Years ago, I confronted my wife about something in her life that I thought she needed to change. I put time into formulating what I should say. I even prayed about it and asked the Lord to give me the right words. But it wasn’t until an hour or two after I had confronted her—during which time she patiently explained how insensitive and mean I had been in doing what I had done—that I actually understood how destructive my criticism had been. It had accomplished the exact opposite of what I had intended.
I think that the vast majority of the criticism that is offered today in Christian circles is like that. It is destructive rather than constructive. It tears the other person (or people) down rather than building them up. Why is that? Why are we as Christians so poor at giving healthy, constructive criticism to others?
While I am sure that there are many answers to this question, I am also sure that one of the main reasons we struggle so much in giving constructive criticism is because we think that “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) necessarily means that we should say everything that we think or point out everything that we see. Perhaps we don’t really believe that God will in fact bring to completion the good work that He has begun in someone else’s life (Phil. 1:6), or perhaps we don’t trust the Holy Spirit’s timing, and we see ourselves as being indispensable to this particular person’s sanctification. Or, it may even be that we don’t believe that the Holy Spirit will actually lead His people “into all the truth” (John 16:13) until and unless we step in to help Him out.
In all of these situations, we are playing God. We are putting ourselves in His place, and we are seeking to do what He says He will do. We need to remind ourselves that the most important part of the phrase, “speaking the truth in love” is the last two words. Love does not do what is easiest or most convenient; it does not do what is best for ourselves. It always does what is best for the other person. If we say everything that we think or point out everything that we see, we may be loving ourselves quite well but we are probably not loving the other person at all.
That was certainly the case for me when I confronted my wife many years ago. I didn’t have her best interest in mind. I had my own interests in mind. I knew that I had problems of my own, to be sure, but I didn’t have the particular problem that I was seeing in her—or so I thought. Pointing out her problem made me feel better about myself and about my problems. It made me feel like I was better than she was. If I had been driven by my love for her, instead of my love for myself, I may still have approached her about the specific issue, but I would have done it quite differently.
For one thing, I would have been slower to speak and quicker to listen and to understand what she was going through (James 1:19). I may have learned that she was struggling in other ways and been able to come alongside her and to walk with her through all of her struggles. If I had done that, she would have known that I really did care for her and that I really did want what is best for her.
For another thing, I would have been more suspicious of my own desires to confront her and would have given her more of the benefit of the doubt. We are all so quick to excuse our own actions and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, because we know what we are going through. We know the sacrifices we are making and the struggles we are experiencing. But we don’t know everything that others are going through. We assume that they do not have any real problems, or we don’t care, and, as a result, we are less gracious with them than we are with ourselves.
One of the reasons why we don’t usually give others the benefit of the doubt is because we frequently lose sight of the sinfulness of our own sin. We forget that we are—just like the Apostle Paul—the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). When we are walking closely with Jesus, this should be our daily attitude and perspective toward ourselves. Let me explain what I mean with an illustration. My wife and I used to live in Jackson, MS, in a house that had no overhead lighting in the living room. It only had one outlet that was operated by a light switch. That meant that we almost always had very dim lighting in that room. At most, one or two lamps would be on. Every time I looked in the mirror, I would notice how tan my face looked and how clear my complexion was in the dim lighting. But when I would look in our bathroom mirror—which had something like 20 light bulbs arrayed all around the mirror—I would look completely different. I would look pale, as if I hadn’t seen the sun in years, and every defect in my face would be immediately visible. That always bothered me, until I realized that it was a picture of the Christian life: the closer we get to the Light (i.e., to Christ), the more defects we will see in ourselves; and the farther we get from the Light, the fewer defects we will see.
When you and I are walking closely with Christ, we will, like Paul, see ourselves as the “foremost” of sinners. And if we see ourselves as the foremost of sinners, we will give everyone else the benefit of the doubt. We will be more gracious to them and more patient with them, because, whatever their failings may be, those failings will all fall short of our own estimation of our own defects. We will be slow to criticize, and we will be suspicious of our desires to confront. We may still need to confront, but we will do so differently, because we will see ourselves as the foremost of sinners and everyone else as better than ourselves, and we will treat them all accordingly.
Historian Philip Schaff records a great example of this attitude in a letter that John Calvin wrote to Heinrich Bullinger in 1544. In this letter, Calvin says: “Often have I been wont to declare, that even although [Martin Luther] were to call me a devil, I should still not the less esteem and acknowledge him as an illustrious servant of God.” I can’t help but think that one of the reasons why we see so little of this attitude in Christian circles, especially on social media, is that we are not walking closely with Christ. We are not keeping near the Light. And, as a result, we think far too highly of ourselves and not highly enough of others.
Giving criticism is frequently necessary, but if we cannot give that criticism constructively then we ought not to give it at all. Destructive criticism does more harm than good. It tears down and often hurts a brother or a sister and only serves to build ourselves up. This kind of criticism is, therefore, a manifestation of our pride and our selfishness. We may think we are speaking the truth, but we are not doing it in love. We are doing it for our own sake, not for the sake of the other.
How different would things be if we were motivated by love for others and if we approached the giving of criticism from the perspective of regarding ourselves as the foremost of sinners. If we were able to do this, the watching world might just see more of Christ in us and begin asking for the reason for the hope that is in us.
This blog is adapted from an article I originally published with Tabletalk, www.tabletalkmagazine.com (October 4, 2019).