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One of the vices I hate acknowledging in me is a critical spirit. I want to put the best spin on myself, of course, so I give this poisonous quality nice names like “reflection,” and “being properly analytical.”
Here are a few snapshots of my soul. Often after attending a party, or Sunday morning worship at church or a one-to-one meeting with a student, I’ll ruminate on how bad or wrong something or someone was: “I can’t believe she was such a bad listener—boy, is she full of herself.” “Look at those clothes! I wonder how much money he spends on his wardrobe. He’s so vain!” Sometimes this negativity makes its way to my tongue, at which time my dear wife Amy is the unlucky recipient, and sometimes it merely stays in my heart. No matter; the root sin is the same.
There’s something very damaging about a critical spirit. Over time, when left unchecked, it prevents one from seeing and appreciating all that’s truly good in the world, all that God is actively doing. The exact opposite of wearing “rose-colored glasses,” a critical spirit is like putting on sunglasses when the day is full of clouds: everything in life begins to take on a dark, drab hue. Like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair, the critical person comes to expect—even, dare I say, to hope?—that everything will have something wrong with it. One’s very identity actually begins to be marked by this “need” for negativity.
But critical people aren’t only hurting themselves; they are also affecting others as well. Like Nathan the prophet confronting David after his sin with Bathsheba, I think I needed to be the recipient of a critical remark before I was able to acknowledge that this is my sin too. At one of the universities where I minister, several of us had been having difficulty with one student. She was always so negative! Our meetings were too long or not personal enough or there wasn’t enough prayer or the singing wasn’t lively enough. I didn’t notice this at first, for her criticisms were often accurate. But gradually I found myself feeling nervous whenever I was with her or when she phoned, asking if we could get together. What new negative revelation would she bring next, I worried. I soon found myself drained whenever I was around her, and I noticed how I simply tended to avoid her at all meetings. I feel uncertain sometimes in my leadership anyway, and I didn’t exactly look forward to being “constructively” reminded once again of yet another failure. And then it hit me hard: do some people feel toward me as I feel toward her?
What is at the root of a critical spirit? Let me suggest several things. First, a critical person is walking in the flesh, not the Spirit. Rather than drawing upon the Lord for strength and perspective, the critical person relies upon his or her own resources. Cynicism quenches the Spirit, directing us to walk by sight, not faith. As Spirit-filled Christians we will always, fundamentally, be people of hope (because of the great God we serve), while a fleshly person will be one of despair.
Second, when you meet people who are constantly critical, you can be pretty sure that they feel rotten about themselves. They see themselves as unattractive, failing, or in some manner unworthy. Pointing out others’ weaknesses works as an anodyne to keep people from seeing and feeling their own pain.
Third, and a natural progression from the second, a critical person has experienced little grace. It is far easier to see others’ sins than our own. Those who are judgmental rarely get in touch with their own ugly failures, or with God’s incredible gift of forgiveness. We are all Pharisees at heart. When was the last time you were broken to the point of weeping over your own sins? How aware are we every second of the day that, when seeing another’s sins, we ourselves are capable of the very same things, were God to withdraw from us?
What is the antidote to a critical spirit? First let me state what it most certainly is not. For many years I’d thought the answer was simply to analyze less. My main problem, I was convinced, was that I didn’t take things at face value enough. I came to envy those happy-go-lucky people who seemed never to reflect or question. I found myself repressing all negative thoughts (you know, the “power of positive thinking,” and all that) and trying only to notice the good things in others. When coming home from a party where someone had unnecessarily criticized Amy, for example, I would reply, “Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean it. Gosh, isn’t he in fact a super guy?”—and I thought I was being humble and spiritual. I began to see my powers of discernment as a curse, something I was ashamed of.
No, this won’t do. Exchanging dull gray sunglasses for rose-tinted glasses is no solution. Following Christ doesn’t make someone a Pollyanna. Fake smiles, repressed anger and a lot of spiritual “praise-the-Lords” don’t build God’s kingdom. Sin needs to be confronted and rebuked—in ourselves, yes, but also in others. Critical people are usually, in fact, very gifted in discernment. I have learned to be very, very grateful for my God-given gift of analysis. I’m so glad that God has graced me with the desire and ability to notice and try to understand human beings. What fun! The problem, then, is not in the possession of the discernment gift but in its use.
Here are five needed changes, as I see it, for the critical person:
First, we simply must have our spiritual eyes opened to see two truths: the heinous depth of our own sin, and the amazing grace of God’s love toward us in Christ. Spiritual sight here is not something we can will. God must give it. But we can cry out to him for it. “Lord God, would you open my eyes to see myself soberly? And then to know your love more intimately?” We desperately need the existential feel of our own sin and God’s grace. No mere head knowledge, here. “Wash your hands, you sinners, and let there be tears for the wrong things you have done. Let there be sorrow and sincere grief . . .” (James 4:8–9). When King David’s blind eyes were finally opened to his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, he didn’t merely acknowledge it in some academic, emotionally removed way; he fell on his face, wailed, and fasted for three days!
I never, ever will forget how I felt those first few months of courtship with my wife, Amy. Believing, knowing, experiencing her love for me, even as she was getting to know my weaknesses and sins, was overwhelming, Yes, I still noticed others’ shortcomings, but this awareness no longer consumed me, for—oh, happy day!—I was loved. Experiencing grace motivated me to extend grace.
Second, we must be deeply convinced that we can never know with certainty another person’s motives. Yes, we can see actions, and sinful actions usually must be confronted. But we must catch ourselves when we hurriedly, often unconsciously, make that jump from “He did this” to “He is obviously acting from pride (or insecurity or revenge, etc).” There are so many factors beyond our knowledge that go into another’s actions. Only God sees the heart, and only his judgment will be 100 percent accurate and fair.
Now, we perceptive people will hear this admonition, yet still secretly think, “Well, yes, but you see, I really do know why Person X does what she does.” Yes, sometimes we are right; but we may very well be wrong.
Third, when we’re bothered by another’s actions, we must pray—for both the person and our response to them. Instantly and fervently. What would happen if we channeled all our critical energy into a running dialog with that person’s (and our) Creator?
Fourth, we must learn to be diplomatic and direct in confronting people one-on-one. No fake smiles where we try to call darkness ‘light.’ No repression of negative feelings, but instead, direct, tactful communication. The goal here is not to blast people or tell all of their hidden character flaws; the goal is God’s glory and the reconciliation of broken relationships.
Recently I sucked it up and was direct with the above-mentioned student regarding her critical spirit. “I feel I need to tell you something and yet I’m hesitant to do it for fear of losing your friendship. For the last several times I’ve been with you, you have spoken critically of something either the group or I have done. There’s often much truth in what you say but I find myself frequently dragged down by your comments. We need encouragement as well as criticism. I value your friendship and thus thought I ought to share this with you.” I’ll be honest: she didn’t respond as I’d hoped. But I did feel right about being direct and honest, rather than nurturing my own critical spirit.
Fifth and finally, we need to be encouragers, genuinely upbuilding others and helping them become all that they can become, all that God longs for them to become. I want to get excited about making others successful! I can be an encourager in others’ lives like Barnabas was to Paul, and trust God to provide encouragement for me as well. I have watched people melt at a rightly-timed, genuinely motivated word of affirmation and gratitude. And I know how empowered I feel when I’m around a genuine encourager. Instead of seeing only the downside of the people around us, let’s pray for the ability to see what God is doing in others’ lives, and then add our own two cents in furthering along his good work.
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—Kevin Offner works with InterVarsity’s graduate student ministry
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