Criticism is a way of life for us, an integral part of our society. We have music critics, art critics and drama critics. We have critics of government, critics of business, critics of labor. When a new United States president takes office, it is usually understood that he gets a short honeymoon, but then the critics begin to unleash their barrage again and the normal pattern goes on. We seem to be obsessed with the weaknesses and mistakes of others, and we are convinced that it is the right thing to do. We believe our criticism will encourage others to strive for excellence. It’s the democratic way.
Unfortunately, we bring that same mentality into the family. We try to remake our mates and shape up our children by criticism. We Christians may carry that same way of life into the church as well. We pick at other Christians who do not measure up to our expectations, and we find fault with our leaders for not doing things the way we want them done. And we keep telling ourselves that it is the right thing to do. It will make them strive for excellence. It’s the democratic way.
But at some point in our Christian experience we confront the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount about criticism (Matthew 7:1-5), and we are faced with decision. Shall we go on as we always have, or shall we change our way of living to conform to His will?
It might help us with our decision if we understood exactly what Christ was saying. Look at the command itself, the caution He added and the contradiction we face if we disobey.
It is short and simple, just three words—“Do not judge.” What does it mean? The word judge has the idea of distinguishing or choosing. A judge observes the evidence, evaluates it, then selects a certain conclusion. That can be quite positive. It might mean commendation, approval or exoneration. And even negative judgment is necessary at times. In this very passage, Jesus indicates that the person whose life is pure can help take the speck out of his brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5). That is a form of judgment which we will deal with in the next chapter—helping a fellow believer overcome his faults.
In the next verse (v. 6) Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Christ is using dogs and swine to describe profane people who treat spiritual matters with contempt. In order to obey that verse, we obviously have to make a judgment. We must decide who the dogs and swine are. Later Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). It is a command to judge fairly and on the basis of truth and fact rather than by outward appearances, but nevertheless to judge. Is Jesus contradicting Himself? Obviously not. What then did He mean?
Most Bible commentators are agreed that He is warning us about a fault-finding spirit, a negative attitude that causes us to pick at others for the things we do not like in them, to accuse them, blame them and complain to them because they do not live up to our expectations. This preoccupation with faults expresses itself in a twofold way: First, we are inclined to emphasize the faults of others rather than their strengths. Second, we are inclined to emphasize the faults of others rather than our own. The one word that sums it up is criticism. Why did Jesus tell us not to emphasize the faults of others? Is He assuming that most of us have a tendency to do it?
Jesus Christ is the omniscient God in human flesh. He knows our hearts, and evidently He knows that we all need this reminder to some degree. It is one of the most common sins among Christians, our favorite indoor (and maybe outdoor) sport. I remember reading a story about an Ozark hound sitting in a country store howling, as hounds often do. A stranger walked in and said to the storekeeper, “What’s the matter with the dog?” “He’s sitting on a cocklebur,” came the reply. “Why doesn’t he get off?” “Because he’d rather holler.” I am afraid there are Christians like that. They find great satisfaction in hollering at others about the things they do not like. Why do we do that?
The most common reason is probably selfishness. What other people do sometimes inconveniences us, costs us time and money, runs counter to our preferences or disagrees with our time-honored way of doing things. We want things to be smooth, pleasant and agreeable for us, so we find fault with people who make them otherwise. For example, I may have plans for the evening, but when I get home from work my wife does not have dinner ready. I criticize her for poorly organizing her time because that late dinner takes time away from what I want to do. We may criticize a roommate for leaving the bathroom a mess, because we think we have to clean it up. We may criticize a pastor because he does not organize his sermons as we would like, and we have to work harder to follow him.
Another reason for criticism could be our own inferiority, which surfaces in the form of pride. Attacking someone else is flattering to ourselves; it gives us a feeling of superiority. If we can show others where they fail to measure up, it makes us feel as if we are a little smarter or better than they are in that area. When we criticize our spouses, we are saying basically, “I’m not as bad as you seem to think. In fact, I may be better than you.”
