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Making Criticism Your Friend

Editor’s Note: The following is a post by one of our new Associates, Richard Underwood. Richard has been a friend and collaborator with Living Leadership for many years. He has an infectious sense of humour, which you will pick up from his post. He also brings with him bags of wisdom. We’re grateful to him for this particular contribution.

Here’s a little about him:

After ten years in industrial relations, Richard pastored two churches in East Anglia before serving the FIEC until his retirement in 2017. He still shares in the leadership of Christchurch, Harborough, a church he and his wife, Philippa, helped to plant in 2010. They have two children and three grandchildren.

Here’s his post:

Public Speaking at a microphone

A while back, I had the opportunity to speak on Resolving Conflict and Coping with Criticism. The whole exercise was unlikely to be a barrel of laughs so, in order to break things up and add a bit of colour, I decided to stop after the section on conflict, and give the convener (a former friend) the opportunity to critique what I’d just shared. I had decided that I would cleverly riff off his comments with my pièce de resistance on how to handle criticism.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

All was well until we got to the critique. I was expecting a few banal generalities; instead my friend treated us to a devastating critique. What made the experience especially painful was that he was right. Dead right! The audience held their collective breath, my wife (who was supposed to be helping me) could hardly contain her mirth, and I looked for the floor to open up or, even better, for the Lord Jesus to come back.

All ended well; the convener and I are still (firm-ish) friends. But I learned two valuable lessons that day. First, don’t try to be clever (unless you are). And second, before you give talks on coping with criticism, learn to cope with criticism.

So, let me have another go. Here are three suggestions.

Look at the source

There are two kinds of critics. The first are for us. They respect us greatly. And when they have something to say, we do well to listen.

The Psalmist writes, Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness;

let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. (Ps. 141.5)

The writer of Proverbs puts it equally graphically. Wounds from a friend can be trusted. (Prov. 27.6)

But what about the second kind – those who criticise thoughtlessly? It feels like they’re against us.

It’s tempting to write them off, but don’t. Try to see beyond the obvious. Often, what feels like unfair or unwarranted complaints are a symptom of unresolved pain. Do you know what’s going on in their lives when they come out with harsh words? Don’t step away from them; take a step closer. Use this opportunity to understand them a little better. Pray for them— even when you don't like them.

Look for the grain of truth

Just because I’m on the receiving end of criticism doesn’t mean that I’m right. I need to consider prayerfully what my critics are saying, in order to see if there’s something I can learn. Even if they’re wrong, this is a God-given opportunity to model grace, and to win friends not arguments.

The healthiest people emotionally are those willing to face up to who they are. I know it’s scary, but I need to ask God what he wants me to learn from this experience. I need to pray for the grace to develop a winsome spirit. And finally, I need to learn to laugh at myself and not be too hard on myself.

Look at my relationships

Criticism raises the issue of how I relate to other people. First, I need friends around me who can speak truth into my life. It’s a gift when I can talk to friends about the criticism I’m receiving. But second, the sting of criticism also helps me to reflect on the way I treat those who aren’t necessarily my friends. It may prompt me to be more ready to offer encouragement, rather than to dish the dirt. How important it is that Christian leaders foster a culture of encouragement and affirmation.

So, criticism: friend or foe?

Expect it; it comes with the territory. But above all, value it. Turn it into a friend. Look at criticism through the lens of the gospel. It reminds us of our need for God and his grace. It might just draw us closer to the Lord Jesus. At times, it can equip us to serve others more lovingly – even our critics.

And when we do that, we reflect God’s glory more beautifully.

We are constantly adding to our library of resources. In our latest article, Auriel Schluter shares Steph's story of experiencing depression.


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