Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (Exodus 17:4)
I hate criticism. Don’t you? Is there anything that pierces deeper than a harsh, judgmental word?
Periodically I have to stop and readjust my whole outlook. I find there are times when I lose my equilibrium under the onslaught of criticism.
There are two kinds. One is called “constructive.” It is designed, in the critic’s mind, to bring a positive end. However, constructive criticism can be as painful to the one being criticized as that which is called “destructive.” Both hurt.
Criticism can drag you down. Moses found this out. He didn’t want to be a leader. He knew that he would have to pay the price of criticism. In the final analysis, Moses agreed to lead this band of slaves. Their lot in Egypt had been bad. Their children had been massacred. They had been driven in a terrible way by the oppression of their cruel taskmasters. You would think that Moses would be praised for His leadership. On the contrary. The story of the wilderness journey is one in which Moses is constantly maligned. You would think that the people would appreciate his courageous leadership. Instead they cry out, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:3).
God provided for their need. He gave a promise for a future. Again they complained, criticizing Moses. The reason? He had run out of water. Once again they murmured against him, complaining about the fact that he had led them out of Egypt. What had been so horrible before looked so good in the difficult moment. Poor Moses. Broken by criticism, he falls on his face before God and cries out, ‘”What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me'” (Exodus 17:4).
We, like Moses, have been clobbered by devastating analysis. Are there some guidelines which can help us deal maturely with this problem?
The example of Moses and other biblical characters suggests four questions you can ask yourself. The honest answering of these will take the lid off this problem, helping you to deal with criticism in a creative manner.
Question one: Is the criticism valid?
Thank God for criticism! It can be a terrific stabilizer. Moses grew spiritually in his dependence on God through the criticism. The author of Proverbs continually urges us to seek wisdom and correction.
One reason criticism upsets me so much is that I know some of it is deserved. Yet there’s a difference between criticism and slander. Every so often my name is slandered. This gets back to me through the grapevine. I find myself disturbed. However, I am not nearly as disturbed by slander as I am by criticism. Slander can be dismissed because it is simply dishonest. What is said has no factual basis. It disturbs me because others could believe the untruths. I try in every way to clarify this situation. Criticism gets to me in a much more subtle way. So often the critical word has some factual basis. My explosive response to it is a clear sign that someone is fingering me at a vulnerable point. My pride is wounded. I am painfully aware that this person has insights which are more valid than my own self-appraisal.
Learn to appreciate your critic. He is protecting you from yourself. He may dislike you. He may wish ill against you. Still, thank God for critics.
Imagine the political climate here in the United States if public officials were not subject to criticism. How wounded our presidents must feel when their every action is sliced apart. The pain is worth it. It makes the elected official all the more sensitive to the public trust. A totalitarian regime ensconces its leadership in enormous power. Criticism is muzzled. There’s no freedom of the press. Totalitarian governments stagnate. Why? Because they protected themselves from criticism.
I know a man who would be much better off now if he had taken his critics seriously. This individual had enormous career promise. His creative ability, his ideas, knew no limit. There was one thing he never mastered. It was the ability to accept valid criticism. Instead of responding graciously, he became hard. Instead of taking seriously some of the valid complaints, he resisted with a rigidity which leaves him today isolated from the real world. He is a slave — his own slave. He is caught up in a bondage to himself. There’s no way of getting to him. He blunders through life, trampling over others with misdirected genius. He is puzzled when he sees his former business colleagues doing so well, while his fortunes have declined.
How much better it is to learn from your critics. There is some validity to what they are saying. That’s what puts the burr in their words. How productive would it be if you and I could learn to ascertain what is correct in what they say?
J. C. Penney wrote a book entitled What an Executive Should Know about Himself. He asked this question: “Can you take criticism?” Then he quoted Chicago department store magnate Marshall Field.
Those who enter to buy, support me.
Those who come to flatter, please me.
Those who complain, teach me how I may please others so that more will come.
Only those hurt me who are displeased but do not complain. They refuse me permission to correct my errors and thus improve my service.
J. C. Penney developed his comment, underlining the importance of criticism. He wrote: “… praise is a wonderful ‘pick-me-up,’ but it is only through criticism that we are enabled to know what we have been doing wrong and thereby correct our failures and shortcomings.”
Bishop Stephen Neill, a great man of God, made the same observation in relationship to Christians. He put it bluntly in these words: “Criticism is the manure in which the Lord’s servants grow best.”
More than 35 years ago I went through a devastating period of criticism. I was trying to provide great spiritual leadership as a pastor. Much to my surprise, I found that certain individuals had organized themselves to express three basic complaints about my work and me as a person.
Criticism one: John Huffman doesn’t preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Frankly, this criticism didn’t bother me. It was simply untrue. I got out my sermons, got out the manuscripts, checked with some other people — all confirmed the authenticity of the gospel message. I had to admit I did not express things in the exact same way as my predecessor. However, an objective appraisal of this criticism dealt with the matter once and for all.
