Somewhere along the way, I know you have experienced the sting of someone’s critical remarks. Maybe you, like me, have also been the one to utter the harsh words.
I am not quick with comebacks, so when someone says something hurtful to me, I tend to give them the deer-in-the-headlights look while their words burn a path to my heart. Then, if I don’t resist my natural tendency, I will allow resentment to create distance between myself and that person while I try hard not to make that “mistake” again.
What do you do when someone criticizes you?
And how do we overcome our instinctual responses so that we can continue to live closely with and even love those who criticize us?
I read once that a mark of spiritual maturity is the freedom to live contentedly with our critics. Sigh. I am not there yet.
But one essential step toward this kind of freedom dawned on me a few weeks ago: in order to love those who criticize me, I must not let my fear of their criticism shape the way I live my life.
The Pretzel Position
I realized the other day that if I bend myself into the form I think will keep someone from zinging criticism at me, chances are they will criticize me anyway.
Why would this be?
I suspect that we criticize others compulsively, that the fear that something terrible will happen if we don’t drive everyone around us toward perfection fuels excessive criticism. If this is true, then just because I get one thing “right” doesn’t mean that the one criticizing me won’t find something else about me to disparage. In fact, they may feel they must do just that.
So when they find that next thing about me to critique, from the uncomfortable pretzel-position I have put myself in, I can only look at them with bitterness: “What?! I twisted myself into what you wanted, and you still aren’t pleased?”
A Horse and a Family of Foxes
Imagine a horse shared a field with a family of foxes. And what if the foxes grew irritated and criticized his “horse-ness,” saying, “You big oaf. Don’t step there! Stop whinnying; you frighten the mice!”?
And what if, in response, the horse did everything he could to adapt to the life of a fox, thinking they would surely approve of him then?
What if he gave up whinnying and galloping? What if started slinking around after the foxes? What kind of terrible fox will the horse make – trampling the den, leaving piles of manure in the wrong places, and frightening off prey with his clomping hooves? Try as he might, this horse will make an awful fox, and his efforts will lead to more disdain from the foxes.
And how will the horse feel? Will he be free to admire the foxes’ stealth, silence, and speed? Not at all. The horse will be occupied, saying, “Look at all I have given up to make myself into something you would approve of! How can you reject me still? ” The horse will seethe with resentment, never realizing that his own choices have led to his condition, not the disposition of the foxes.
The world will have lost a good horse and gained a miserable excuse for a fox.
Now what if the horse were able to say in response to the critical foxes, “I am sorry my being a horse displeases you, but I must go on being the best horse I can be.” The horse may be sad for the foxes that their critical nature makes them unable to enjoy him, and he may mourn the loss of their friendship and admiration, but he is free to enjoy watching them streak silently across the field in the dawn.
By not bending into the criticism of the foxes, the horse stays free to be a horse and to love and enjoy foxes.
I hope you and I can learn to live this way, free to love those who unfairly criticize us because we are not letting our anxiety about their criticism warp us out of the unique shape God intended for us. And may we seek the Lord for freedom from our compulsive perfectionism so that we can stop trying to control others with our criticism.
I love what these verses in Ephesians have to say about this, that as we give and receive correction lovingly each of us is encouraged to grow into fulfilling our unique role in the body of Christ:
“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love,” (Ephesians 4:15).
And Isaiah offers us one last word of encouragement as we seek the freedom resist bending into ungodly criticism:
“Fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings,” (Isaiah 51:7).