Surviving Friendly Criticism
By Stacey G. Benson
“Not only that -- count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens -- give a cheer, even! -- for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” ~ Matthew 5:11-12 (The Message)
Ever been on an emotional ledge? I have. Right now I’m not there, but my friend is. She is in need. She has plenty to eat, enough clothes to wear, and a nice house to live in. She has a wonderful husband and great kids. She has an exciting job and parents who love and support her. So what could someone with all of this really need? She needs a thick skin.
You see, she and her husband are living dangerously. They are following God’s call and finding that it can get pretty lonely. They have devoted their lives to see as many people as possible become Christ-followers. However, instead of being encouraged by those in the church whom they have loved, they are being shunned and criticized - hit by friendly fire.
My friend wonders why she should ever invest in people again if they’ll only turn on her in the end. She didn’t do anything illegal or immoral, but she did do something dangerous - she stepped out of her comfort zone. She stepped out of her friends’ comfort zones, too. And it was, well…uncomfortable. As she was gathering the materials needed to build a nice tall wall around herself, I told her she didn’t need a wall, that what she really needed was to develop a thick skin. It was something she didn’t expect to have to do. In fact, she asked why that was necessary. Does she have to grow thick skin to protect a soft heart? “Well spoken,” I thought.
I remember summers as a child in Alabama. It was the same every summer. I was a tenderfoot. While other kids seemed to start off the season running barefoot over brambles, I would step lightly and carefully to protect my tender feet. I would pick my way until I could reach the soft grass only to look up and find my tough-footed friends had left me behind. Yet if I just kept running barefooted, my feet would eventually toughen up, too. I no longer had to worry about sharp rocks or rough spots hurting my feet and I could keep up with the best of them.
After almost 20 years in ministry, my skin has become pretty thick. Like most, we’ve had our share of darts thrown our way by those who should have known better. At times, hurtful words and untrue accusations have threatened to destroy us. Sometimes the pain was just too much to bear. With fists balled up I would ask, Why should I give my life to help anyone see a better one through Jesus if they are just going to say hurtful things and turn their backs on me in the end? I, too, wanted to build protective walls, but I grew a thick skin instead. So how do you develop a thick skin without shutting down emotionally? You do it by keeping your heart soft. In other words, you get to the point where you don’t take everything personally, letting what others say and do always wound you. Developing a thicker skin helps us continue doing the work we’ve been called to do. We live in a fallen world so people are going to hurt us because that fallenness affects how people think and how they behave. We are told to “be in the world but not of it.” That’s hard to do on a good day, but then put us under pressure and watch out! We judge, we accuse, we do anything we can to make us feel better about ourselves and what we are doing. When we are following God and doing what He wants us to do with our lives, we will sometimes receive criticism from friends, family, even church people - it comes with the territory. We break God’s heart everyday, but His sympathy and love for us overcome His sadness and disappointment. For some reason He continues to renew His mercy and His grace, and extends them to us. We need to show others the same grace.
To survive, we have to be careful that we don’t place too much importance on what others do or say to us because it will make what God thinks of us less important. Ultimately, what He thinks of us is all that really matters. In 1 Corinthians 4:3a-4 Paul had the same struggle and concludes, “I care very little if I am judged by you or any human court…It is the Lord who judges me.” It’s during times like these - times like my friend is facing now - that God reminds us where our focus must remain.
As Christians, we are called to a radical life; a devoted life. We are called to a life that others just don’t understand, at least on the front end. I hope in time, for my friend who is hurting, that her friends will see where God has taken her, what she and her husband are doing for the Kingdom, and show their support. Unfortunately that’s not happening now when she needs it most, but developing a thicker skin will help her get by until they do understand or until it no longer matters to her if they understand or not.
My friend could surely wall herself off and never let another person close enough to hurt her again. Who could blame her? But that’s not God’s plan. Having a heart for God means having a heart for people.
We are a mess, no doubt about it. This world is nothing like what God intended it to be. Yet, thankfully, He can work with it, and He chooses to work through us - through every person who hears the call and answers, “Here I am, send me.” Initially, as we go out to follow that call, we will have tender feet. As we keep going, eventually the criticisms and judgments won’t sting so much because our focus will be on God who lifts us up and leads the way. And maybe, just maybe, one day our thick skins won’t be necessary anymore.
Leadership has a price tag - criticism. Whenever we are out front, people are going to take shots at us. No leader is exempt from it. In fact, the only way to avoid criticism is by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing. Therefore, a leader must learn to handle criticism, to have thick skin. Stuart Briscoe writes, “Qualifications of a pastor (or any Christian leader): the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.”
So how does one react to criticism?
Talk to God about it. I remember a song from my youth, “You can talk about me whenever you please, but I’ll talk about you when I am on my knees.” Our first response to criticism is to take it to the Lord in prayer. Never tackle the criticism alone. Give it all to God. Allow Him to take the brunt of the attack.
Learn from it. Sometimes there is truth in the criticism. We must shake out the kernels of truth and use them to help us grow.
Use it to motivate you to greater action. Often when I am criticized I employ it to spur me on to greater accomplishment. I know it is my competitive nature that sparks this reaction. But I have learned that I must take the criticism through the previously mentioned steps before I employ this response.
Ignore it. Sometimes one must consider the source. If the critic is someone who is critical of everyone and everything, then dismiss it and move on. Henry Ironside lived by this advice: “If what they are saying about you is true, mend your ways. If it isn’t true, forget it, and go on and serve the Lord.”