In an excellent study on the meaning of love, Dr. Ed Wheat wrote, “Remember, you can never enhance or rekindle the emotions of love by heaping a sense of failure on your partner. I cannot overemphasize this. Never in the slightest way put a feeling of guilt upon your mate.”1 And again, “… overlook mistakes and never criticize.”2 That’s good advice. It is exactly what Jesus said—“Don’t judge.”
Have you ever wondered why criticism is such a foolish habit? For one thing, our knowledge of others is only partial. We do not know all the facts. We may not know why they said or did what we are criticizing. We do not know the kind of pressures they are facing, the influences that molded them into the people they are, the force of the temptation that was placed in their path, the motives that prompted their actions. Only God knows all the facts and can come to an accurate evaluation, so He is the only one who has the right to criticize. When we do it, we play God.
For another thing, our judgment is fallible. Even if we knew all the facts, we might not interpret them correctly. We are human beings who carry around our own peculiar bundle of biases through which we view the facts. Members of the same jury, for instance, can hear the same facts in a court of law, yet they come to totally opposite conclusions. Only God can interpret all facts accurately. So He is the only one who has the right to criticize. When we do it, we play God.
A third reason criticism is foolish is that we are not responsible for the actions of other people. We are not their masters. Paul wrote, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4). We are only responsible for our own actions. “So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another any more” (Romans 14:12,13). When we do it we play God.
A fourth reason criticism is so foolish is that it tears down rather than builds up. When aimed at us, it seldom makes us want to change for the better, but rather, it has the opposite effect. It causes us to defend ourselves, to justify our actions, to try to prove that we are not as bad as we are accused of being. That sabotages our spiritual growth. Criticism also leads to discouragement and self-pity. We feel sorry for ourselves because we think we will never be able to please our critic and because we have to suffer this unjust accusation from him. We seldom grow while we are sulking. Criticism also tears down relationships. It alienates people and builds walls between them. I find criticism unpleasant, so my tendency is to avoid the people who level it. Some husbands and wives avoid each other for that very reason and their marriages are disintegrating as a result. They have developed the habit of criticizing the way each other looks or talks, and the things each other does or does not do. As a result, the husband may stay late at work, then flee to the yard or workshop for refuge when he returns home. The wife spends more and more time with friends and neighbors or finds other outside interests to occupy her attention. They both long for closeness and intimacy, yet their critical spirits are driving a wedge between them.
I can think of at least one more reason we need to avoid criticism. It saps energy that could be used for the glory of God. We all know that we should trust God when we are criticized, but we are also very human. We spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and worrying about the unkind things people say to us, and it drains us emotionally. It may even keep us from sleeping at night and then adversely affect our performance the next day. As we well know, criticism is often directed at Christian leaders—pastors, elders, deacons in the church. As mature as they should be, it still causes them pain and produces stress that hinders their ability to minister effectively. They need to learn how to accept criticism, but that does not eliminate the responsibility of Christians who offer it. They will answer to God for the damage they do to God’s work.
Negative criticism is a poison that kills the enthusiasm of Christian leaders and hinders the progress of God’s work. It is a contagious disease that spreads among God’s people, and can turn a loving community of believers into a battleground. It is a sledgehammer that breaks marriages, homes and lives into little pieces. That is why Jesus said, “Don’t judge.” Stop dwelling on the flaws in others, real or perceived.
Notice what Jesus adds to this exhortation not to judge—“lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1). He goes on to explain that warning in the next verse, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” This is what we might call the boomerang principle. We get back what we dish out to others. If we lash out at them with negative criticism, accuse them, scold them, and judge their motives, we are not going to enjoy the results very much. For one thing, they will judge us as being critical and begin to back away from us, the very opposite of what we desire.
Let me illustrate what I mean. Greek mythology tells of a god named Momus who was the god of ridicule. No matter how much the other gods on Mt. Olympus praised someone, Momus criticized him. Once Jupiter, Minerva and Neptune had a contest to see who could make the most perfect thing. As the story goes, Jupiter made a man, Neptune a bull and Minerva a house. Momus found fault with the man because he had no window in his breast through which the thoughts of his soul might be read. He criticized the bull because its horns were not below its eyes so it could see what it butted, and the house because it was not on wheels so it could be removed from bad neighbors. Momus became so unpopular with the other gods that they finally banished him from the mount.
