The Gospel Truth About Criticism: How the Gospel Impacts the Way we Receive and Give Criticism

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Gospel Truth About Criticism
How the Gospel Impacts the Way
We Receive and Give Criticism

One of most foundational elements of the Christian life is criticism...of the constructive kind. It is rooted in the biblical doctrine of depravity. The Bible teaches, for example, that "none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:10, 11). It also teaches that our hearts are "deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand" them? (Jeremiah 17:9). Despite the fact that we are indeed new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), there is still within us a sinful nature (Romans 7:15-24), and it fights voraciously against the Spirit within us (Galatians 5:17). (For more teaching on the depravity of man, see the post entitled "The Heart of the Matter, Part Two: What is the State and Condition of Man's Heart" at Musings on the Doctrines of Grace.)

The Gospel is Reflected in Humility

Since depravity is prevalent then, within every Christian, there ought to be within each of us an ever-present consciousness of this truth. Why? Because without it there is no humility. Humility is that attitude which consumes us when we know just how sinful we really are without the work of Christ and the filling of the Spirit. It is that attitude which oozes out of us when we are living in the work of Christ and being filled with the Spirit. It is that attitude which recognizes the depravity of the heart and the constant need for grace. Without it, arrogance and pride will eat away at the heart like a cancer.

The gospel is a humbling message. And that gets to the heart of this post. When we preach the gospel to ourselves we humble ourselves with its truths. And the more the gospel saturates our hearts and minds, the more open we will be to receiving criticisms from others. The refusal to receive criticism, or the rejection of it (no matter what form it may come in) is the surest sign that we are not preaching the gospel to ourselves regularly.

In other words, when we are not reminding ourselves of that part of the gospel which teaches us about our depravity, then we will not be maintaining that frame of mind which will be readily open to criticism. After all, if we don't remember our depravity, then what in the world needs fixing? The heart that does not remember depravity does not have humility, but has an inflated, deceived sense of its own importance, and therefore does not think it stands in need of any correction.

The Gospel Truth About Receiving Criticism

It tends to work this way. Someone brings a criticism to us - whether it be about something we said, something we did, somewhere we went, a decision we made, an issue regarding our children or our marriage, the way we spend our money, etc. But because we have not been diligent to preach the gospel to ourselves, we have an inflated sense of our success in these areas, a distorted view of our progress and condition. The atmosphere is then set for a storm of conflict to emerge unleashing, often times, a fury of rationalization (reasoning why we were right in what we did....the peak of depravity) and blameshifting (blaming our fault on someone else, or worse yet, turning the attention on the person bringing the criticism...the other twin peak of depravity).

But when the gospel is at work in our hearts, a person brings a criticism, an observation, a concern, etc. and we listen intently. The intensity of our listening will follow the intensity of our knowledge that we are depraved. The more we know how depraved we are, the closer we listen with sincerity and authenticity. And as we listen to the criticism, we put our minds to work doing as Jonathan Edwards tried to do - finding the kernel of truth inside every shell of criticism.

The one who is saturated with the gospel and receives a criticism is marked first of all by a humble listening, then, of what the other person has to share. It is marked second of all, by a prayerful listening, praying that the Spirit would show us our sin so that we may repent of it and grow thereby. Third, it is marked by a grateful heart toward that person and toward the Lord, thankful that God would be so kind as to bring that to our attention rather than leave us in our sin. Fourth, it responds with lovingkindness toward the one who carried out such a difficult task. Fifth, it is marked by a response which asks the one bringing the criticism to come alongside us to help us repent and mature. Sixth, it promises to get back with the one bringing the criticism, after prayer about it, with a personal review of what was shared. These are just a few of the things that come to mind.

The Gospel Truth About Giving Criticism

But not only does the gospel shape the way we receive criticism. It also shapes the way we give it. Again, the gospel truth of depravity comes in to play here. It reflects itself in the humility that we display when we bring a criticism, observation, concern, issue, offense, etc. to another person. The Christian who is familiar with his own sinful nature will be humble, and that humility will reflect itself in several ways.

First, humility is seen in before he determines to even share the criticism. Proverbs teaches us that it is to a person's credit to overlook an offense (Prov. 19:11). Perhaps it is something that can be merely overlooked. The love the gospel demands of us is not 'nitpicky.' It helps us better understand what issues are the most important. Not every 'issue' or 'observation' or criticism is a hill worth dying on.

Second, humility continues to show itself before he determines to bring the criticism in another way. He prays before he share it, making sure he has a tight grip on the gospel truth of his own depravity. Without the mindset that he is nothing without Christ, he will traipse in with arrogance and pride, and without any hint that he himself also sins. Humility reminds us of the gospel truths found in passages like 1 John 1:5-2:2, as well as Galatians 6:1.

Third, humility is reflected during the process of sharing the criticism. The gospel-saturated Christian does not come in with guns blazing. The object in sharing a criticism is not to share the criticism. Seems backwards, doesn't it? The object is to help the other person grow. That should shape the way we share the criticism, then. And humility will shape it first and foremost by asking questions, not by making assumptions. Sure, depravity means our hearts are just as wicked as theirs. But that does not give us a license to assume that their motives behind their action was necessarily sinful. We cannot import our own sinful tendencies into someone else's heart and judge them by those things. Love believes all things and hopes all things.

Fourth, the humble Christian will keep his own depravity in mind while sharing the criticism itself. He will share it softly, tenderly, gently, lovingly, kindly, tenderheartedly. This does not mean he cannot share it with boldness and firmness. It simply means that the atmosphere he attempts to create will be one of grace, for that is the eternal solution to our depravity, isn't it? Grace is greater than our sin. The one with whom we share our criticism needs to sense that and feel that as we share with them.

Fifth, follow-up is crucial. The humble Christian who knows the gospel doctrines of depravity and grace will pray with the other person. He will do what he must, what he can to enter into the life of the person with whom he is sharing the criticism. He will enter into that person's life at any level necessary to help him, to share that burden, to restore them (Gal. 6:1-2). If we are just as depraved as they are, just as sinful, then we ought to know just how difficult it is to repent and change. That is where we need the powerful force of the local church. When a group of people who know the gospel doctrines of depravity and grace, and who reflect those doctrines through cross-centered humility, everyone is put at an ease created by the Spirit who points our attentions toward the cross.


The justification accomplished at the cross is something that extends to all believers. And that necessarily carries over to how we treat each other. We treat them like God treats them - sons and daughters of the Most High God, brothers and sisters of King Jesus. When we bring a criticism to another believer, we bring it as Jesus would bring it. We couch it with the kind of encouragement and love with which Jesus brought His own criticisms to the churches in Revelation 1-3. And when we receive a criticism from another believer, we ought to receive it as if it were being shared by Jesus Himself. So much would change in our relationships with one another, especially in this particular area, if we would talk to others like Jesus would, and if we would receive each other as if they were Christ. For in all biblical reality, they are Christ! They are the body of Christ!

Allow the truths of the gospel to penetrate deeply enough so that you are more willing than ever before to receive whatever God has to share with you, through whomever He would share it. Here's a test to see whether or not you are ready for this. Read 2 Chronicles 16:1 and following. Put yourself in David's shoes. How would you have personally reacted to Shimei's criticisms? If you would have responded like David, then the gospel has saturated your mind. You are healthily aware of your own depravity and of God's grace in your life. But if you would have responded like Abishai? Would you have been ready to remove Shimei's head? David received it as from the Lord. And it was from the hand of the Lord. This has proven to me, time and again, to be a biblical litmus test to determine whether or not I have a proper, biblical view of my own depravity, rooted in the gospel of grace at the foot of the cross.

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