feedback. It isn’t that they actually want a bright, neon sign. It’s that they don’t think the current design “grabs attention” as much as it should. It needs a little something to catch the eye better. Being able to discern the underlying desires and motives behind a piece of criticism is a hard skill but an important one.
The same is true for personal criticism. No matter what the criticism is, ask the question: “What is the underlying reason this person is telling me this right now?” Ask questions. Learn to engage the criticism. I have tried to get into the habit of asking questions of the feedback I receive (either good or bad). The reason the older lady in your congregation doesn’t want you to change the ugly curtains may be because those curtains are a way of honoring of the church’s history. Maybe your spouse’s surprising comment comes from a deeper desire to feel seen and valued. Look for the heart behind the criticism, learn from it, and allow yourself to grow from it.
4. Let the gospel make you unoffendable
I would venture to say that this posture is impossible by ourselves. The only way we can receive criticism in a consistently helpful way is through the cross. Pastor Jack Miller was asked once about negative critiques. His surprising response to every negative piece of feedback was always, “You don’t know the half of it…” This is the paradoxical secret to receiving criticism: to believe from the heart the reality that we are much worse than we think we are. There is nothing any one could say about you that is as bad as the sin that is actually in your heart. Jesus’ death on the cross reminds us of how evil our sin is. The cross has criticized us harshly and accurately.
But the cross also lifts us up in ways that we cannot fathom. As Tim Keller put it, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” So, we don’t have to be defensive when we are critiqued. Our identity in Christ is enough to sustain us. We can truly become “unoffendable” because of the gospel. That doesn’t mean a harsh word doesn’t hurt. Oh, it definitely does. But we need not spiral into the depths of despair. Our savior’s affection is not determined by our merits or failures. We can rest in him.
We live in a time when everyone is a critic. Everyone is a skeptic. Everyone wants to call out the smallest slip up or mistake. What a wonderful opportunity we have to display the gospel through how we respond to criticism. Praise God for it.