Critique with Compassion

Critique with Compassion

Some people are so critical. You know those people. Whenever you see their name pop up on your phone, or see their email in your inbox, your heart starts beating a little faster. You get a little angry. You shrink away.

Maybe it just comes with pastoring, but I’ve never been so criticized in my life – or at least I’ve never felt so criticized. One of the challenges with the position is interpreting the many underhanded comments, glances, and questions you get. It can be hard to know whether the person is implying a criticism or not. But more often than not, when I’ve asked for clarification, it turns out to be critical.

Maybe people think pastors have it too easy. Maybe people think that it’s their job to put pastors in their place. Or maybe people just don’t realize how they’re coming across.

In most businesses, there are a barrage of complaints aimed at leaders. From customers and the public to employees and vendors, running a business is an extremely difficult task when you don’t have tough skin. It’s one of the things I’ve struggled with for a long time. I always want people to be happy – so happy that I often stress about how other people feel about me. I don’t think anybody enjoys customer service, but I’m especially averse to it.

Of course, I don’t mind criticism in general. And I don’t mind dealing with difficult people. Part of me actually enjoys it. It’s just when the criticism feels close to home – when it reaches an area of insecurity for me. When the software I personally developed failed a customer at some point, I’d get extremely worried. When a family member didn’t like a choice I made after a lot of deliberation, I got protective. But when my coach didn’t like the shot I took, or when a professor didn’t like the way I phrased a sentence in a paper, I didn’t mind so much.

I think everybody has their insecurities, and in those insecurities, we react the most defensively to criticism. It’s not just me; we all do it. But as much as I know that, I can still be just as critical of others.

Here’s what I’m saying: as much as I might not like other people’s criticisms, I myself am guilt of criticizing others with the same insensitivity. I’m used to working in areas of confidence, and I’m used to working with people who also are confident. This is really common among entrepreneurs and marketing-type folks. We’re just as insecure as others, but when it comes to our jobs, we carry around less doubts (since our work took a huge leap of faith to begin with). At least that’s how it seems to me.

But when you start working in a church, you’re confronted by both your own inadequacies and others a lot faster. I don’t care if someone thinks I should do a social media post differently; I’m confident in what I’m doing. But I’m a lot less confident when someone complains about the new trajectory of the volunteer team at church.

The truth is: we’re all a mixed bag of healthy confidence, arrogance, and insecurity. I would do well to remember that next time I have a criticism toward someone else or their work.

Now, I’m not saying that all critiques are bad. You wouldn’t have art if you didn’t have critique. It’s what refines us and our work. But there’s a difference between critique and criticism. The -ism makes all the difference. When we’re so critical we don’t realize what we’re doing and/or insensitive to those we do it around, we become destructive and not constructive. We don’t empower someone to do better; we push them to keep doing what they’re doing or give-up altogether.

Instead, we need to learn to critique with compassion – to critique not out of instinct or superiority, but out of love for the other person. When I see someone doing something outside of their strength or simply doing something half-way, and assuming I have the relationship with them to warrant it, I can speak into their work, inviting them to do better (not telling them how-to do it, but asking them questions to get them thinking about it). Criticism tears down, but compassion builds up.

So I’m going to work on being more compassionate and less critical. I want to be more like Jesus and less like the pharisees. I want to help people to discover for themselves how they can do better, not instruct them on how I think they should do what they’re doing. When I critique, I want it to be for someone else’s benefit – not because I’m simply uncomfortable with their work, their lifestyle, their personality, their approach. I want to be for others, not against them.

5 Comments Critique with Compassion

  1. Freeda Greene

    I wonder if our sensitivity to criticism is connected to our self-esteem, or lack of it, and in turn, what our self-esteem is based on. If I feel good about myself when other people see me as loving or helpful, what happens when someone complains that I’m unfair or prejudiced or not meeting their needs. Before God, we can admit our flaws, confess our sins, and then trust to the work of the Holy Spirit. But before people, if criticized, we might feel almost invalidated: as if I were really a spirit-filled Christian, I wouldn’t have incurred this criticism. On the other hand, I imagine in a church people could criticize you for anything they didn’t like or prefer, without regard to the fact that we should be considering the interests of others as well as our own. There are things we object to at first, that later benefit us: I guess before we criticize, we should remember that and withhold judgment for awhile. I think the danger is that we’ll find it hard to love the people who criticize us unless we consider that God might be working through them as well as trust that He is working in them to conform them to the image of Christ. What I mean by working through them, is though we say we are servants, that we are to wash one another’s feet, we don’t like it if someone feels they didn’t get a good footwash. May be God allows criticism to give us the opportunity to be humble, to realize that we aren’t as self-sacrificing as we would like to think. I think it’s great to learn to be compassionate when I critique someone; I also think it’s necessary(because it’s so difficult) to be humble and nonjudgmental when someone criticizes me. I need to learn that my self-worth, my value has been established because Jesus Christ died for me, that I might be reconciled to God and live in relationship to Him as His child and to others as my brothers and sisters in the Lord. My value, my self-worth then is not affected by criticism. Well at least that’s the goal to aim for.

    1. Jon Berglund

      Thanks, Freeda! That definitely resonates with me – that putting too much stock in what others think about me will ultimately set me up for hurt. The Puritans talked about an “audience of One” – that God’s assessment is the only one that counts. I think that’s helpful.

      But I think we also have to be careful to not aim for apathy. Jesus was passionate, and he often shows his frustration with the Pharisees and their criticism. “Accuser” in Greek is another word for “devil,” and, as James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” We have to be careful to distinguish between a godly exhortation and a demonic condemnation. If it’s from God, as James also says, it will be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (see James 3:13ff). If we’re not careful, we’ll let the lies of the adversary entrap us.

      Still, I really appreciate the reminder to remain humble and “open to reason.” That’s godliness. Thank you for this great thought!

      1. freeda greene

        Jon, originally I was going to say that I thought some criticism was just selfishly motivated: you didn’t give me what I wanted so I will criticize you. But then I realized that Jesus often goes entirely out of the situation, in terms of who is right or wrong, even who has a right motive or not. There’s the problem of my own attitude and there is the problem of how do I help someone grow in the Lord. I was focusing mostly on my own wrong attitude. I agree that godly exhortation is important, but as you said we need to have a relationship with the person that enables us to receive correction without feeling rejected. And I guess this ties in to small groups, where people pray for one another and help one another in practical ways, learning something of the personalities of others, seeing how they treat people; then if you say something to me, instead of being defensive or retaliating, I might take it as the counsel of a fellow Christian, who truly wants me to grow in Christ.
        This is just to say my emphasis was because I realized that it’s not so much if the criticism is justified or not that matters, but that I don’t allow my heart to focus as much on my reputation, as in following Christ. Scripture say that anyone one wants to live a godly life will face persecution(granted to compare mere criticism to persecution is a stretch), but the point is to recognize that even if I do right, I may be criticized, and to ‘train’ myself by the Holy Spirit not to resent it and become unloving. Receiving correction well is as important I think as giving it compassionately. My intuition, which of course might be wrong, is that if people trust one another, they can both give and receive admonishment better than if they are virtually strangers.
        Again, I’m talking to my own weaknesses: if you think that making mistakes is unacceptable, then even compassionate critique can be taken the wrong way. And maybe one reason pastors are criticized so much, is that people feel criticized implicitly in the sermons, and instead of attributing it to the Holy Spirit and being thankful that it was brought to light, they resent the pastor and are waiting to find something they can criticize him for.
        Unless I totally missed the point of your reply to my comment.

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