Discipline Is God’s Gift and Blessing to the Church Part 2
The Peacemaking Church
Criticism and the Cross
Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning (Prov. 9:9). 2
The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice (Prov. 12:15).
Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice (Prov. 13:10).
He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains under-standing (Prov. 15:32).
A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool (Prov. 17:10).
Purpose: To teach believers to overcome their natural tendency to resist correction and instead to learn to welcome criticism as a blessing from God and a means of personal growth.
Key Principle from Small Group Study #5: Constructive correction is a sign of genuine love.
Introduction: Pride can be exceedingly costly.
Critical words can cut to the core. Undoubtedly, you know that from experience. At times they hurt so much that we turn away and refuse to listen. Sadly, the refusal to hear such words can lead to real and great tragedy.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger and its crew embarked on a mission to broaden educational horizons and promote the advancement of scientific knowledge. The most outstanding objective of the Challenger 5 mission was for crew member and teacher Christa McAuliffe to present educational lessons from space. The mission did present a lesson, but not the ones that we expected.
Just seventy-five seconds after liftoff, tragedy struck. Before a watching world the shuttle suddenly exploded overhead—disintegrating the cabin along with its crew. The debris of metal, blood, and bones plummeted to earth, and along with it, our nation’s glory.
What had gone wrong? That was the pressing question everyone asked. As teams of researchers examined the wreckage, the specific cause was soon discovered. The problem was with the O-rings (circular rubber seals), which had been designed to fit snugly into the joints of the booster engine sections. Evidently, the O-rings had become defective under adverse conditions, and the resulting mechanical failure led to the tragedy. That was the whole story. Or so many thought. But then the truth came out.
The New York Times put it frankly: the ultimate cause of the space shuttle disaster was pride. A group of top level managers failed to listen carefully to the warnings, advice, and criticism given by those beneath them in the chain of command. Those in lower management were concerned about the operational reliability of certain parts of the booster engine when under conditions of abnormal stress. They expressed specific concerns about the reliability of the O-rings in unusually cold temperatures, but the upper management did not listen. Just think: heeding this criticism could have saved seven human lives.
The tragedy of the Challenger presents a challenge relevant to all of us: Do we know how to take criticism? How should we respond to words that “cut to the core”? Criticism is constantly zigzagging its way in and out of our lives. In fact, the way we take criticism plays a major role in the way we respond to the conflicted situations we deal with daily: Will we respond with a spirit of defensiveness and pride, heightening the conflict? Or will we respond with wisdom, graciousness, and humility, and thereby reduce the level of hostility?
The answer to these questions has already been given. God has given us his gift of the Cross. Through understanding and embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross, we have the very key to responding to criticism in a way that pleases God.
1. Our Natural Response to Criticism
“Criticism” is when another person judges you by declaring that you have fallen short of a particular standard. The standard may be God’s or man’s. The judgment may be true or false. The criticism may be given gently to correct, or harshly to condemn. It may come from a friend or an enemy. Whatever the case, it is a judgment or criticism about you—that you have failed and fallen short of someone’s standard.
However criticism comes, most of us would agree that it is simply difficult to take. Criticism stings! And who of us doesn’t know someone with whom we need to be especially careful, lest even our most subtle suggestions for improvement spark his anger? How many times have you been warned to “walk on eggshells” around that person?
I, too, do not like criticism and find it very hard to take. I’d much rather be commended than corrected, praised than rebuked. I’d much rather judge than be judged! And I am
not alone in this. The more I listen, the more I hear people pulling out their swords to put up a defense when confronted with criticism.
When someone points out our shortcomings, why does it provoke us to full-scale attack? Why do our hearts and minds so instantly engage, and our emotions surge with energy, running to our defense?
The answer is simple. These issues are not minor or insignificant to us. We defend what we believe to be of great value. We believe something much larger will be lost if we do not use every means to rescue it—specifically, our name, our reputation, our honor, and our glory. Indeed, we think it is our life that we are saving.
In effect, we say to ourselves, “If I don’t point out that I’ve been misunderstood, misquoted, and falsely accused, then others won’t know that I’m right. And if I don’t point out my rightness, nobody will. I will be scorned and condemned in the eyes of others, and I can’t live with that.”
Do you recognize the idol of self here—the deep-rooted desire to place ourselves, our reputation, and our honor above all else? Do you see the controlling desire for self-justification—to be proven right (or righteous) in the eyes of others? Unfortunately, our idols have consequences. This deep desire to justify ourselves results in the tragedy of the space shuttle getting played out over and over again in our lives. It destroys our relationships. It leads to death. For the sake of our pride and foolishness, we willingly suffer the loss of friends, a spouse, or loved ones.
In short, our idolatrous desire to justify ourselves fuels our inability to take criticism, which, in turn, is the cause for much conflict. It is the reason that many marriages and families split, factions form, and relationships grow cold. And it is the reason we so desperately need the direction provided in Scripture to begin forming a redemptive, Godward view of criticism.
2. The Biblical Response to Criticism
Scripture, particularly the book of Proverbs, teaches how important it is to be able to hear correction and take criticism. According to the following verses, being teachable and willing to receive correction is a mark of a mature person:
* “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15).
