I had just finished preaching the Sunday morning message and was making my way through the foyer to grab a coffee. On my way, a gentleman from the congregation tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Your message this morning was very confusing. I prefer spirit-filled teaching to your academic style.”
These words were like a knife being plunged into my chest. They seemed to come without any warning, like being blindsided on the football field. In that moment, I didn’t know how to respond; I was speechless. Fortunately, a friend, who was standing close by and could see the look on my face, stepped into the conversation.
That wasn’t the only reaction to my sermon I received that morning. In fact, most of the feedback I received was very positive. But it didn’t matter how many words of encouragement I got. The criticism was all I could think about.
Was I unclear in the points I was trying to communicate? Was the Spirit absent from my preaching? Did I fail in my responsibility to preach God’s word? All of these questions, and many more, flooded my mind in the days that followed.
Dealing with criticism isn’t easy. It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to learn since joining Stand to Reason. As my public profile and ministry has grown, so has the onslaught of criticism.
I don’t think my situation is unique. Everyone receives criticism. My suspicion is that criticism is more prevalent today than ever before because of social media. Everyone has an opinion, and social media gives us a platform to express those opinions. If someone doesn’t like what you said, or what you did, or what you believe, they can express it on social media. Opinions that were once kept private are made public. Moreover, the “comment” features on most social media platforms are treated as an invitation to criticize—just go read through the comments of any YouTube video.
Criticism comes in all forms. Sometimes it’s helpful. Other times it’s hurtful. Sometimes it comes in the form of a short comment or tweet. Other times it’s a long, multiple-page rebuttal. Sometimes it comes from a close friend. Other times it comes from a hostile foe. Whatever the criticism, my strategy in dealing with it is always the same.
Isolate the Criticism
The first step is to isolate the criticism. This isn’t always easy. Oftentimes the criticism isn’t clearly spelled out. Furthermore, the criticism may be riddled with rhetoric or interlaced with insults. When this happens, you need to do your best to strip the criticism down to its “unvarnished” claim—and there may be a lot of varnish to strip away.
To isolate the criticism, it might help to summarize the criticism in your own words. When you do, try to be as accurate and succinct as possible.
It may help to look at a real-world example. On a YouTube video titled “Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses,” one commenter offered the following criticism of my talk:
Sad your [sic] home every time they knock on your door. Shouldn’t you be out preaching your message. [sic] You better read Colossians 1:15 which clearly states—Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. Then read proverbs 8:22–30 that explains Jesus beginning before the world was.
We can summarize the criticism this way:
Tim is not using his time wisely, and the Bible teaches that Jesus is a created being.
After you isolate the criticism, it’s time to assess whether or not it has merit.
Assess the Criticism
The second step is to assess the criticism. Once you have distilled the criticism down to an isolated claim—a summary statement—it’s time to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.
Oftentimes, there is something valuable that we can glean from criticism. We chew the meat and spit out the bones, so to speak. This takes humility and a willingness to look afresh at one’s beliefs and behavior.
We should ask, is the criticism valid? Remember, not all criticism is bad. Some criticisms are completely warranted in light of evidence. If the criticism has merit, we ought to take heed and learn from it. This may mean changing our tone, or our beliefs, or our behavior. As Solomon writes, “Whoever heeds reproof is prudent” (Prov. 15:5).
Criticism has the ability to make us better. But not all criticisms are equal. Some have merit. Some don’t. When a criticism doesn’t have merit, it’s best to simply let it go. This is easier said than done. After all, doing what is wise—and, therefore, what is right—can be hard.
I’ve come to see every criticism as an opportunity to be used for my personal development. Even unwarranted criticisms provide an opportunity for growth. Solomon says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). When I’ve been unfairly criticised, I am provided with an opportunity to practice self-control—one of the fruits of the Spirit. Everything in me may want to return in kind with a harsh response, but wisdom dictates that I should offer a soft answer.
Well, what does that look like? You could respond by saying something like, “Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts. I will take what you’ve said under consideration.”
When we assess the criticism from the YouTube commenter, we have to spit out some bones before we get to the meat. The first part of the criticism amounts to a personal attack. This really doesn’t merit a response. However, the second part of the criticism is a legitimate criticism. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m saying it is a legitimate attempt to undermine the claim that Jesus is God—which was the thesis on my video. Therefore, this part of the criticism warrants a response.
Engage the Criticism
The third step is to engage the criticism—if necessary. This qualification is really important. Most of the time, it’s not necessary to respond to a criticism. In fact, it’s wise not to. This is especially true if you’re engaging critics on social media.
Criticism is personal. When someone criticizes your deeply held beliefs, it’s hard not to take it personally. You feel wronged. Your natural instinct is to get defensive. However, it’s important to fight against this instinct.
Please learn from my mistakes. I’ve tried engaging criticisms with both snarky comebacks and detailed responses. Each case was motivated by the need to defend myself—to undo a wrong that was done to me. Unsurprisingly, both responses led to undesirable consequences.
However, there are times when it’s appropriate to engage the criticism. For example, if the criticism is directed towards Christianity, then it’s entirely appropriate to respond to the charge. In these instances, we should do our best to address the criticism, not the critic. This will help take the personal element out of the interaction.
Using the example above, the YouTube commenter’s criticism was that I wasn’t using my time wisely and that the Bible teaches Jesus is a created being. The first part was merely an attack on me (i.e. how I use my time and how often I preach). Rather than try to defend myself, I just let this go. The second part of the criticism demanded an adequate response. But rather than interact with the critic directly, I chose to respond to the criticism on its own merits. You can read my engagement with this criticism here and here.
Criticism still isn’t easy. I’ll probably never get used to it. But my outlook towards criticism has changed. This is because I have a plan. No longer am I caught flat-footed. No longer am I caught tongue-tied. When criticism comes—and it will come—I remember my three-step strategy: isolate, assess, and engage.