Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nobody ever criticized us, never picked at our faults, pointed out our weaknesses, or reminded us of our mistakes? Most of us would be delighted to live our lives without negative criticism. But we won’t! We’re not perfect, and somewhere along the way, somebody is going to point that out to us. I know God says they are not supposed to judge us, but they may not particularly care what God says. They are going to do it anyway. Then again, there may be areas where we need to be admonished. The question is, how are we going to respond to it?
Moses was a man who took his share of criticism. He was just trying to do what God wanted him to do, yet people kept carping at him. I counted six separate occasions recorded in Scripture when the Israelites murmured or grumbled against him. That word murmur means “to express resentment, dissatisfaction, anger, and complaint by grumbling in half-muted tones of hostile opposition …”4 In other words, it means to criticize. I do not know anybody in Scripture except Jesus Christ who felt the sharp edge of cutting criticism more keenly than Moses. He was not perfect in the way he handled it, but he surely did better than most of us would do, and we can learn some lessons from his example.
What we need is a plan, a procedure carefully thought out beforehand which we can call to mind readily and put into action quickly when the critic strikes. Maybe the word PLAN itself can be the key to remembering four helpful principles illustrated from the life of Moses:
L—Listen and learn
N—Note the critic’s needs
What is your first reaction when it becomes obvious that the person talking to you is actually finding fault? If you are a normal human being, your reaction is the same as mine—you defend yourself. It is just as natural as closing your eye when someone accidentally pokes his finger in it, or pulling away when someone is talking rather animatedly with a knife in his hand which gets dangerously close to you. Criticism hurts; it cuts our spirits and we automatically recoil from it.
Moses did not like it any more than we do, but somehow he learned to react differently. Instead of defending himself, he developed the habit of turning to God immediately in prayer. It seems to have been an automatic response with him. We see it first at Marah. The children of Israel had crossed the Red Sea and had sung a jubilant song of redemption. Then we read, “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:23,24). I probably would have said, “Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t make the water bitter. At least you’re not getting beat up with Egyptian whips. Count your blessings.” Moses didn’t do that. Instead we read, “Then he cried out to the LORD …” (Exodus 15:25a). His mind was on the Lord, so his immediate response was prayer.
We see that same pattern repeated over and over in Moses’ life. On later occasions he actually fell on his face before God in an attitude of prayer (cf. Numbers 14:5; 16:4). He humbly committed himself to the Lord. He recognized that when he was endeavoring to do the will of God, and people criticized him for it, it was God’s problem, not his. So he turned to God for wisdom.
He even said it was God’s problem the next time he was criticized. The place was appropriately called the Wilderness of Sin. This time they scolded him because they had no food: “… For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). Ouch! That hurts. What a caustic and cutting thing to say, and they knew it was blatantly false when they said it. We probably would have told them how ridiculous their accusation was and how much we had done for them. But Moses just committed it to the Lord. “… For the LORD hears your grumblings which you grumble against Him. And what are we? Your grumblings are not against us but against the LORD” (Exodus 16:8b). He is saying basically, “We are nobody. Your complaint is not with us. It is with the Lord. He controls the circumstances.”
It would be good for us to commit the situation to the Lord and go directly to Him in prayer when a barrage of criticism is unleashed against us, just as Moses did. We can believe that He is in control of what is happening, even the indignity that we may be suffering at that moment, and we can commit it to Him in prayer. We can ask Him to help us listen patiently, to be aware of what He wants us to learn, to control our anger, to respond positively and to be sensitive to the needs of the critic. We can even pray that God will bless the critic. Jesus told us to do that. “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Moses actually did that! It was at Kadesh Barnea after the ten spies brought back a discouraging report that the criticism started again. “And all the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14:2). They even threatened to fire Moses, choose a new captain and return to Egypt. This time God became exasperated with them. He wanted to exterminate the whole bunch of them and make of Moses a greater and mightier nation. But Moses prayed, “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, just as Thou also hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now” (Numbers 14:19). And God pardoned. What an example for us!
There was another instance of Moses praying for his critics, and this time they were members of his own family. Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses for taking a Cushite wife and for assuming too much authority on himself. God struck Miriam with leprosy for her unsubmissive spirit. A lesser man may have said something like, “It serves you right. Now we all know who’s in charge here.” But not Moses. He turned to the Lord and prayed for her healing (Numbers 12). That kind of attitude can bring harmony and strength to our relationships, even with critical people.
