Handling Criticism

Handling Criticism

June 20, 2021 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Like a number of people Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a good relationship with his dad. His father was critical and berated his son constantly. You would expect someone with that upbringing to become harsh and critical himself. But Lincoln wasn’t, especially as a father.

A journalist from Ohio dining at the White House noted Lincoln’s patience with his sons. They crawled all over the president throughout the evening, pulling his nose, jabbing him in the eye, but Lincoln carried on as if none of this was happening. Reading that description later a person said it makes you picture Lincoln as a human Golden Retriever.

But this was true not only with his kids, but his cabinet. Lincoln was incredibly patient and able to receive criticism. The best example of this, perhaps was his choice of Edwin Stanton to be his Secretary of War. Stanton had been notoriously critical of the president in the newspapers often calling him a clown and much worse things. When Lincoln invited Stanton to be on his cabinet, advisors tried their best to dissuade the president, but Lincoln simply said, “Stanton’s the best person for the job.”

But it wasn’t easy. Stanton often rebuked the president in front of others to the point of sometimes of being disrespectful. But Lincoln’s refusal to retaliate, and his example must have had an impact. The night Lincoln was killed Stanton was in the room where Lincoln’s body was carried after being shot. When the president was pronounced dead Stanton said with tears in his eyes, “There lies the greatest ruler the world has ever seen.”

Some of you are better Lincoln scholars than I am, so maybe you can explain where Lincoln got this ability? How did he overcome criticism that could have ruined him as a boy to be so patient as an adult? Was this something he worked at? Did he make it a point to change? Whatever the reason the ability to handle criticism became a key to Lincoln’s success and a whole nation benefited.

I believe the Apostle Paul would say that’s why its important every church should from time to time talk about the importance of learning to handle criticism.

This Sunday and next we close out Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians looking at his closing advice. Chances are when Timothy found Paul in Corinth and gave him an update on how the church was doing, he reported some activities that disturbed Paul. They were not major concerns. Paul waits until the end of the letter to even mention them, but they are concerns nonetheless. Unchecked they could have the potential to be very destructive, and one of these issues had to do with the willingness of some in the church to receive constructive feedback.

There were several things going on. One had to do with a matter I mentioned last week about what the people believed regarding the return of Christ. They believed the end of time was imminent. I mentioned last Sunday how even in our world today some people believe certain prophets of doom predicting the end of the world and sell their houses and property. Well this same thing happened in Thessalonica. Some quit their jobs. It makes sense I suppose. If you believed the world was going to end tomorrow why get up and go to work?

The trouble is tomorrow came and went, and the day after that, and the day after that. And the world kept turning. The ones who quit their jobs now needed assistance and they appealed to the charity and good will of church members to take care of them. In other words they were sponging off church members. So members of the leadership team started addressing this with certain people saying, “Hey, it’s time to go back to work. Get a job. The charity of our church is for people who can’t work.”

Leaders were probably having to address other issues as well like sexual ethics. They confronted certain people on their behavior. There were probably other accountability issues as well. And you can imagine some not responding to the leaders’ direction so well. I can hear them now, “Who are you to tell me how to live my life?”

So Paul writes and says, “we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” Now, it sound slike some simple, off the cuff advice from Paul to people not responding well to criticism, but if you think about this topic and start to tease out the depths of the idea you realize this is a matter that has application for every area of our lives and can determine the level of our success and satisfaction.

So let’s consider the importance of learning to handle criticism well. I’ve organized these around three R’s. The first stands for Receive.

Receive Criticism Non-defensively. That sounds easy but in real time its another story, isn’t it? Criticism seldom feels good, but its like exercising. Exercise never feels good to me, but it sure makes me feel good later. We all need helpful criticism to be better. As it says in Proverbs, “As iron sharpens iron so a friend sharpens a friend.” (27:17) We all need people who can be tough with us if we’re going to stay sharp. How many times have you made significant improvements in your life as a result of someone pointing out something that was hard to hear? We don’t usually get better unless we are challenged to do so.

The summer before I started seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, I worked as a youth director at Auburn UMC in Alabama. They were searching for a permanent director but needed more time, so they hired me as an interim. There were 150 kids who attended their Sunday night gatherings. I’d never experienced a program that big. My youth group growing up had 15 kids in it!

I was in over my head. This took a level of administration I knew nothing about. But I didn’t admit that. I acted like I knew what I was doing, because I was too proud to admit otherwise. So I focused on just relating to the kids and being liked. I equated success with being liked. Well, my blind side caught up to me late in the summer. The senior high beach trip had 70 kids with 15 adult chaperones. I was supposed to secure 6 15-passenger vans to rent, but I never confirmed the reservation and discovered the day before the trip that there were no vans. Auburn, by the way, is not a big town. There were no other rental agencies in the area that carried vans that big, much less half a dozen of them. Members of the staff had to bail me out and spend the day calling every parent who owned a van to see if they would be willing to let us borrow their vehicle.

Two weeks later I packed up to head to seminary, but before leaving the Christian Education Director asked for a meeting. She thanked me for the positive contributions I made that summer, but then she said, “but…” But, Rob, you have some serious growing edges. You need to be more humble. You need to learn how to lead at a larger level if you ever have aspirations of being a senior pastor. You’ve got to learn about administration and organization and how to welcome people’s help and bring people around you who can help you.”

