I could feel the blood draining from my face. The plastic fork in my hand nearly snapped in two under the pressure of my clenched fist. Trying not to reply too hastily, I bit my lip so hard it bled.
I thought it was a dinner invitation, but it felt like an ambush.
As my long list of failures was categorized into neat stacks of inadequacies on the table between us, I found myself speechless with humiliation. This is what people think of me? People who barely know me? I didn’t say much more than “thank you for dinner” before gathering my things to leave. I nodded and smiled, making my host feel, I’m sure, validated in the serving of reproach for dessert. I’m a ministry wife, after all, and it was their job to keep me in line. I am supposed to welcome this kind of critique, right?
I cried all the way home.
All night I tossed in my bed while the words from dinner echoed over and over–a mantra of my inadequacies, a list of character flaws I needed to correct, an outline of how I had failed everyone. As the night grew longer, so did the list. In my mind, it was poorly translated into a litany of the ways I would never, ever be enough. I could never do or be all the things expected of me. I was angry to be so squarely criticized by someone who didn’t know me well, but I was crushed by the weighty sense of my apparent failure to measure up. My insecurities blended oddly with my pride, and before I knew it, I was the defendant, prosecution, judge, and jury in this whole scenario.
The next day I had a long-planned lunch date with a friend. I sat in that Panera Bread and watered my salad with tears after Aimee simply asked how things were going. Without naming names or compromising anyone, I carefully relayed the events of the previous night. As I listed the recommended ways to improve myself, my friend started shaking her head.
“Glenna, nobody could hold up to that list. Here’s what you need to do: take the criticism to the Word. Compare what was said with what God expects of you. Look for any truth in the criticism. If it’s there, own it. And then release all the rest of it. You don’t have to be anyone other than who God made you to be. You don’t have to keep a list of requirements that He hasn’t given to you.”
So I did. I went home and spent a few weeks looking at every passage that addressed me as a pastor’s wife (that was a short list…there’s nothing there) and every “one another” passage that covered expectations for every believer. I compared the criticism I’d received with God’s commands for me, and I found some areas where I came up short. Well, a lot of them, actually. I focused on a couple of really specific areas of neglect and prayed for the Lord to help me walk in humility. I sought out ways to change in those areas, and in time Lord drew me in to a season of ministry that was profoundly sweet and encouraging.
Now to be perfectly honest, about 95% of the list of failures given to me at that dinner weren’t exactly biblical. They were mostly preferential things. But there was a seed of truth buried in it all that I would have missed if my friend hadn’t directed me to go straight to Scripture.
That awkward dinner took place many years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the wisdom my friend spoke to me over lunch the next day. I’ve had many occasions to apply her advice in my relationships within the Church, because though it is our job to encourage one another toward godliness, sometimes we do it poorly though well-intentioned. When we are given candid (and sometimes hurtful) criticism from another believer, there are few things we need to do on these occasions. (And when I say we, I really do mean we. This is an area where I always, always, always need improvement. Please learn from my mistakes.)
1. Look for intent.
Most followers of Jesus don’t really intend to hurt one another. I know it feels like we jump at the opportunity to criticize sometimes, but mostly we want our brothers and sisters in Christ to grow in holiness and to bear fruit in their relationship with Christ. When someone comes to you with criticism or correction, don’t lay in bed boiling in your own blood like I did that night so long ago. Look for the intent. If the words were tough to swallow, work hard at seeing the vein in which they were offered. Most likely, the admonition was meant in love. And if it wasn’t, then extend grace and forgiveness like Jesus told us to do. Of all the things said to me during that dinner, I can’t seem to forget the hesitant look on the face of the host. I know without a doubt that the correction offered was meant well. I don’t think the list was completely rooted in biblical truth, but it certainly wasn’t meant in ill-will. When the feelings of anger begin to simmer, I have to go back to what I need to assume was the intent to encourage.
