Criticism can help us grow, but it can also be painful. Even the best leaders sometimes find that criticism hurts.
Though we count him as a great leader, George Washington knew the sting of criticism from a trusted friend. In November 1776, Washington’s army was battered from a disastrous New York campaign. Washington had struggled with indecision over whether or not to evacuate Fort Washington, finally leaving the decision in the hands of General Nathanael Green, the fort commander. Green stayed, and the British captured the fort.
In the aftermath, Washington sent a dispatch to General Lee in New York, ordering him to cross the Hudson and join forces with the army in New Jersey. Unbeknownst to him, Washington’s aide and close friend, Joseph Reed, enclosed a letter to General Lee lamenting Washington’s “indecisive mind.” When the reply from General Lee came, Washington opened it believing it was the response he was waiting for. But Lee’s letter was intended for Joseph Reed. It was an indictment of Washington, condemning him for “that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage” (McCullough, 1776, 254).
Washington simply closed up the letter and sent it on to Reed with a brief explanation of how he had mistakenly opened it. He would later write to Reed that he was hurt not because of what Reed had said but because he had not directly communicated his concerns to Washington. Struggling to hold the army together, the incident must have made Washington feel even more alone.
On this side of history, it’s hard to believe that anyone could have questioned George Washington’s leadership. But as ministry leaders, we will inevitably face criticism. Sometimes that criticism will be painful. How should we respond when criticism hurts?
Be honest about our emotions.
When criticism hurts, sometimes our first response is to avoid the pain. We may do this by attacking or marginalizing the critic, ignoring our feelings, or trying to argue away the criticism. But to process our feelings, we need to honestly identify what we are feeling and why we are feeling it.
- Sometimes criticism hurts because it is unwarranted or unfair.
- Sometimes it hurts because it reinforces our own doubts, fears, and self-accusation.
- Sometimes it hurts because of the way it was delivered.
- Sometimes criticism hurts because of the broken relationship with the person voicing the criticism.
Identifying what we are feeling and why we feel that way can help us work through the process of forgiveness and cope with our emotions. Ultimately, we want to consider the content of the criticism without our emotions getting in our way.
Evaluate the content of the criticism.
When Jethro told Moses that he was wearing himself out judging the people, it might have been easy for Moses to get offended by his father-in-law telling him how to lead the fledgling nation. But Moses was humble enough to hear Jethro out, recognize he had his best interests at heart, and put his advice into practice.
Not all criticism is valuable and meant for our good. Criticism that is anonymous, vague, mean spirited, or couched in “other people are saying” language often says more about the critic than it does us. We can often reject this kind of criticism. But even when people deliver it the wrong way, there may still be a grain of truth in what they say. We don’t want to get into a habit of reflexively rejecting all criticism without evaluating it. Even painful criticism may still have content we need to hear.
Lay it before the Lord.
In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib, King of Assyria, attacked Judah. The commander of Assyria’s army sent a message to Hezekiah promising that Judah would be destroyed like the other nations in Assyria’s path. He reminded Hezekiah that the gods of all the conquered nations had been too weak to save them. Why would Judah be any different? Hezekiah laid the message before the Lord–literally:
Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord.And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: “Lord, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, Lord, and hear; open your eyes, Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God. (2 Kings 19:14-16).
Hezekiah laid the letter before the altar and prayed. God sent the prophet Isaiah with a message: God had heard his prayer and promised that the Assyrian king would not enter Jerusalem. God kept his word. That very night, the angel of the Lord put to death one hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. Sennacherib broke camp, returned to Assyria, and stayed there.
Like Hezekiah, we need to lay painful criticism out before the Lord in prayer. God may tell us to dismiss it. He may force us to confront its truth, or he may use it in some other way for his glory. But prayer helps us get God’s perspective on what’s been said. Seeing painful criticism from heaven’s point of view can help us process and heal.
Criticism can hurt. But we don’t have to let it derail us. When criticism hurts, process your emotions, consider the content, and lay it before the Lord. As we do so, God will help us sort out what is garbage and what is gold.
Q: How do you deal with painful criticism?
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