We need to learn to keep our minds on the Lord. Then they will be there, fixed on Him, when critics start using the cutting edge on us. Our first reaction will be to talk to Him rather then to defend ourselves. And that in itself may defuse a potentially explosive situation. The first thing we need to do, and the most important of all, is pray!
It isn’t easy to listen when somebody is cutting us to shreds with words, or even when they are giving us a mild and much-needed rebuke. Before their first few sentences are out, most of us are thinking how wrong they are about us, and what good reasons we had for doing what we are being criticized for doing. We are formulating our reply already before they are finished saying what they want to say, and we even may interrupt them to justify ourselves, which, by the way, is not a very good idea. Solomon said, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13).
The critic probably has thought about the problem for some time. He knew it would be unpleasant to tell us about it, but he cares enough about us to endure the unpleasantness in order to help us. He knows he may arouse our hostility, but he cares enough about us to take that chance. That is really a compliment. Even if he is guilty of an emotional outburst, he probably has mulled it over in his mind for awhile before he popped his cork. So listen and learn! As Solomon reminded us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).
Moses listened and learned. When his father-in-law criticized the way he was judging the people and suggested an alternative, we read, “So Moses listened to his father-in-law, and did all that he had said” (Exodus 18:24). We can do the same. Let the critic finish. Interruptions may keep us from ever hearing what is on his heart. Take notes on what he says. When he seems to be finished, be sure he has said everything he wants to say before you answer. You could say, “Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?” Or, “I wasn’t aware of that. Would you tell me why you feel that way?” Communicate genuinely and sincerely that you are interested in hearing what he has to say.
It is important to realize that this experience is not by accident, unpleasant though it may be. Even if the criticism is totally unjustified, God is still in control of our circumstances. He knew this would occur, and He could have stopped it if He had so chosen. But He allowed it, and He promises to bring some good purpose to pass through it (cf. Romans 8:28). So view it as a learning opportunity. It may be God’s way of getting our attention and showing us something about ourselves we have not been willing to acknowledge—some offensive attitude or habit that may be causing somebody to stumble.
Others see things in us we cannot see ourselves. Our own family members are particularly expert at seeing our faults. And as difficult as it may be to hear it from them, listen and learn. Compliments make us happy, but criticism can help us grow. Unfortunately, some of us would rather be destroyed by flattery than strengthened by criticism. But if people as great and godly as Moses could learn and grow through criticism, we surely can too.
Up until now we have been talking about what takes place in our own souls, our inner thoughts and attitudes—prayer, a willingness to listen and a desire to learn. But now it is time to respond, and God would have us answer positively. That means, first of all, that we will answer calmly and quietly. As a famous Proverb puts its, “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If the critic is angry and hostile, a gentle spirit can be used of God to calm him down and make the whole discussion more profitable. An angry, indignant reply is negative; it fuels the fire and makes any profitable communication impossible. A gentle response is positive.
We are reminded of Moses’ meek and gentle spirit in one of the most provocative attacks he suffered, that of his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. Immediately after their angry, self-centered accusations, and before we learn of God’s righteous discipline, the Holy Spirit saw fit to insert these insightful words: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). So follow Moses’ example. Maintain a gentle and humble spirit.
A second element in a positive response is to be sure you understand what the critic is saying. Much hard feeling has lingered among believers because people have assumed they understood what others were saying when they really did not. Sometimes words are poorly chosen, or in the heat of anger things are exaggerated or overstated. It might be good to say something like, “What I hear you saying is ________. Am I understanding you correctly?” Give him opportunity to clarify. Repeating it a second time helps him say it more calmly and with less animosity. People who handle complaints over the telephone are taught to politely ask the customer to repeat his complaint. Invariably it is clearer and calmer the second time around. Sincerely requesting clarification is a positive way to answer.
Now we understand what is bothering the critic about us, and we must do some honest, objective self-evaluation. The sovereign God of the universe has allowed some human being to express what he perceives to be a fault in us. We cannot take that lightly. A third factor in a positive reply is to find the truth in what he says and immediately agree with everything we can possibly agree with. Jesus said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly” (Matthew 5:25, KJV). Agreeing with the critic will tend to blunt the sharpness of his spirit.
Most of us are reluctant to admit our failures. We consider what we do and say as so closely tied to what we are that to admit we were wrong is to give up some of our self-esteem. We believe people will think less of us. We want to sweep it under the table and forget about it. It is painful to admit it. But the consequences of admitting it are so refreshing, we cannot afford not to. Nothing can restore harmony and healing to strained relationships as effectively as admitting we were wrong and correcting it. If there is just a grain of truth in it, admit it. The critic says, “You did a terrible job!” You can reply, “I know I could have done it better.” The critic says, “You think of nobody but yourself.” You can reply, “I admit that I have a tendency to be self-centered.” Those are positive answers that defuse the explosiveness of their attacks.