Some of us wonder why people are avoiding us and why our circle of friends is diminishing. Could it be that we have been pushing them away by calling attention to their faults with some regularity? They may now be reflecting the same critical attitude back to us, criticizing us for being critical, pushing us away. “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
When we criticize someone, we are usually insisting on a high standard for him. He is going to use the same standard to judge us that we use to judge him. And God may do the same. The measuring rod we use for others may become God’s measuring rod for us. Do you know why that is? Because we usually do the same things we accuse others of doing.
The Apostle Paul suggested that principle: “Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things” (Romans 2:1). He was pointing out to the Jews that they were judging Gentiles for the very same things of which they themselves were guilty, but his statement is a penetrating insight into human nature. The things we criticize most in others are usually the very things of which we ourselves are guilty. We don’t like those things in ourselves, but we have a tendency to overlook them. Seeing them in others reminds us of them, but instead of dealing with them in our own lives, we focus attention on the same faults in others. As long as we are occupied with them, we can avoid changing ourselves. And if we can keep the attention on them, they will not be putting pressure on us to change.
But it doesn’t work. The boomerang principle brings it right back to us. When we wax eloquent about their shortcomings, others can say to us, “Oh, so that’s your problem?” Maybe you have heard someone say, “You’re nothing but a malicious gossip.” In all probability he was someone who consistently put others in a poor light. The people who are the hardest on others usually have the most to hide themselves. For example, the employer who is most severe with the employee who turns out to be a petty thief, is probably one who is hiding some major fraud in his own business dealings. The church leader who is most judgmental and punitive with a believer taken in sin may be hiding some sin of his own.
But it will not remain hidden indefinitely. If we do not deal with it, God will have to. “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1,2).
Christ adds one more thought to this commentary on criticism, and that is the utter contradiction of imperfect people pointing out the imperfections in others. Christ emphasized the absurdity of it when He said, “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3,4). The word speck is from the verb that means “to dry up.” It refers to any tiny bit of dry material that might blow into the eye, such as a speck of dust, chaff, straw, sawdust or wool. It could be almost any tiny bit of substance. A beam is exactly that, a heavy plank of wood that would be used as a joist in a building. There is a great lesson for us in these bits and beams.
Can you picture a fellow with a beam sticking out of his eye—a log, a tree trunk, a railroad tie or a timber? And he is trying to help another fellow get a speck of dust out of his. It is a ridiculous scene. And that is just what the Lord wanted it to be. The poor fellow with a speck in his eye would end up with no eye, and with lumps on his head, and missing teeth, and maybe a great deal more. The point is that we usually have in our own lives much larger editions of the same faults we criticize in others, and people get hurt badly when we try to straighten them out before we straighten ourselves out.
A person who becomes provoked about the faults of others when he has bigger faults of his own is called a hypocrite. “You hypocrite,” Jesus said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly enough to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). A hypocrite is the woman who says, “If my husband would take his responsibilities more seriously, our marriage could improve,” when she is not fulfilling her own responsibilities very faithfully. Or the man who says, “We could be happier if my wife would learn the value of a dollar,” when he just spent a bundle on a new shotgun, or a new set of golf clubs. A hypocrite is the person who says, “That church isn’t interested in soul winning,” when it has been years since he has led anyone to Christ. Or, “That church doesn’t care about people,” when it is nearly impossible to get him to help anybody in need. A hypocrite is the pastor who wrote to a mission board complaining about a missionary who took time to listen to a football game on short-wave radio, when he himself was one of the biggest sports fans in his church.
Maybe God would have us look at our own lives and engage in some honest self-criticism. Whenever you are tempted to pick at a fault in someone else, ask God instead to show you one of your own. Then ask Him to help you grow in that area. Pray as David prayed, “Search me O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23,24, KJV). That prayer will keep us from being critical of others. And it will bring healing to our lives and to our relationships.