I’ve never considered myself an overly-critical person. I typically think of overly-critical people as miserable, ungrateful, difficult to please, and always dissatisfied with the people in their life. I don’t really fit that description. I’m pretty easy-going. I tend to like people and get along with them. I’m low-maintenance relationally. I make a practice of gratitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I have many areas of weakness… Anger, pride, selfishness, lacking self-control. But a critical spirit? I never really thought that was one of them.
During a recent sermon, I was challenged to identify an area of sin that is so habitual it’s hardly noticeable. As I sought the Lord about this, He began to reveal this particular area of blindness. I started hearing–really hearing–my words and became more aware of the thoughts behind them.
And I’ve come to discover that I am critical. ALL. THE. TIME.
It’s so habitual that it plagues everything, from the most inconsequential to the significant. But I’ve been largely unaware of the pervasiveness of this habit because it often coexists with good things. I might be profusely thankful (but can’t help noting that detail I wish was different). I might have great respect and affection for someone (but that one way they sin is often on the periphery of my mind). I might have 10 encouraging things to say about my church (but get fixated on a particular area of weakness).
There are some ways I need to change that aren’t complicated. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, I can kill my impulse to unduly criticize, I can think more charitably, I can extend more grace. But what about constructive criticism? What should I do when I observe an area of weakness in somebody or in my church, that should be addressed for the glory of Christ?
After all, Scripture affirms loving rebuke and calls us to exercise a spirit of discernment. The Church was redeemed for holiness, and holiness cannot be gained when we sideline as cheerleaders who only focus on the “positive” and never do the uncomfortable work required for repentance. And as a collective body, not just individuals, we are responsible to pursue mutual sanctification. We all need each other or we won’t be healthy! God has gifted each of us with areas of strength to help others in their weakness, just as He’s given others areas of strength to help us in our weakness. So overcoming a critical spirit doesn’t mean that we ignore the sin and weaknesses of others, but that we view them differently.
- We start by thinking the best. When we have a disagreement or concern about something, we must begin by acknowledging that we are not omniscient and do not know people’s hearts or motives. This keeps us from making premature judgments and enables us to engage without drawing unjust conclusions. We may still end in disagreement, but taking a position of charitable judgment is far more constructive to any conversation.
- We view people through a lens of love. When we observe an area of weakness, we don’t sit in judgment but desire to be participants of God’s sanctifying grace. We look to encourage, build up, and unify. If it is apparent that a certain choice, pattern, or mindset is, in fact, sinful, this should compel our correction to come from a place of compassion, not self-righteousness. If I know the destructive nature of sin, love drives me to reach out for the rescue of my brother or sister, just as I would want them to do the same for me. Love never looks at a stumbling sinner and says, “get your act together, you know better,” rather it earnestly desires for them to repent so that they can enjoy the surpassing worth of Christ.
- We talk to the right people. Love doesn’t gossip or complain about shortcomings and disappointments. Love only wields criticism as a constructive tool. Criticism is never constructive if it’s not expressed to the right people or is said in a spirit of complaint. Pointing out problems in our family, friends, and churches is extremely easy. But love doesn’t take the easy route! It does the hard work of refraining from gossip, engaging the right conversations, and humbly seeking solutions.
- We view the weaknesses and sins of others with humility, knowing that we don’t have it all together either. It’s easy for me to look at a mom who struggles with anger without judgment because I struggle with anger too. When someone confesses temptations towards laziness, I nod in sympathetic agreement. But in the areas I am strong, I am far more tempted towards pride. The Bible is so clear about this. How is this not a priority for them? It’s so obvious, why are they so blind to it? This attitude neglects to acknowledge that there are clear statements in the Bible that I have trouble applying, there are Godly priorities that I frequently neglect, and there are areas of blindness that I am unaware of (like my critical spirit)! It’s not that we take a flippant attitude towards sin because we “all have struggles” (which only appears humble before people, but is actually an expression of pride towards our holy God)–instead, humility recognizes the deceitfulness and seriousness of sin in our own lives, keeping us gracious and understanding towards the stumbling of others.
- We remember that we are not the Holy Spirit. We are going to have criticisms of others, and sometimes we’ll be right, sometimes we’ll be wrong, and sometimes it will fall somewhere in between. But the Holy Spirit is always right and can change any heart. When we have made charitable assumptions, viewed people with love, talked to them directly and with humility, we can confidently entrust the rest to Spirit’s work.
If we put these steps into practice, God will transform our sinfully critical tendencies into sanctifying-opportunities, and we can become the faithful friends and church members God uses to nurture the health and holiness of the Body.