Sometimes we honestly cannot see that the criticism is valid right there on the spot. Rather than defend ourselves, it might be better to say, “I appreciate you calling that to my attention. I’ll need some time to think about it.” Then do just that. Give it serious thought. Ask God to show you the elements of truth in it. Then go back and acknowledge them to the person who leveled the criticism. Seldom will any of us be so perfect that we cannot find any truth at all in the criticism people level against us. It’s there! Find it, and admit it.
A fourth positive response would be to ask for the critic’s help in finding a solution to the problem or a way of correcting the weakness. Ask, “What do you think I should do?” That can melt away the barriers and bring us together, instead of pitting us against one another as arguing or defending ourselves will do. Discovering a mutually agreeable course of action becomes the common goal that helps us overcome our differences.
There may be times when a criticism is absolutely invalid. It is based on hearsay, secondhand opinion, false assumptions or imagined slights. We have taken the time to think about it, to apply the Word of God to our lives, and to ask God to show us the elements of truth in it. But we still consider it to be false. We now have two choices. We can go back and say something like, “You’re wrong, and let me tell you something, buddy. You’re not so great yourself.” But counter-accusations will only escalate the hostility. It would be much more positive and helpful to explain lovingly, graciously, kindly and without resentment or vindictiveness that we have examined our hearts before God and cannot honestly admit to their evaluation. We might add, “I’m sorry you feel as you do, but I hope it won’t affect our relationship.” Then we can pray that God will help them to see the truth and bring us together.
Sometimes the people who criticize us have far deeper problems than what they are accusing us of having. Their hostility may actually be a smokescreen to hide their own faults, or a muted cry for help. It may stem from their own insecurity, or the fact that they do not like themselves very much. By God’s grace, we can see past the cutting criticism to the people themselves. It does not do them one bit of good for us to prove that we are right and they are wrong. What accomplishes the greatest good is showing them forgiveness, patience, understanding and acceptance. God wants us to reach out in love to minister to their needs.
There is a beautiful example of that in Moses’ experience. When Korah and over 250 other high-ranking princes in Israel criticized Moses for usurping too much authority, God took their lives in an awesome display of divine discipline (Numbers 16:1-40). That was when the rest of the nation started criticizing him again. “But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’s people.’” (Numbers 16:41). God has just about had it with them. “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly’” (Numbers 16:44,45). I would think Moses might have said, “Go get ’em Lord.” That’s probably what I would have done. Instead, he instructed Aaron to hurry to the Tabernacle and offer a sacrifice of atonement for them, and the Scripture records that the plague was checked (Numbers 16:48). That is a man who looks past the criticism to the people and their needs, then reaches out in love to minister to those needs.
When someone criticizes us, it would be good to ask ourselves, “What is happening in his life to make him this critical? What hurts is he feeling? What needs are not being met? How can I show him that I care about him?” That is not easy to do when someone is cutting us to pieces with words. It takes grace. But isn’t that what God has promised? He is the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10). His grace is sufficient for all our needs (2 Corinthians 12:9). If we become channels of God’s grace, He can use us to make other lives vastly more effective in His service.
Satan can use criticism to discourage us and distract us from doing the will of God. If every time we try to do something, somebody shoots us out of the saddle, eventually we may be tempted to say, “That’s enough. I’ll just hang up my spurs.” Don’t do it. Reexamine your direction. If God has led you, then keep moving ahead. Don’t let petty criticism from little people dissuade you from your commitment.
I read the story of a small-town judge who was frequently ridiculed by an egotistical lawyer. When asked why he didn’t rebuke him, the judge said, “In our town there is a widow who has a dog. Whenever the moon shines, the dog goes outside and barks all night.” Then he began talking about something else. Someone said, “But, Judge, what about the dog and the moon?” “Oh,” he replied, “the moon just keeps right on shining.”
If we are wrong, we have no business defending ourselves. God wants us to be open to correction. But if we are right, we have no need to defend ourselves. We can just keep on shining, keep on doing the will of God with greater dependence on Him. The cutting edge of criticism will not hurt us when we let it drive us to Him in greater trust. Instead, it will keep us serving Him with renewed enthusiasm, renewed determination and renewed power from on high. Will you memorize the PLAN we have discussed? Then be alert to the criticism directed toward you and apply the principles you have learned?