Not many people had ever spoken like that to me before. I was hurt and angry. I thought, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’ll show her.” But when I cooled off, I realized two things: I was mad because deep down I knew she was right. And I have realized ever since, that when I get defensive, it’s usually because I know there’s a level of truth in what’s being told me. But secondly, I realized she didn’t have to do that. She could have just let me leave and thought, “Good riddance!” But she didn’t. She had a conversation that had to be hard, because I had only experienced her a sweet, gentle, loving person. She must have done that because she cared.

It took some weeks, but later I wrote her and thanked her.

Paul said, “Respect…those who admonish you.” I know not all criticism is helpful or meant to help, but if we recognize that we need criticism to be better, that is an important starting place for using criticism to our advantage.

The second R stands for Respond. Respond Rather than React to Criticism.

When we react, it’s often not good. Why do you think they call them Nuclear Reactors! What’s the most popular sign around nuclear reactors? Danger! When something is reacting it’s usually dangerous. But when we respond, when we listen, ask questions, show appreciation and answer calmly, we give opportunity for something productive to occur.

When I started out in ministry I thought my aim was to minimize criticism. If I wasn’t being criticized then I was doing a good job. But I’ve come to see that very differently. If I am not doing something that can be criticized I am probably not challenging anyone, and consequently not helping our world.

Aristotle is credited with saying, “The only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing and be nothing.” Obviously that’s not who we are called to be. We are called to be change agents. If we admit things need changing in the world but don’t change anything because it will disturb people, we aren’t being peacemakers, we’re being cowards.

But here is the important point of responding to criticism. It gives us a chance to discern whether or not criticism can lead to a better place. If a critic is open to conversation, dialogue, understanding. Their criticism can be the start of a breakthrough. Sometimes we recognize that a persons criticism comes out of their own brokenness. My preaching professor in seminary used to say, “When we are at war with ourselves we make casualties out of those we love.” Maybe responding to criticism can lead to healing.

Susan and I learned years ago in marriage counseling that every criticism is the expression of an unmet need. When you can get below the criticism itself but not reacting you stand of chance of surfacing the real issue that can lead to healing.

When I Susan and I talked this week about the sermon today she remembered when we both heard Les and Leslie Parrott speak years ago. They identified the four steps of criticism that lead to spiraling down: Criticism—Defensiveness—Character Attack—and finally Shut down. They said they had identified with 95% accuracy that if a couple hit shutdown they were headed to divorce. They said the first two events are going to happen in marriage. Its actually a good thing. We criticize and get defensive. These can lead to breakthroughs. They are good for marriage, IF, and that’s the big if, if we respond rather than react. Because if we don’t respond at the defensive stage and start attacking each other, and each other’s motives or lack of, and then just shut down, it gets harder to recover from.

But here’s the other side to this discernment, and this is really important. If we respond we can sense whether the critic wants to improve things or they just want to criticize. They aren’t getting their way or perhaps worse, criticism is all the know to offer. They don’t affirm, they don’t build up, they aren’t looking to improve anything. They just want to attack and put down. They are like a Taylor Swift song: “all you’re ever gonna be is mean.” And when we discern that, we know we just need to protect ourselves and distance ourselves, like Abe Lincoln realizing he had to get away from his father.

Responding to every criticism doesn’t mean we have to believe criticism.

For Paul, it all comes back to building people up. As he said in the preceding verse to today’s lesson, “Encourage one another and build up each other.” (5:11) That’s what we have to look for in responding to criticism: is someone looking to build up or just tear down?

And that leads to the last R, realize. Realize More Is Usually at Stake than a Single Relationship. When we handle criticism in a way that leads to breakthrough, growth, respect, you can count on the fact that more people will benefit than just us and our critics.

Paul ends this thought in the letter by saying, “Be at peace among yourselves.” Remember, that comes after his words, “Respect those who admonish you.” When we handle admonishment in a way that can lead to peace, entire communities are made better.

Let me close with this story I feel illustrates well everything in this message. In a 1954 interview with Francois Mauriac, the famed Catholic member of the illustrious French Academy, Elie Wiesel, the Jewish Holocaust survivor, recalls listening to an impassioned monologue on the greatness and divinity of Jesus. Every reference led back to (Jesus). After a while something in Mauriac’s discourse irritated Wiesel so much that for the first time in his life he exhibited bad manners and gave into an angry impulse.

“Sir,’ (Wiesel) said, ‘you speak of Christ. Christians love to speak of him. The passion of Christ, the agony of Christ, the death of Christ. In your religion, that is all you speak of. Well, I want you to know that ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don’t speak about them. Can you understand that, sir? We don’t speak about them.”

Mauriac though, was not defensive. He was visibly humbled. He wept. He bade Wiesel to continue speaking. He asked questions about his experience. Instead of attempting to clarify or defend what he said about Jesus, Mauriac wanted to know everything, all of the details, about Wiesel’s experience in the Nazi death camps. They developed a friendship. Mauriac encouraged Wiesel to speak out and break his vow of silence never to write about those events. A year later Wiesel would send Mauriac the manuscript of his famous book Night, the first he wrote of his experiences in the camps.

Because someone had the courage to criticize and another had the courage to receive it, the whole world was blessed.

I believe we could adjust Paul’s words just a bit and be true to his advice to the Thessalonians, “Respect those who admonish you SO THAT you can live in peace with each other.”