How to be criticized

Sam Caldwell, March 2017

I was recently tasked by my church[1] with answering the question, ‘How do we react to criticism?’ This is not an easy question for me to answer, as I myself don’t react to criticism well. But this study cut deep to my soul, and the study of such a question in general continues to pierce to my heart.

I pray that you might take this as a study for prayer, a study that drives you to your closet. I encourage you to find something to pray on here. Find something to work on. Find something in God’s word (not in my meandering thoughts) that you might work on and work out.

First we must submit the question – ‘How do we react to criticism?’ – to the sweet articulations of God’s Word. The word ‘criticism’ is not in the Bible,[2] so what other words speak to this reality? A biblical word study leads us to the following terms: ‘rebuke, reproof, correction, chastening, discipline, judgment, being wrong.’

Here’s the striking thing: in the Bible these are good words! These words show that there is hope. They show that God cares. In fact, the Word shows that rebukes are actually a mark of blessing over your life. That’s what Psalm 94:12 tells us: ‘Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O LORD, And whom You teach out of Your law.’

Today, however, these have become bad words. Or they’re usually taken to be bad, harsh, and unloving. Why? Here’s one reason: the world sees our relationship to sin as primarily one of victimhood. If this worldly vision is true, then we don’t need to be rebuked; in fact, we shouldn’t be rebuked; we need to be hugged. But the Bible sees it a different way. When it comes to sin, we are guilty. So we need to be rebuked, we need to repent, and we need to be saved! And in that light, again, ‘rebuke,’ ‘chastening,’ and ‘correction’ are good words, because they address a very present danger, and they offer a help that smells of the balm of Gilead.

But let’s ask again, ‘Why are these words good in the Bible, but generally bad and harsh in the world?’ And let’s put it another way. It is hard to receive criticism if you eat the vocabulary of the world for breakfast: ‘identity, self-image, self-actualization, self-esteem, upward mobility, fulfillment, your best life now.’ But it is a joy to receive criticism if you feed daily on the words of the cross: ‘You have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God;’ ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live.’ If we live in God’s light, in God’s truths, we will see ourselves as dead to the flesh, and as needing more flesh killed off daily. Rebuke and correction are some of the most effective cauterizing agents. Rebuke and correction are blessings if we feed on the words of the cross.

How do we receive rebukes?

So now let’s ask again, ‘How do we receive rebukes?’

God gives us an ideal picture in Isaiah 30:21–22. It consists of this: an intimate walk with God, intimate rebukes, and a swift reaction:

‘Your ears will hear a word behind you, “This is the way, walk in it,” whenever you turn to the right or to the left. / And you will defile your graven images overlaid with silver, and your molten images plated with gold. You will scatter them as an impure thing, and say to them, “Be gone!”’

That is the ideal; that is the bull’s eye. But since we so often miss this mark, here are some guideposts from the rest of Scripture on how broken Christians might receive rebukes and corrections as blessings.

1) Be a Christian: expect rebukes

Every Christian life begins with one huge rebuke. There was a time when God’s truth flooded in on you, and you realized that your life up until then was wrong. Every Christian life includes one HUGE correction. Do you remember the time when the Lord came suddenly to his temple? That is the way Malachi describes that first awakening: ‘The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple’ (Malachi 3:1). Malachi’s verse also refers to Jesus coming to the temple in Jerusalem, and even to his returning again in a sudden future judgment, but there is also a deep spiritual significance to the verse: the Lord comes suddenly to the temple of the believer’s body, and after that everything is awakened and changed.   

In light of this regenerate life, we should expect rebukes so much that Paul says, ‘If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged’ (1 Cor 11:31).

If we take seriously that our whole being is corrupted by sin, it should come as no surprise when we are wrong. Another part of that glorious regenerate reality is that we realize that we are entirely depraved and incapable of coming to God without His correction: ‘For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away’ (Isaiah 64:6).

Also, if we take seriously that Jesus called us to a life of repentance, it should come as no surprise when we are wrong. Isaiah 30:15 speaks of this continual repentant reality: ‘In repentance [literally: turning] and rest you will be saved!’

So let us start there: be a Christian! And as a Christian, expect to be corrected!

2) Expect godly rebukes from many sources

Secondly, let us recognize that God will correct us in many ways. Here are some of the material means God uses to express his corrections:  

– Scripture corrects us: 1 Timothy 3:16 says, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.’

– Our sin corrects us: Jeremiah 2:19 says, ‘“Your own wickedness will correct you, And your apostasies will reprove you; Know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter For you to forsake the LORD your God, And the dread of Me is not in you,” declares the Lord GOD of hosts.’

– Righteous people correct us: Psalm 141:5: ‘Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; It is oil upon the head; Do not let my head refuse it….’

– Worldly people correct us: Luke 16:8 shows us the corrective example of the ‘sons of this age’: ‘And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.’

– Nature corrects us: Job 37:13 speaks of the movement of the celestial bodies: ‘Whether for correction, or for His world, Or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen.’

– Spanking corrects us: Proverbs 29:15: ‘The rod and reproof give wisdom, But a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.’

– God Himself corrects us: Proverbs 3:11-12: ‘My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD Or loathe His reproof. For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.’

– Finally, the whole Christian life corrects us: hearing from God at church, through sermons, through His word, devotionals, fellowship.

3)But before we can even accept a correction as worthy of our attention, we ought to ask if the rebuke is godly

Here we must remember that we learn about faith and God from Scripture, and from Scripture alone. Or: we learn what God wants from Scripture, not from experience, tradition, or feelings. Hence, we must also learn if a correction is from God from Scripture alone. Here are some Scriptures that will help us test the spirit behind the correction:

– Isaiah 8:20: ‘To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.’

– Jeremiah 23:16: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, Not from the mouth of the LORD.”’

– John 17:17: ‘Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.’

– Deuteronomy 12:32: ‘Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor take away from it.’

– Proverbs 30:5-6: ‘Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.’

Finally, if the rebuke is just a worldly criticism, or something spiritually insignificant, we ought to follow the advice of a godly older man in my church, Clifford Holder: ‘Accept what you cannot change, and give God thanks.’

4) Make a change

Having determined that a correction is indeed godly, you have to move on it. You have to do something. You have to make a change. You ought to repent, say you’re sorry, and change your evil ways. This, again, is exemplified in Isaiah 30:22, where we are instructed to throw down our idols immediately, and with vigor: ‘And you will defile your graven images overlaid with silver, and your molten images plated with gold. You will scatter them as an impure thing, and say to them, “Be gone!”’

5) Expect to receive godly rebukes till the day you die

If we return to Isaiah 30:21, we see that correction could come at any moment: ‘Your ears will hear a word behind you…whenever you turn to the right or to the left.’ We ought to expect these rebukes always, even to the day we die.

I say we should expect them till the day we die because, as we read in Psalm 94:12, there is a blessing over the life of the rebuked, chastened, corrected saint: ‘Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O LORD, And whom You teach out of Your law.’ Let us welcome these corrections, knowing that their very presence in our lives is a sign of blessing.

In light of that collected counsel of God, let us end with three prayers. Let us pray that:

1) As Christians, we would expect and rejoice in correction.  

2) We as a church learn to test all rebukes from Scripture alone.

3) We rejoice in a life where God will be correcting us from His Word till the day we die.


[1] All the Bible studies and devotionals I share are written under the authority of my local church, and in submission to the wisdom of my local pastor. I recommend that all Christians write, think, and breathe in intimate contact with their local church, as that is the God-appointed means by which we are held accountable, and the way God Himself would like His glory shed abroad in this world.

[2] Isaiah 29:24 is a possible exception.

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