Just because someone talks a lot, that doesn’t mean you should listen.
There are always more people to read or listen to, after all, than merit your attention. Even Solomon in Ecclesiastes warned his son (well before the printing press) that of making many books there is no end—and so he should beware of anything beyond the sayings of the wise (Eccles. 12:12).
The internet has opened the floodgates even further. Now anyone with a phone and a data plan can publish instant thoughts for public consumption. That’s not an entirely bad thing, of course. But it can easily lead to exhaustion rather than edification.
How, then, do we discern between wise and foolish voices, especially when so many present themselves as wise? Proverbs 9:7–9 has been useful to me:
Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
Proverbs is clear throughout: correction is a gift that helps us discern between the scoffer and the wise. The wise person doesn’t just grit his teeth and tolerate correction, like eating vegetables at Thanksgiving so you can justify eating pie. No, Proverbs 9:8 says he will love you for it. Whether or someone understands correction as a gift is a simple tool to identify good teachers.
When the “experts” you learn from are critiqued, are they hostile or thankful? When their sermons are criticized as hurtful or confusing, are they interested to learn from what others heard? Are they open to clarifying, or do they double down? When people object to their blog or tweet, is every critique a sign of other people’s hard heads and hearts? Is disagreement proof others are “woke,” or nationalist, or relativist, or devoted to white supremacy? Or are some critiques treated as an opportunity to learn?
A wise person is not required to appreciate every piece of feedback, of course. Some critiques are only good for the fire. But the wise person looks for real, grounded feedback and values it.
Part of wisdom, in fact, requires us to sort through the quality of criticism. A wise person will not implement every correction immediately (or at all). A wise person is willing to change his mind—but only to believe something more true. And that typically takes time to evaluate.
Human wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord, which means a wise person begins with the knowledge of not knowing everything. Only the fool thinks he already knows everything. Only the fool hates critique.
Only the fool thinks he already knows everything. Only the fool hates critique.
You may not always be able to see how an individual responds to criticism. But how and to whom he offers correction can expose whether he sees correction as a gift.
Does he only critique his “enemies”? Does he ever try to help others communicate well? Or does his dial only have two levels: “amazing” and “terrible”? Is he able to appreciate good in the people he critiques? Can he acknowledge that his intellectual opponents sometimes say true and helpful things?
If his response to the world is to always sort people into good guys with whom we always agree, or bad guys with whom we never can, his hot takes may be entertaining, but he’s not someone you should take seriously (no matter how seriously he takes himself).
Here’s my personal social media rule. If I see someone dismissing all critique as misguided, I unfollow. If I see someone accusing fellow Christians of having ulterior, immoral motives in a disagreement, I mute.
In genuine face-to-face discussion, though, I pay close attention. If someone is unable to see criticism as a gift, my approach to the conversation should probably change. After all, if someone is always offended by critique, he’s not a wise person. But he is someone who needs encouragement.
Instead of analyzing the ideas, I try to shift my focus to simply showing care. How can I affirm and encourage a person in pursuing truth? How can I teach a person to use reasoning to care for others rather than to self-vindicate? How can I promote a love of wisdom, as God in his Word defines it? A person who can’t see criticism as a gift isn’t ready to have a debate with you.
I do this with people whose positions and arguments I reject. Perhaps even more often, I do this with people whose positions and arguments I affirm. Even if I think a person’s words are correct, that doesn’t mean he’s someone I should listen to. He may teach me to be like Job’s friends, saying some true things at the wrong time, in all the wrong ways.
Beware going beyond the words of the wise (Eccles. 12:12). Choose those whose lives show they value wisdom. Choose those who love the people who give them good reproof. Listen to the wise, even if their judgments differ from yours. Listen to those who love to learn, and you too will grow in wisdom.