Criticism two: John Huffman puts too much emphasis on youth. Again, I analyzed this, looking for some validity. I could see how some could feel this way. I was a young minister. We had just brought a full-time youth minister to our staff. We were breaking new ground. There had never been a comprehensive youth ministry in that church. Critics could not conceptualize the ultimate goal we had in mind. We were committed to increasing the scope of ministry, both on the youth and adult levels. So criticism two was dismissed as invalid, except where it emphasized the importance of balanced ministry.
Criticism three: John Huffman is egotistical. Ouch! That one hurt. Part of the criticism was that I used personal illustrations from the pulpit. I could dismiss that part because I believe strongly the best communication is from one heart to another when we share our mutual experiences, victories, and hurts. Still, the basic criticism was there. Egotistical! I was tempted to avoid this comment and make a counter-attack on the individual who leveled it. Yet, as a responsible disciple of Jesus Christ, I had to be just as fair in my analysis of this third criticism as I had been of the first two. I had to admit this criticism was painfully correct. I make no claims to have licked the problem. I will guarantee one thing. This matter of ego is daily laid on the altar before the Lord. I continually ask Him to take me and use me and make my will subject to His. I am aware that this monster at any moment can be freed from its spiritual chains to crush me in public and private life.
It was the criticism of others that first alerted me to the potential seriousness of this inclination. As criticisms continue to come my way, I hope to have the courage to face them objectively. Therein, with God’s help, I can ascertain the extent to which they are correct.
Thank God for criticism. Be willing to accept it where it is valid. Learn from it. You may want to find a fiend besides your marriage partner with whom you can confide your puzzlement with certain types of criticism. Find someone who is objective, who loves you, who can help interpret the criticism that comes your way, enabling you to disregard that which is incorrect and learn from that which is valid.
Question two: Am I doing my best with the life God has given me?
God told Moses: get up and get going. He would provide. Moses did his best in a difficult situation.
You can only be as good as God helps you to be. You can be too sensitive to criticism. You and I have to remember our theology. We are not perfect. Any claim to perfection comes through Christ’s work on our behalf. Our human efforts will always fall short of that high goal. God wants something more than our best. He wants us to yield ourselves to Him. He wants us to be obedient. From a human perspective we may not be doing that great a job. Some criticism will be valid. We should adjust to it. If we are flexible and try to adjust, doing our very best, God will be pleased with our efforts even when our contemporaries find fault.
There’s not just one right way to do everything. Two committed Christians may have differing lifestyles. Both are completely dedicated to Jesus Christ. One might enjoy a Sunday afternoon ball game, where another will consider this a Sabbath violation. One may enjoy a glass of wine with his meal, while another would find this to be a violation of personal conscience. The key is obedience to the Bible where its instruction is clear. It declares we are to set aside a day for worship and rest. We are to avoid drunkenness. It is a serious sin. Where the Bible is unclear, we are to follow our own personal conscience as it is directed by God’s Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, many of our criticisms involve petty concerns. We need to distinguish between what is right and the various methodologies of doing what is right. For example, Billy Graham, over the decades, has been subject to the most intense criticism a man can face. Some claim he has violated the gospel of Jesus Christ by associating with ministers and laymen who deny the authority of the Bible and the deity of Christ. And there are those who attack him from the other side and say that he has neglected social concerns as he’s put the stress on personal salvation. Some attack him for using the mass media and question his right to use Madison Avenue techniques. Some criticized him for going to Russia 20-something years ago. Even President Reagan publicly declared him as being used by the Soviet authorities.
Billy Graham could spend many a sleepless night if he took all these criticisms too seriously. God has used him. His methods are not the only methods which God has used. All of us are not called to duplicate his style. God works through a variety of persons, talents, temperaments, and methods. Thank God for a Billy Graham who has endeavored to do the very best he can with the life God has given him.
Are you as faithful? Or are you afraid to accomplish anything for God for fear of criticism? No human being has the right to destroy you. Never forget that fact. Anyone who sets out to destroy you is literally premeditating the murder of personhood. Listen to the criticisms. Examine each one in principle. Learn from those that have validity. Then plow ahead with unflagging zeal, knowing that you are doing your very best given the assets and liabilities which are yours. Are you doing your very best?
Question three: Am I willing to carry the cross of criticism for Christ’s sake?
Let’s face it. Anyone who is going to accomplish anything in life will be criticized. If you are unwilling anything in life will be criticized. If you are unwilling to face critical evaluation, I suggest you put aside your plans to do anything in this world. The person who is unwilling to face criticism is the person who will be completely immobilized. He will find objections from all sides. He will become neutralized by these, never able to make a movement.
My heart goes out to the professional athlete. One day a hero, the next day a heel. When I lived in Pittsburgh I was a great fan of the Steelers. It was during their three trips to the Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw was the quarterback. I discovered just how fickle people can be. I heard Terry booed by thousands. There was nothing good about the way he played the game. A week later, I heard him cheered as though he could do no wrong. What was Terry Bradshaw’s mistake that day he was booed? His basic mistake was that he was willing to come out on the field and be viewed by the fans. Both Sundays he did his best. It just so happened that he was the most visible Steeler on the field. When things go bad, the most visible player is the one who gets the most guff. When things go well, he is stroked.