* “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice” (Prov. 13:10).
* “ rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool” (Prov. 17:10, italics added in each verse).
The ability to take advice, correction, and rebuke is not only considered a mark of the wise, but it is also thought to determine the path of the wise. In fact, Scripture tells us that both the wise and the foolish reap consequences according to their ability to take criticism:
* “He who scorns instruction will pay for it, but he who respects a command is rewarded” (Prov. 13:13).
* “Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning” (Prov. 9:9).
* “He who ignores discipline despises himself, but whoever heeds correction gains understanding” (Prov. 15:32, italics added in each verse).
The wise recognize that there is gain in taking criticism. No wonder David exclaims in Psalm 141:5, “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it” (italics added). David knows the benefit of gain-ing wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. He realizes that criticism from a godly person is always a kindness and an honor, although it may sting. And even when criticism is largely inaccurate or given with unkind motives, it can still be a blessing and help us to grow if we have the humility to listen to whatever may be true in it. The next step is to move from being quick to defend ourselves against any and all criticism, toward becoming like David, who welcomed it as a kindness. How can we do this?
The answer lies in understanding, believing, and affirming all that God says about us in the Cross of Christ. We need to embrace the apostle Paul’s claim that we “have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20) by condemning all that God condemns and affirming all that God affirms in Christ’s crucifixion. In other words, we will never be able to welcome criticism as a kindness until we understand both God’s criticism and his justification of us through Christ’s Cross.
3. The Criticism of the Cross
The first step in understanding and applying the Cross is to be able to say, “In Christ’s Cross, I affirm God’s judgment of me.” As we’ve seen, criticism is another word for “judgment.” One reason we find it hard to hear criticism from others is because we have not heard God’s criticism of us on the Cross. We forget that on the Cross God “criticized” us—that is, God judged us in Christ. That is why Paul the apostle declares, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
Have you ever claimed, “I have been crucified with Christ,” and believed it for yourself? Part of what this entails is recognizing and agreeing with God’s judgment of each of us—admitting that I have sinned against him. There is no escaping the truth, as God’s Word says: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:9-18). As a result of my sin, the Cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and
truly than any person ever could. In other words, no one else’s criticism of me could match the thoroughness of God’s criticism of me.
Knowing this, we can respond to all other criticism by saying, “That’s just a fraction of it!”
Doesn’t Scripture teach us this? Consider two Scripture passages:
* “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law” (Gal. 3:10).
* “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
In other words, we can fully agree with any criticism made of us because Scripture has already condemned us for failing to keep the entire law, and for breaking the whole law. In light of these massive charges against us, any accusations launched at us by humans are mere understatements about who we are and what we’ve done!
Furthermore, we cannot defend ourselves as lawbreakers by trying to offset our sin with our good works. Look at James 2:10 and consider this fact: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Good works cannot make up for our failure! Once again we see that the Cross does not merely criticize or judge us as sinners; it condemns us for not doing everything written in God’s law.
In light of the Cross, I accept that my sin and my inability to keep the law deserve the ultimate judgment—death. Paul states unequivocally in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” As believers in Christ, we agree with this truth when we say along with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live” (Gal. 2:20, italics added), and “Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with” (Rom. 6:6, italics added). In other words, our sin deserves death, and in the Cross, our sin has been put to death.
To claim to be a Christian is to claim to be a person who has understood criticism. The Christian is someone who has stood under the greatest criticism—God’s criticism—and agreed with it! As people who have been “crucified with Christ,” we acknowledge, agree, and approve of God’s judgments against us. We confess, “I am a sinner and a lawbreaker! I deserve death!” Do you see how radical a confession that is?
But thanks be to God — we can say more: We can proclaim and rejoice in the glorious reality of our justification in Christ.
4. The Justification of the Cross
Second, in order to understand and apply the Cross, we must be able to claim, “In the Cross of Christ, I affirm God’s justification of me.” To respond to criticism wisely, I must not only agree with God’s judgment of me in the Cross of Christ, but I must also agree with God’s justification of me, a sinful sinner. On the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross, God justifies ungodly people.
Let’s think about this for a moment. First, notice that God justifies ungodly people. In other words, Christ has paid the penalty of our sin and God has reckoned Christ’s righteousness as our own (Phil. 3:9) by faith in him. So we are justified—or declared “righteous”—in God’s sight. What a glorious truth!
Second, notice that God justifies ungodly people (Rom. 4:5; 3:20-26). In other words, he justifies those who acknowledge their sin and trust only in God for their salvation—not in their own effort or good works.
This is what makes us boast not in ourselves, but in Christ. When I hear criticism with unbelieving ears, I defend myself by boasting about my works and my performance. But now we can see that this not a biblical response. Faith in Christ hears and answers criticism by saying, “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). I no longer try to protect myself and boast about my righteousness. Now I boast in Christ’s righteousness, which I have received by faith, not by anything I have done.
Solomon writes that pride breeds quarrels. Quarrels are often over who is right; they are the result of our idolatrous demand to justify ourselves. But they can be silenced in the Cross. For it is there that God justifies me—that he declares me righteous—by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And it is there that I am reminded that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me. Because of this, God has thoroughly accepted me in Christ. With this sure foundation, I will not need to justify myself!
