It's a common misconception that negative criticism is bad or morally wrong. When handled well by both giver and receiver, criticism can be extremely beneficial.
Negative criticism occurs when you disagree with something that has happened or been spoken. Your view may be entirely right but what matters most is that your observations are shared in the right way.
We need to distinguish between ungracious criticism, which is always destructive, and gracious criticism where the intention is always to build. Ungracious criticism destroys relationships and has the potential to destroy a church community. Gracious criticism will always build confidence in relationships.
Ungracious criticism is often accompanied by anger and rudeness. It is angular and awkward. It is often spoken hastily and sharply and frequently offered in the heat of the moment. It will not have been the result of prayer, for God would never inspire anything which contradicts his gracious nature.
It is reassuring that the New Testament has lots to say about these things. Jesus assumes that his followers will have problems in their relationships with one another and in Matthew 18:15-20 he sets out clear guidelines for how to settle disputes. He urges his followers to act as quickly as possible, as privately as possible and always with a view to restoration. Jesus is fiercely realistic and recognises that, sadly, such restoration is not always possible. St Paul clearly had to handle endless wrangles in local churches and he offers lots of practical advice about how to handle disagreements – gentleness is crucial (Galatians 6:1) and there always needs to be a sensitivity to other brothers and sisters knowing that they all have different experiences and outlooks (Romans 14 and 15).
So what should you do if you feel the need to make a critical observation to another person? Here are the main elements in the journey that you need to consider.
Ask God whether your thoughts are right or wrong. It may be that your thoughts on a particular subject are wide of the mark and you need him to gently point this out to you.
2. Think about the person receiving your criticism
Not everyone is equally able to take criticism, and no one is always in a position to receive it. Timing is crucial. Gracious criticism requires very careful reflection.
3. Decide how to share your point of view
Ensure always that it is set within a context of encouragement. Some have suggested that when offering a criticism, 80% of what is said should be encouragement. Ungracious criticism doesn’t bother with any of this. The critic shoots their mouth and delivers what they want to say with no thought of the way in which it is delivered. No wonder it is so destructive.
4. Choose the time and place
Even gracious criticism can be hard, at least at first, to receive and so it is vital that every aspect is thought through carefully.
5. Follow up
Once you have shared your gracious criticism, your duty of love and prayer continues. It may be appropriate to find a subsequent opportunity to meet together to ensure that what you shared was properly understood. It is very easy for criticism to be misheard. Often one phrase will be remembered and everything else forgotten – and that phrase may or may not reflect accurately what you were seeking to share overall.
6. Don't use technology
In the age of high speed electronic communication it is important that criticism should never, ever be shared by email or on social media platforms. The reason for this is that such communication is so one dimensional. When sharing criticism body language is extremely important. An email is unavoidably cold and experience has shown that almost always criticisms offered in this way are completely destructive. The ability to copy in other people merely spreads the disease. Don’t ever contemplate offering any negative criticism by email or social media.
Turning the tables
Sharing gracious criticism is not a simple or speedy matter! But if you cannot share your criticism graciously then it is vital that you keep quiet. Blurting out ungracious criticism only has the capacity to demoralise, discourage and destroy.
Let’s turn the tables for a moment. What should you do if someone ungraciously criticises you?
Firstly, you need prayerful support. Ungracious criticism is a weapon of the Devil and so it has the power to be incredibly destructive. You need to supported by those who will stand with you and help you to cope with the experience without allowing it to cause you discouragement or any other destructive reaction. It is vital that your response is entirely gracious or else you have descended to the same level as your critic.
Secondly, you need to ensure that the critic gets the help that they need. Ungracious criticism often slips out quickly and immature Christians can find themselves doing it without being aware that they have done it. This needs to be addressed or they may continue to think that this is an acceptable way of acting. It may well be that you are not personally in a position to help your critic. If this is so then you need to find others who can enable this to happen – probably your church leaders.
The stakes are high
It can hardly be stated how significant this issue is. The stakes are so high that it deserves the most careful attention by every church member.
Graciousness is vital and without it the life of the church is threatened, and its future looks bleak.
God has called us to a life in which we reflect his love and that needs to inspire and shape all our thinking. As we live in his love we will reflect his grace and kindness to the people around us.
A careful reading of 1 Corinthians 13 will reveal that love is not only the life to which God has called us but is also an incredibly demanding life. However, as we walk in God’s way of love we can be sure of his blessing and surely that’s what we all want.