Harry Truman, who received intense criticism during his term of office, put it this way: “If you can’t stand the heat, you’d better get out of the kitchen!”
If you are ever going to accomplish anything in this world, you are going to be criticized. I think sports heroes and politicians are most vulnerable. You and I, in our own little worlds, are just as susceptible. You know the political composition of your office. You know the way people talk. If you allow yourself to be shoved around by criticism, your vocational effectiveness will be destroyed. Ultimately, you will be neutralized. The public eye assures criticism. Do something and you will get it. Do nothing and you’ll face no criticism, except that some will say, “You know, good old Joe just never does anything.”
The Christian is even more vulnerable. If you are going to follow God’s will for your life, you will automatically become a prime target. Why is this? It is because your life will threaten other people. You will threaten them by your conduct. Your standard for living will be higher than theirs. You will threaten them by your theology. They will say you are too exclusive, constantly wanting you to broaden your convictions in complete opposition to Christ’s Word that narrow is the way which leads to eternal life. Everything about you will threaten the lifestyle and conviction of those who do not take seriously the claims of Jesus Christ. You will be a major object for criticism.
Arnold Toynbee, a brilliant historian, was committed to a basically anti-Christian understanding of truth. He tried to create a new religion. He was eclectic. He endeavored to draw the best principles out of all the world’s religions. We can see the appeal in this. So many have accused religion of festering disharmony. They point to Ireland, to Lebanon, or now the Balkans, as classic examples. Too little of our Christian expression has been undergirded with the love of Christ. Perhaps we have been too brittle. However, we are called to a clear-cut expression that Jesus Christ is the only way to right relationship with God. Our expression of that confidence clashes with Toynbee’s broad eclecticism. Your clear articulation of Christ’s exclusive claims will generate criticism.
Jesus Himself was despised and rejected of men. He was a Man of sorrows. The Bible says that He was acquainted with grief. Those who followed Him were fickle. One moment they expressed their affection. The next they turned it off. He was plotted against, maligned. One day He was praised as a hero. The next day He was nailed to a cross. Spiritual leadership is costly. It threatens.
Stephen found this out. He could not deny his Lord. He was willing to walk into the face of his culture, declare that the Messiah had come, and plead for his Jewish brethren to repent and trust Jesus Christ. Then, as they stoned him to death, in love he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
He paid the price of his convictions. I doubt that any of us will be stoned to death in a literal way for our faith in the Savior. But I will guarantee some of you are right now in the process of being stoned into a spiritual death by the criticisms of those who mock your witness and your love of the Savior. You will capitulate, fall dead, spiritually lifeless, completely neutralized, because of your unwillingness to carry the cross of criticism for Christ’s sake.
Only a few yards away from where Stephen was being stoned was a man named Saul of Tarsus. He held the coat of one who threw the stones. Saul could have continued to play it safe. He was a persecutor of Christians. He saw something in the steadfast resolve of one willing to go to his death for the faith, That planted a seed. That same Saul of Tarsus became Saint Paul. He went to his death considering it a joy to suffer for Jesus Christ.
Question four: Am I guilty of criticizing others?
When you are hurt, it is easy to lash out and hurt others. We can do it almost unconsciously. It is a defense mechanism. It protects us.
Some of us are chronic complainers. We are built that way. Are you one of these? You don’t like the attacks of others upon you. But you sure dish it out.
I used to work in the travel business. I will never forget one lady. She worked for an airline and therefore was entitled to discount travel tickets. She wanted to go with the tour I was leading to the Holy Land. We finally agreed to let her accompany us, even though she was not paying the full price. We expected gratitude. All we got was criticism. She criticized us before we left. She criticized us en route. And she criticized us when we got home. She was a chronic complainer. She spoiled the trip for me until I realized that was her problem, not mine. This is the extreme.
We all have a tendency toward criticism. To one degree or another, we all engage in this petty activity. It can be against other people. Perhaps it is against God, which is ultimately the end of all criticism. How sad it is to be caught up in discontent, dissatisfied with those around us, and with the very God who has created us and revealed himself in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Yes, we are to tell the truth In love. There is that occasional constructive criticism which can help our brother. However, we have no right to destroy another person. We can put an emotional overload on other persons through our criticism. We can make life unbearable for them. We can make that which makes us the most miserable when it’s directed toward us the very thing we end up giving to others.
Perhaps we call it truth. There is a place to speak the truth. But it needs to be cushioned with love, or we will destroy others with the very criticism that hurts us so much. Moses mellowed with the years. Over a period of time he learned to put his criticisms where they counted in a demonstration of loving, firm leadership.
Four questions which will help you handle criticism: One, is it valid? Two, am I doing my best? Three, am I willing to suffer for Christ? And four, am I doing it to others? If these four square off, plow ahead. Give everything you’ve got to the life God wants you to live. Don’t let criticism get the better of you. God will provide the strength. Face it with the resources to move ahead in spite of it. Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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