How we deal with criticism and with praise is quite important:
Given that it seems I get much more criticism than praise, perhaps I should only claim expertise on just half of this article! But some general thoughts – along with a few specifics – can nonetheless be offered on each. And I am speaking here in the Christian context.
The truth is, it seems both praise and criticism can do harm, or good, depending on how they are offered and received. So we need to carefully assess both, and seek God’s take on them. Let me discuss each in turn, and when I get to praise, let me look briefly as well at the issue of ‘prophetic words’ and the like.
Let me start with criticism. I have written often on this before, so I do not want to repeat myself here. See this piece for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/05/09/dealing-with-critics/
Here I want to really focus on just one thing: a brand-new book on the matter. I refer to Pastors and Their Critics by Joel Beeke and Nick Thompson (P&R). I was very keen when I first heard about this book, and as soon as it became available, I snatched it up.
No, I am not a pastor. But I sure have a lot of critics! And I already have a dozen of Beeke’s books, so I knew this would not disappoint. And as the authors state early on, although pastors are in view, any believer can benefit from what is found in the book.
In it the authors look at some Old Testament examples of those who were criticised (Moses, Aaron, David, Nehemiah), and then look at Jesus and his critics. Much of the rest of the book is about how believers can deal with criticism – and also, how best to give it out. To stir up your appetite, a few quick quotes will suffice:
“The very God who called us into the ministry is intent on making us more faithful and fruitful in the ministry, and one of the means He uses toward that end is criticism.”
“The only way to be prepared to rightly receive criticism is to cultivate an ever-deepening humility, putting to death what is earthly in us by the power of Christ’s cross. We must be daily dying to our self-exalting flesh that we might live for the exaltation of Jesus Christ alone.”
“Even if you receive criticism at a time when you are strong emotionally and physically, it is still a good general rule not to respond to weighty criticism for at least twenty-four hours. This provides you with time to reflect and pray, get past some of the hurt, and consult others whose wisdom you respect. Rarely is there a need to respond to criticism immediately.”
Although written in a popular style and somewhat brief (180 pages), this is a terrific volume which all Christians can benefit from. Given that we all will receive criticism, learning how to respond in a godly and biblical fashion is imperative.
A few general thoughts. Praise is great and we all need encouragement. That topic I have also written about before. See this piece for example: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/27/encouragement-for-the-journey/
Needless to say, one needs to be almost as careful with praise as with criticism. Just as not all criticism is true or on the mark or helpful, so too with praise. What may be passed off as praise may just be deceptive words: folks may be seeking to ingratiate themselves to you or flatter you for their own purposes. Or folks may just be “yes men” who only always tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to hear.
And lots of praise – while so often needed – can also lead to pride and overinflated views of oneself and one’s importance. So just as we take all criticism with a grain of salt and discern that which is from God and that which is not, so too here with praise.
‘Word from the Lord’
Let me briefly speak to the matter of ‘prophetic words’. Some of the praise or encouragement we may get will come in the form of someone telling us they feel they have a word from God for us, that God really wants us to hear something.
Of course this is a big and controversial topic, and one that cannot be fully entered into here. And it is contentious because folks can have strong views – for and against – some of the spiritual gifts. Some believers – the cessationists – basically believe there are no prophetic words for today, while others – the continuists – believe there still are. See more on all this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2017/07/02/difficult-bible-passages-1-corinthians-1310/
I discuss this matter because of two things that occurred the other day. As I often say, when various important and related things occur almost simultaneously, it can be one of at least two things: it could be just coincidence, or it could be God at work. So let me share these two things, for what they are worth.
First, someone I do not know contacted me and said he had a word for me. One always must take such words with a bit of caution. Biblical prophets had inspired, inerrant words that became part of canonical Scripture. That is not the case today. Yes, I believe God can and does speak to and through people, but folks can also get things wrong, so we need to be careful here.
But the word was one of encouragement, urging me to keep on with my ministry, that I am on the right path, etc. As such it was a somewhat generic message. But contained in it was a quite specific word dealing with one thing I have been thinking about lately that basically no one else would really have known about.
So that caught my attention, and made me feel that this may indeed be a message from the Lord. Even if it was a mix (as most things are) of flesh and spirit, it did encourage me and bless me. Especially given that I do not know the guy, it did seem at the very least to be a very timely and much needed bit of encouragement.
Second, a brand-new book is out that speaks to these matters. I refer to Understanding Spiritual Gifts by Sam Storms (Zondervan). Part of what makes this book unique and worth pursuing is this: Storms is one of those rare breeds, a charismatic Calvinist. There are some others, such as Matt Chandler and R. T. Kendall.
In his 400-page book he has four chapters on words of wisdom, words of knowledge, and the spiritual gift of prophecy. He presents a theologically and biblically balanced discussion of these matters, and covers plenty of ground.
I may yet do a full review of the book, and I urge you to get it, but it does indeed contain much helpful information. Perhaps just a few short quotes from it can be offered here in the hopes of getting you to check the book out for yourself. This is useful:
“Not everyone who prophesied ‘falsely’ is necessarily a ‘false prophet.’ One can misinterpret a revelation from God and perhaps misapply it to God’s people but not for that reason stand in jeopardy of death or even church discipline.”
If you are getting theologically out of joint at this point, you would need to read this in context to see how he carefully and biblically seeks to make his case. And in another chapter he offers us six “criteria for judging prophetic words.” I will only offer the first sentence of each:
- The early church was to evaluate them in the light of the apostolic traditions (2 Thess. 2:15) bequeathed them by Paul….
- For us today, all prophetic words must be in absolute conformity with Scripture….
- We also measure prophetic words by their tendency to edify or build up (1 Cor. 14:3)….
- We must also apply the test of love (1 Cor. 13) by which all charismatic gifts are to be measured and subordinated….
- The test of community is also important….
- Finally, there is the test of personal experience….
While this piece was not necessarily meant to go into this matter of the revelatory spiritual gifts and whether or not they are still valid for today (we need to save that debate for another time thanks), most Christians do believe that at least in a general sense, God can ‘speak’ to them or lead them in various personal ways.
That is not to say such ‘words’ are inspired and infallible, however. It is just to say that our God is not a deist, and he does personally care for his children, and he may well – in close conjunction with Scripture – offer us various forms of personal guidance or encouragement or rebuke.
In sum, both praise and criticism will come the way of Christians, especially Christian leaders. How we deal with both is crucial. It is hoped that the thoughts expressed here may be of some use to you in all this, as well as the two new books I mentioned.
(Australians will find these two books at Koorong.)