2. Look for truth.
I’m so glad my friend didn’t just tell me to ignore everything that was said. “Look for the truth in it,” she said. This required me to carefully examine what was said by lining it up with Scripture. The only way I could rightly divide the proffered criticism was to lay it down next to the Word. The Bible is my authority, and how I live as a believer and a ministry wife needs to be handed down from the Word. Looking for truth in criticism keeps us humble. We are not sinless or faultless; I can’t even number the many areas of regular failure and selfishness in my life. Doing the work of examination kept my pride in check by showing me what the Lord actually does expect of me as His follower. By following this wise advice, the Lord brought to light some very specific areas that needed dramatic change. He graciously paved the way for my obedience, and I was given the sweet gift of growth in my relationships within my church family. If I hadn’t been steered toward the pursuit of truth, I would have missed the fruit of obedience that grows from receiving correction.
3. Release what isn’t true.
Doing the work of examination also freed me up to release the things that were extra-biblical. I didn’t have to add to the Word nor feel pressured to live up to someone else’s expectations that were beyond the scope of Scripture. I can let go of that stuff and focus on what the Lord expects of me. The only way I can ever keep any of the commandments of Scripture is through the grace of Christ, anyway. There is no need to add the pressure of traditional expectations when my sanctification is already going to take from here to eternity. In my release, though, I had to return to intent numerous times to avoid growing bitter. I’ll admit it–that was difficult. If I felt like the intent might have been something less than love, I had to remember that I do not know the heart of another person. As Jen Wilkin said in her book None Like Him, “No, I am not an expert on my neighbor. Only God is.” I cannot presume another person’s motive because unlike God, I am not all knowing. If I’m going to make a presumption as a believer in community with other believers, I should err on the side of grace and believe the best about my sibling’s intent.
4. Be humble.
We are charged several times in the Bible to keep one another in check. The Christian culture loves to exclaim, “Judge not!” but in context that’s a hasty and misapplied proclamation when it comes to brotherly love. When we commit to a local church body, we are recognizing the Church as a gift by covenanting together to strive toward holiness and to hold one another accountable. So, when someone from your church comes to you with personal criticism or correction, you can fight your pride by declaring their approach as an expression of Christian love. At the root of all correction should be a desire to prevent you from wandering from the faith. If we fight to see it that way, we may be more humble in our receptiveness to being corrected. When it comes down to what’s at stake, I have to admit there was a sizable grain of truth in what my dinner host said that night. It might have been coated with a dozen layers of needless commentary about my personality, but there was certainly something that benefited from being unearthed. The core of their correction is still an area of my life that needs watching.At the root of all Christian correction should be a desire to prevent us from wandering from the faith. Click To Tweet
This may be the most difficult step in the process of receiving criticism from another believer, but I feel that it’s necessary to prevent bitterness from ruining the relationship. A few months after that surprising dinner, I reached out to my host. We met, and I offered up my experience in seeking the Lord’s direction with the criticism I’d received. I could tell there was some surprise that I was rejecting part of the offered advice, but my hope is that it was overshadowed by the ways God had showed me in the Word that I needed to lean more toward active obedience. On the one hand, I wanted our meeting to show that I had taken their words to the Scripture and found some of the things unbiblical. I didn’t want them to put those expectations on others unnecessarily. But on the other hand, I wanted it to be clear that I had taken their words seriously and had seen some good come from it. It seemed important to make sure the relationship we had, though new and until that time untried, continued with kindness and trust.
I certainly didn’t do everything right in this situation, and if I’m candid, my knee-jerk reaction to correction is nearly always a wrong one. This is why being rooted in humility is a regular issue of prayer in my life. When that unwelcome bit of correction comes your way, remember to look for the loving intention, take the words to the Word, examine your heart, hold on to what Scripture shows is true and release what it doesn’t. If I could relive this scenario all over again, I would beg the Lord to keep me in a posture of humility that sees correction as an attempt at love and concern for my spiritual well-being.
Church, we are gifts to one another. Let’s remember that.