By Pastor Glenn Pease
Some years back at the University of Wisconsin a group of literary students formed a club. The purpose of the club was to criticize. The members would submit a story, and it would be dissected mercilessly with no punches pulled. The sessions were so brutal that the club members dubbed themselves, "The Stranglers." This was a masculine club only, so the girls on campus formed "The Wranglers." They read manuscripts also, but the criticism was much gentler, and more constructive. Every effort, however feeble, was encouraged. 20 years later an alumnus made an analysis of his classmates careers. He discovered that not one of the Stranglers had made a literary career of any kind, but out of the Wranglers had come half a dozen successful writers. The Stranglers had fulfilled their name well. They took developing talent and by excessive criticism they strangled it. The Wranglers by use of constructive criticism lifted struggling talent to its feet so it could climb to success.
There are few things more destructive and harmful then criticism. The only sin Jesus ever said was unforgivable is directly connected with criticism, for blasphemy of the Holy Spirit means to speak against the spirit with scornful and malignant criticism. There is a legitimate place for expressing critical feelings. It is just that it is a delicate matter. It is almost as delicate as trying to catch soap bubbles on a pin. Dr. Curtis Hutson says we must make distinctions in criticism.
1. Destructive criticism. Jesus forbids this when He says, "Judge not." It is a desire to damage and destroy.
2. Deluded criticism. The brother with the log hanging out of his eye trying to help another get the speck out of his eye. This is folly.
3. Discriminating criticism. Jesus says, "Give not that which is holy to dogs, and don't cast your pearls before swine." You have to be critical and make judgments to avoid being stupid.
Jesus was critical of the Pharisees.
Paul was critical of the Judaisers.
Christians are critical of the cults.
Americans are critical of communists.
Criticism is what keeps us on the right path. It is essential in our form of government that wrong actions be criticized. The world is full of valid criticism. Wise and mature Christians need to develop a critical spirit by which they test all things, and hold to that which is true. But we are looking at that negative critical spirit which makes us agents of evil and quenchers of the spirit. By a spirit of pride we easily think we are experts in all areas, and can make critical judgments of the works of others. The poet illustrates the point.
"That owl up there,
Said the man in the chair,
Is stuffed all wrong, I do declare.
See the feet-wrong size!
Wrong feathers, wrong eyes."
And the barber kept on shaving,
And, then when the man in the chair got through,
The owl hopped off its perch and it flew,
And the barber kept on shaving.
CRITICISM IS INEVITABLE.
The life of Jesus makes it clear that even perfection cannot escape the poisonous tongue of the critic. One author wrote, "Be thou chaste as the lily, be thou as pure as the unsullied snow, thou canst not escape criticism!" If the very Son of God, with perfect love and wisdom, doing only the will of God, which is always the best for man, and fully fulfilling the highest ideals of man, could be called a devil, then let us not hope to do better, and get through life without criticism. We have so much to be justly criticized for, but Jesus did only good, and yet He was accused of being a agent of Satan. Because of ignorance, even his own family thought he was losing his mind, and they wanted to stop his ministry.
The criticism here is so vile and vulgar that it is unbelievable that the tongue of man could pronounce such blasphemy. The Pharisees said Jesus had power to cast out demons because He was possessed by the prince of demons. Beelzebub was the fly-god of the Philistines, also known as the dung-god, for flys and the dung heap would be naturally connected. This low and foul criticism was directed, not at the blood thirsty Romans who delighted in seeing Gladiators kill one another; not at the pious frauds who prayed on the street corner, but secretly devoured widows houses by unjust maneuvers, but, rather, at the perfect and sinless Son of God. His life was pure and undefiled that the shedding of His blood washed away our sin, and made it possible for us to become white as snow.
What a lesson this teaches us about life. It shows us that any person who wants to succeed as a servant of God is going to have to learn how to cope with criticism. If criticism is a weapon that will stop you, then you can plan on not getting very far. John Henry Newman said, "Nothing would be done at all if a man waited till he could do it so well that no one could find fault with it." Those who do anything will be criticized. As soon as any person lifts his head above the level of mediocrity he will be shot at. Any person who insists on making his life useful will be open game for the critics.
When Sir John Simon held the unpopular post of Chancellor of the Exchequer in England, his wife embroidered this on the living room wall to keep him ever conscious of the price one must pay to escape criticism: "To escape criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing." This is bound to work, for no one kicks a dead dog. Be like a dead dog and you will have tranquility, but as soon as you come alive you will be criticized. Addison said, "There is no defense against criticism except obscurity." This does work marvelously, for we see it working even for Jesus. He really had it nice as an unknown carpenter. Had He continued in this obscure role He could have lived a tranquil life and died possibly without an enemy. All of His troubles began when He threw off the cover of obscurity, and launched out into public life.