If you truly take this to heart, the whole world can stand against you, denounce you, or criticize you, and you can reply, “If God has justified me, who can condemn me? If God declares me righteous, accepts me, and will never forsake me, then why should I feel insecure and fear criticism? Christ bore my sins, and I received his righteousness. Christ takes my condemnation, and I receive God’s great approval—‘JUSTIFIED!’”
And you can begin to live out the implications of these great truths in your life.
5. Implications for Our Response to Criticism
In light of God’s judgment and his justification of sinners in the Cross of Christ, we can develop positive and effective ways to deal with any and all criticism.
We can face any criticism with confidence. No criticism from another can be greater than the Cross’s criticism of me—a criticism with which I’ve already agreed. I can receive criticism with this attitude: “You do not know a fraction of my shortcomings. Christ has said more about my sin, my failings, my rebellion, and my foolishness than anyone could say about me.”
We can respond with humility and a willingness to learn from criticism. Knowing both God’s judgment and justification of us in the Cross, we will not be surprised or defens-ive when we are told about our blind spots or hidden faults. God has judged all our sins; Christ has covered all our sins. So we can listen to those criticizing us and say, “I want to learn how your criticisms are valid. Help me to understand them.”
Fifth, we can respond to criticism with a spirit of surrender. No longer do we have to battle the condemnation of criticism, because God has justified us. As the apostle Paul declares, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” (Rom. 8:33-34). So we can accept criticism graciously, rather than reacting with bitterness, defensiveness, or blame-shifting—responses that typically lead to the breakdown of relationships.
Responding to criticism with these attitudes can produce multiple benefits. These responses give us a sense of peace and confidence. They help us not to create additional problems. These gospel-permeated responses can also minimize the anger and frustration of those who are launching the criticism. When they see that you do not desire to minimize your wrongs and shift the blame—but are taking their counsel seriously—they tend to qualify their criticism. Instead of charging, “You never…,” they may suggest, “Sometimes you….” Rather than diving further into conflict, they may give you a little grace.
The implications of taking criticism in light of the Cross are far-reaching. We do not have to fear man’s criticism, for we have already agreed with God’s criticism. And we do not have to seek man’s approval, for we have something much better—God’s approval. His love for us helps us to hear correction and criticism as kindness from our Father, who loves each of us and says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:5-6, italics added).
Perhaps you are concerned about how you react to criticism, and you desire to grow in this area. Perhaps you understand both the criticism of the Cross and the justification of the Cross, and how each shapes your response to criticism. But there may still be a disconnect: “How,” you ask, “do I ‘plug in’ my desire to change and my understanding of the Cross in order to feel the current of true change flowing through my life?” In other words, you want help applying what you’ve learned in order to see real results in your life. The following are practical steps to begin that process:
Critique yourself. How do I typically react to correction? Do I pout? Do I try to play down my error and shift the blame? Do I seek to defend myself, boasting about my “good deeds” in order to prove that I am better than another? Or do I go on the attack and point out the other person’s sin or error? Do I resent or harbor anger against the person who criticizes me?
Are people able to approach me to correct me? Can my spouse, parents, children, siblings, or friends correct me? Am I a teachable person?
Ask the Lord to give you the desire to be wise instead of foolish. Use principles in Proverbs to remind yourself how good it is to be willing to receive criticism, advice, rebuke, counsel, or correction. Learn and meditate on the following passages: Proverbs 9:9; 12:15; 13:10, 13; 15:32; 17:10; and Psalm 141:5.
Focus on your crucifixion with Christ. While you might say, “I have been crucified with Christ,” you may not walk daily in the light of the Cross. Give thanks to God for his justification of you. Then challenge yourself with these two questions: (1) If I continually kick under the criticism of people, how can I say I know and agree with the criticism of the Cross? (2) If I typically try to justify myself, how can I say I know, appreciate, and cling to God’s justification of me through Christ?
This process will drive you back to the Cross to reflect on God’s judgment and justification of you, a sinner. As you meditate on what God has done for you, you will find your faith directed to Christ. And it is by faith that you will again affirm all that God says about you in Christ, with whom you have been crucified.
Learn to speak nourishing words to others. I want to receive criticism as a sinner living within Jesus’ mercy. So how can I give criticism in a way that expresses mercy to another? “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). Accurate, balanced criticism, given mercifully, is the easiest to hear. And if I recognize that I naturally rebel against even accurate criticism, I will be motivated to be loving when I speak the truth to others. I will work to be kind to everyone, not resentful, teaching gently (see 2 Tim. 2:24-26). And I will ask myself, “How can I best give accurate, fair, and balanced criticism with much mercy and affirmation?”
My prayer is that as you gain a victory over pride and learn to receive criticism without becoming defensive, you will experience a new freedom in life that overflows in praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, who has rescued us from all judgment and condemnation.
Challenge: Ask yourself, “Do people feel comfortable offering me correction, or do I have a habit of responding with defensiveness and self-justification?” If you aren’t sure of the answer, ask someone who cares about you.