How well do you receive criticism? Many of us would likely admit that it is typically difficult to receive correction with a glad heart. We don’t naturally enjoy the process of another person noting our inconsistencies, mistakes, oversights, and sins of word and deed, omission and commission.
Yet, despite our natural repulsion to correction, the ability to receive a rebuke profitably is a key to spiritual growth, joy, and progress in holiness. Many biblical texts attest to this truth. For example, Solomon reminds us that a man of understanding is characterized by both an openness to rebuke and the ability to grow from it: “A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool” (Prov 17:10). Indeed, a wise man will love the one who rebukes him because such correction enables him to grow in wisdom (Prov 9:8-9; cf. Prov 19:25). Those who listen to reproof will dwell among the wise (Prov 15:31).
The scoffer, however, avoids and even resists criticism, hiding himself from those who might offer it: “A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise” (Prov 15:12). An unwillingness to place oneself in the way of godly reproof is a sign of spiritual illness that will lead to infecting others with false teaching: “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Prov 10:17). It is no wonder, then, that we learn in Paul’ second letter to Timothy that Scripture was designed specifically for reproof: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
The capacity to cordially receive legitimate criticism, then, is a discipline we must cultivate for the sake of our spiritual health, growth, and fruitfulness. But how might we take steps in this area? Let me offer three thoughts.
First, we must cultivate a heart that expects criticism. It is the height of folly to think that we can make it through this life without godly correction. Though we are born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are still sinners with limited vision (1 Cor 13:12) and indwelling corruption (Col 3:1-8). Our ignorance must be filled in and our sin put to death. Due to our finite perspective, we are liable to blind spots which are, by definition, usually hard if not impossible for us to discern on our own. We need others to challenge, correct, and admonish us so that we might remedy our ignorance, grow in wisdom, and make Godward changes in our lives (see also Heb 3:12-15). By God’s design, godly criticism is far more than an optional accoutrement an otherwise mature Christian might tack on to his life: it is an indispensable means by which he will actually grow into Christlikeness. So, don’t fear criticism or try to avoid it. Expect it. God has designed it for your good.
But just because we should expect criticism doesn’t imply that we should passively let it happen. Scripture exhorts us to seek wisdom with diligence (Prov 2:1-8). And, given all that the Proverbs say about the direct relationship between reproof and growth in godly wisdom, we see that it is necessary to not only prepare ourselves to receive criticism, but to pursue it as well. Practically, this means we can ask for honest reviews of our projects, request evaluations of our sermons, and submit our writing to those whom we know have a different perspective than we do. We can invite our spouses, fiancés, colleagues, friends, and family members to offer their words of correction when they think it is necessary. It would also be wise to let them know that we are open to such things and won’t respond to their criticism with anger or bitterness, thus giving them greater freedom to offer honest critiques.
Receive Criticism that is Poorly Offered
But what about when criticism is offered in a way that is unkind, harsh, or not even entirely true? This is where we must tread carefully. Due to our natural aversion to correction, it might be easy to use a person’s defective delivery of a rebuke as an excuse to deflect the rebuke itself. But such a deflection will not benefit us. Rarely is a rebuke totally bereft of something useful we might learn. Even when criticism is badly delivered, it usually includes pieces of valuable instruction that we can apply to our souls. Inasmuch as the criticism is true and rooted in biblical principles, we can and should apply it: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov 12:1). Such a practice will also guard our hearts from bitterness, anger, and defensiveness toward the person delivering the rebuke. When we see correction as God’s gift to us and make a diligent search to locate this gift when it’s been somewhat obscured by a flawed delivery, we won’t quickly fault the person giving the correction. We might even find ourselves able to thank them for it.
None of this is meant to suggest that we shouldn’t address the nature of one’s delivery or challenge a person who speaks untruthfully about us. There may be times when this is necessary. But Scripture would have our general posture be one of receptiveness to criticism, not a defensive deflection of it. Such receptiveness will be a means of our growth in wisdom and fruitfulness in our Christian lives, and we will be guarded from pride, folly, and sin.
With this Spirit-enabled receptivity to correction, we will also find that our hearts are far less susceptible to the inner turmoil that criticism often causes us. James reminds us that the wisdom from above is first “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). The result of such gracious conduct is given in the following verse: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). Christians who are pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason (lit. “able to be persuaded”), merciful, impartial, and sincere will experience a supernatural peace that adorns their life and ministry. All of this from a willingness to heed reproof and listen to our critics. What a gift.