Jesus dignified the common peaceful life, but He had more to do than cut another common rut. He had a job to do which called for plowing right across the ruts of society, and forcing men to stop and ask themselves where they are going, and if they are on the right road. Jesus began to teach with authority; to heal with great power, and to influence public opinion about life, God, and salvation. Jesus began to rock the boat, and those of the establishment who defended the status quo, and were satisfied with the old ruts, saw that it was either Him or them that had to go. There is always a crisis when the new challenges the old, for it is a duel unto death.
In the beginning the weapons of combat are words. If one can win by verbal attacks and drive the opposition into obscurity by undermining public confidence, then there will be no need for physical violence. This is exactly the strategy of the Pharisees in our text. If they can get the people to believe Jesus is so powerful because He is an agent of Satan, they will have saved their positions as the righteous leaders of Israel. They lost, however, on the level of words, and had to resort to nails to silence Jesus.
We know Jesus never could have allowed their bitter and malicious criticism to cause Him to forsake His mission. The salvation of the world depended on His fulfilling God's will regardless of the cost. We can not doubt, however, that it was a heavy burden for Christ to bear. Driving nails into His hands could not have wounded Him more than these vicious verbal darts thrown at Him, saying that His loving service was really only a trick of the devil. This had to hurt Jesus deeply, for it took people away from following Him. The ministry of Jesus was hurt by criticism. In His own town of Nazareth He could do no mighty works because of the critics who said that He could not be the Messiah, for He was only the Son of a carpenter. In the wrong hands criticism can even hinder the work of Christ.
History is filled with victims of the critics. Most great men of music and art have become so, not because of lack of critics, but in spite of them. Most good politicians serve their country well, not because they are allowed to go uncriticized, but in spite of their critics. Some have died of broken hearts, and others have bled with deep wounds. Thomas Jefferson, for example, said, "I find the pain of a little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise." In spite of His sensitivity to criticism, however, He took much slander and survived. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were both slandered maliciously, and called everything from murderers to ape, yet they refused to be strangled into defeat. Lincoln said,
"If I were to try to read, much less answer all the attacks
made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other
business. I do the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing
so until the end. If the end brings me out alright, what is said
against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out
wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
Lincoln was too busy doing his best to be defeated by criticism. No one with a worthy goal can afford to forsake that goal because of critics. If politicians must face the sharp knife of criticism, and not draw back, but steadfastly march ahead, how much more should the Christian be willing to suffer the same for the name of Christ. Let the critics tongue lash and cut, it can never be as bad as what Jesus had to suffer for us. He gave up tranquility for hell that we might escape hell and gain eternal tranquility. God forbid that we should now be silent concerning our love for Him because we fear criticism. We need to have the attitude of Epictetus who said, "If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say he obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned."
Another challenge for us in this study of criticism is to examine ourselves lest we slip in among the stranglers unaware. We must constantly examine our motives for criticism. Do we criticize because we hope to help the one we feel should be doing better, or is our criticism a mere running off at the mouth because we get pleasure in making life harder for those who are doing something in an area of life where we are doing nothing? The poet said,
When you hark to the voice of the knocker,
As you list to his hammer fall,
Remember the fact that the knocking act
Requires no brains at all.
The dove flies over the landscape and sees all that is lovely and peaceful, but the buzzard and vulture flies over the same area and spots a loathsome carcass. The dead carcass is just as real as the flower, but the Christian is to be dove like and look for the good and not the evil. It is a matter of focus. We are to be aware of the evil and the defects all about us, but still focus on what is good and virtuous, and make that our emphasis. A focus on the negative tends to make one negative. We do need to be aware of our own defects, however, so we do not become judgmental of others. Some humorous poet wrote,
Said the elephant to the giraffe
"Your neck is too long by one half."
He replied, "Since your nose
Reaches down to your toes,
At others you'd better not laugh.
Keith Miller in his book Habitations of Dragons tells of his critical spirit toward other Christian speakers, especially if they spoke to the same groups he did. He realized that he was threatened by those who had gifts that he did not have. He looked for weaknesses in others to assure himself that they were not better than him. So much criticism comes from our own insecurity. We want everyone to like us, and we feel if people like someone else they will not like us, and so we want to criticize others to keep ourselves on top and well liked. We forget that people can like many other people and not like us less because of it. We fear to lose the affection of others and so we criticize those who we feel are competitors for affection. This actually produces the very thing we fear, for nobody likes a criticizer. We need to see what we are doing and confess it to get rid of it.
It doesn't take much size to criticize. Christian criticism ought always to be constructive, for this takes brains, and we are commanded to love God with all our mind. What we haven't said could fill volumes, but what we have said can fill your life with Christlike determination and concern. We have said that criticism is inevitable if you do anything worthwhile, so never let it stop you, and as you move ahead make sure you are not holding others back by abusive criticism. God grant us the heart to take the cruelty of criticism, and the head to avoid handing it out.