On Criticism

November 17, 2010

One of the hardest things for a Christian to do is accept criticism. I should know, because I typically flinch at criticism. Immediately my defenses go up and I’m ready to lash out at the critics. But this is always the wrong approach.

After all, we’re Christians and we should be, as James 1:19 instructs, swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Even the most biting criticism has an element of truth that can help.

I think this is especially true for those in levels of leadership. I wanted to share a few points about criticism and leadership that I’m learning:

Criticism can turn you inward or it can turn you outward. God seems to test leaders, early on, with a big wave of betrayal and criticism. I’ve seen this in my own life and ministry. I’ve seen it in the lives of others, both leaders I have known and leaders I have observed. And I’ve discovered that it is how you set your course immediately during and after that batch of betrayal and unfair treatment that determines your lifelong attitude toward those who disagree.

I’m thinking of the biographies I’ve read of President Richard Nixon. He was a promising young Senator from California who was chosen as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, in part because of his intellectual depth, his charm, and his young leadership style. After serving as VP, Nixon ran for President against his friend, Jack Kennedy. It was a razor-thin race, closer, I believe than Bush/Gore, 2000. There were rumors and stories that corruption in Cook County, IL (Chicago) pushed the election to Kennedy. Nixon could have engaged in a long, drawn out recount. He didn’t, for the good of the nation.

But something changed in Nixon after that race. He began to distrust and despise anyone and everyone. He viewed himself as a martyr, an unfair object of criticism. From then on, he began to compile a list of enemies. He was deeply suspicious even of his own friends. Nixon eventually became President, but his inability to handle criticism, to bury it, learn from hit, let it roll off his back led to his downfall. His martyr complex fueled fear which fueled paranoia, which motivated him to adopt a “win-at-all-costs” mentality with every single conflict as a leader. The result was Watergate, which not only damaged a once-promising Presidency, it deeply hurt the nation.

The lesson? God tests us with unfair treatment. How we deal with it determines our future. I’m convinced of that. And this is not something that only affects presidents. It affects pastors, parents, young people, old people, CEO’s, managers, everyone. There is a big decision you have to make when you’ve been mistreated. It is this, will I let this imprison me or will I let God use it for His good?

We’ve all known leaders who can’t get over their grievances, who allow those to fuel their work. It has a corrosive impact on their vision, their relationships, their impact. We’ve also known leaders who allow these things to roll off their backs. They refuse to allow the abuser to control their lives.

You don’t have to be a doormat, but you don’t have to be a jerk, either. In my personal experiences, I have found myself justifying jerk-like behavior as “standing up on principle.” Thankfully, good friends in my life reminded me I wasn’t standing on any principle. I was just acting like a jerk.

God doesn’t call Christians to be wimps or doormats. And if our character has been besmirched, we should rise up and defend it. We don’t have to cave in to bullies. We don’t have to apologize for what we believe. But, we should be sensitive to the reality that sometimes we are wrong and that other person who may be hurting us is loved by God as much as we are. Yes, I know this is hard. But this is one of the crosses we are called to bear. Jesus did this, when standing before Pilate. Jesus could have constantly pulled the “I’m better than you” card and in His case, would have been right every single time.

I’m going to step on so many toes here, but I think the application is appropriate. In so many ways I agree with Sarah Palin’s political views. I also am proud of her for being so staunchly prolife and for her courageous decision to care for her down-syndrome baby. I think she also has shown an ability to fight hard for what she believes.

But over the last few months, I’ve watched her grow increasingly negative, spiteful, sort of adopting the “the world is against me” mentality. And so she seems to lash out at every criticism of her, just or unjust, with equally caustic verbal shots. I wish she understood that with each careless remark, she erodes the enormous credibility that put her in a position of influence. I compare her to Ronald Reagan, who had an ability to brush off criticism that he was a dumb cowboy. You never saw him react, lash out. He even got along with his critics. George W. Bush seems cut from the same cloth. It’s call magnanimity. It’s the ability to smile when you’re being scorned. It’s not a sign of weakness.

As Christians, God calls us to be bigger. To be the person who is firm in our resolve, but makes nothing personal and refuses to return evil with evil.

Some criticism is valid, even useful. Not everything negative someone says is always motivated by a jealous, envious heart. But if we assume the position that everyone is out to get us, we miss out on great growth potential. Sometimes God even uses the least likely messenger to deliver us a good message. God used Balaam’s . . . ahem, donkey to get him in line. And sometimes God uses other clumsy messengers to deliver messages. The wise find the gold.

I’ve seen open-minded leaders learn from constructive input and grow. I’ve seen reflexively defensive leaders push back against any kind of criticism, even when delivered from friends or people who agree with their cause.

It helps to have a circle of honest advisors. Here is where many leaders err. They surround themselves with head-bobbers and Kool-Aid drinkers. You know the types. Guys who interpret every critique or suggestion as an offense, a persecution to be stamped out. These kinds of friends think they are helping the leader. They are only hurting him. They are handicapping his ability to lead the people God has called him to serve.

Everyone of us need a Nathan in the  Cabinet. Nathan was the guy who unflinchingly told David he was wrong, in sin, and in need of repentance. Let’s just say Nathan had tons of God-given courage to do this. Not many would. I’m guessing there were a thousand head-bobbers in the palace, but it was Nathan who saved David’s kingdom. Who is your Nathan? Who is mine? Where are the people who love us, are loyal to us, believe in our cause, but have the courage to man up and tell us we are wrong, when we are wrong? The key, for those of us who lead, is to create a culture where this is allowed and not punished.

What happens if we don’t have a Nathan? This is dangerous and destructive. We create our own false Kingdom, with walls that protect us from any negative input. We live in a false state of reality. What we don’t realize is we are creating the perfect conditions for our own demise.

Nobody is always right, nobody is always wrong. When I’ve been unfairly attacked or maligned, my tendency is to doubt the abuser has any good qualities and to interpret every message from this person as motivated by some diabolical conspiracy. This is a mistake. Nobody is all bad. And nobody is all good. Even when you are the subject of unfair treatment–when everyone agree is you were wronged–you can still react in wrong ways, have wrong judgments, and wrong motives. You can even be in favor of a right cause and still be wrong. I also think we do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss anything and everything from a person or place with whom we have profound disagreement. This happens often in evangelical church movements. One movement has writes off the other movement and can’t accept anything they have to offer. Furthermore, they act as if everything they do is completely right.

This also happens in politics. You can’t possibly find anything good in your ideological opponent. You can’t find any issues with which you disagree. It’s all about opposing and making them look bad. I think Christians should grow out of this. We should recognize the worth and value of all people and learn from them.

Bottom Line: Criticism stings, hurts, stinks. Especially when it is unfair and unfounded. But criticism can either be a catalyst for positive change or it can fuel resentment and bitterness. How we react determines the effectiveness of our leadership.