David Powlison’s article, “Does the Shoe Fit?” (Journal of Biblical Counseling [Spring 2002]: 2-14) is probably the best piece I’ve seen on how to think about criticism. (The article is not online, but is available on the JBC CD-ROM.) Here’s an excerpt:
Fair-minded criticism is one of life’s best pleasures, an acquired taste well worth the acquiring. Someone who will take you seriously, understand you accurately, treat you charitably, and who then will lay it on the line is a messenger from God for your welfare (whether or not you end up completely agreeing). There is nothing quite like being disagreed with intelligently, lovingly, and openly: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). If I only listen to my allies, or to yes-men, clones, devotees, and fellow factionaries, then I might as well inject narcotics into my veins. The people of God are a large work in progress. To engage and to interact with critics is to further the process—in both of our lives. We ought to offer to others the kind of criticism that is such a pleasure to receive.
Whenever we disagree with others our goal ought to be fair-minded, knowledgeable,
constructive criticism (tinged with mercy, attentive to perceived strengths as well as
perceived failings, openly receptive to reciprocal criticism). We all know this when
doing marriage counseling. Jesus’ log-and-speck analysis and His call to clear-seeing helpfulness dig to the roots of every marital conflict. But we often ignore the log-and-speck in other spheres of controversy—or when in the midst of our own marital conflicts! Whether we write, teach, or converse, we often either succeed or derail based on the manner in which we deliver the matter. May we do as we would like it done to us.
Critics, like governing authorities, are servants of God to you for good (Rom. 13:4). He who sees into hearts uses critics to help us see things in ourselves: outright failings of faith and practice, distorted emphases, blind spots, areas of neglect, attitudes and actions contradictory to stated commitments, and, yes, strengths and significant contributions. God uses critics to help us. Even if I think that a criticism is mistaken, I shouldn’t leap too quickly to the defense. Is there something I am doing or saying (or not doing and not saying) that makes that particular misinterpretation plausible? Am I too easily misunderstood? Do I leave implicit or understated something that needs to be made explicit? Does my attitude or tone or way of treating people send a mixed message? Do I ride my hobby horses? Am I not answering some important question that this person is asking? Am I not addressing some important problem that this person cares about? In my experience, the answer to these questions is usually Yes.