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Are you one of those people who‘s completely impervious to how others regard you? Tell me how you manage it – please!

The evening after I posted thoughts about handling criticism last week, I ran into one of my favorite authors at an event at Wheaton College.  Karen Mains’ book With My Whole Heart: Disciplines for Strengthening the Inner Life arrived in my life 15 years ago when I could not have needed it more. As I chatted with Karen following the lecture, I remembered an analogy she called “the prison on our backs:”

“One of the greatest bondages,” wrote Karen, “has to be our bondage to human approval. This bondage is so subtle that we often don’t know we’ve allowed opinion to become our jailer or praise to become the tag on the key that has locked us in this cell.”

Even if we recognize that we need to become free from the need for human approval, many of us still grapple with what I’ve always called the “tough skin vs. tender heart” dilemma. How can we care for people while keeping opinion in proper perspective?

Well over 20 years ago, a letter was waiting for Mike and me after we returned from a much-needed  vacation that had the effect of what Mike privately called at the time an ”emotional  Scud missile.”  The writer was an older gentleman whom we loved and respected, but whose criticism arrived in a blistering attack without warning.  An event this particular individual had been invested in had a low turnout, and he decided it was due to inadequate administration on our part. I was stunned when he predicted: “Neither of you will ever amount to anything in ministry, and neither will your church.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” Mike commented after reading the letter incredulously. “He can say whatever he wants to about me, but no one insults this church!”

I talked the matter through with a long-distance friend who knew of my easily-wounded nature.

“I’ve prayed for a tough skin,” I cried over the phone to Meagan, who was also married to a pastor, “but I just don’t have what it takes.”

After a pause came her reply. “Don’t you realize,” Meagan mused, “that tough skin is often composed of scar tissue?”

The apostle Paul knew something about scar tissue. He experienced a lot of criticism in his life and ministry, yet was able to say “It is a very small thing that I am judged by you” (1 Cor. 4:3).

A Kiwanis Club newsletter once carried the following comment: “All of us could take a lesson from the weather. It pays no attention to criticism.”

But is simply ignoring verbal adversity an option for Christians? Familiar passages of scripture attest to the fact that criticism can work constructively in our lives by identifying hidden weakness or pruning us to produce growth.

Proverbs 15:32-21 puts it succinctly: “If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise.If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.” (NLT)

Throughout the decade of the 80’s, I taught communication courses at a small university in the Northeast. After class one day a somewhat challenging student remarked carelessly, “You know, Mrs. Rowe, some of us call you the motor mouth. You don’t repeat yourself, but you sure can say the same thing in a lot of different ways.”

After recovering from my initial indignance  (me? A motor mouth?!), I began to listen critically to myself as I lectured. The student was absolutely right. I did talk too much.

Not all the criticism that comes our way is constructive, but looking for the grain of truth in every critique is the first step toward responding in a positive way.

Mike and I found that our initial attempts to respond to the condemnation in that letter only served to fuel the fire. Any defense, however carefully worded, may cause a further flare-up. We learned not to offer an explanation unless one was requested. When months later opportunity arose to lovingly affirm our critic’s contribution to our congregation, however, it was as if the fire suddenly lost its source of oxygen.  Our antagonist never did apologize for his damning words, and the incident left its scars.

But even that can be cause for praise, for underneath that tough skin God can, in his ultimate mercy, preserve a tender heart.

We’ll conclude this series of posts next week with some practical steps that can help us filter criticism in our lives in a redemptive way.

In the meantime, got a prison on your back?