(read Acts 11) Never criticize. Ever.
That’s the opening advice of How to Win Friends & Influence People, and it’s a show-stopper. The moment we read it, we feel protests rising up in our throat: BUT, BUT, BUT…
But how would the world function if we didn’t tell it what to do? How would our friends, family or employees function if we didn’t tell them how to behave?
Dale Carnegie’s point is simple. He says criticism doesn’t work.
More than that, he says it boomerangs. Not only does the criticized person get defensive and rationalize their behavior – they will probably condemn us in return. Witness the self-characterization of Radovan Karadzic at his recent trial for genocide in Bosnia. On the defense, he calls himself a “mild, a tolerant man with great capacity to understand others.” To hear him speak, we should be inviting the man accused of massacring 6,000 men and boys to babysit our children.
So what’s the alternative to criticizing? Dale Carnegie says to work on ourselves and to try to UNDERSTAND the other person. He says trying to figure out WHY people do what they do is “a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness.” Or as my favorite tv preacher Joyce Meyer puts it: “mercy always asks why.”
So how do we put that into action? What would it look like to never criticize again? Is it possible to always ask why, even when someone breaks our heart?
The opening half of Acts 11 has a telling description of what’s wrong with criticizing, and a helpful – but hard – alternative. Luke writes that the Jewish believers “found fault” with Peter – “separating themselves from him in a hostile spirit, opposing and disputing and contending with him.” Acts 11:2 (Amplified Bible). The passage suggests that when we “find fault” with others, we are “separating” ourselves from them in a “hostile” spirit. In other words, the passage suggests that criticism diminishes community instead of building it. More than that, it suggests a critical spirit comes from – wait for it – a superiority complex.
But we don’t have a superiority complex. Do we?
Apparently we do. Dale Carnegie says everyone feels superior to everyone else in some way. And every time we criticize, we are giving into the lie that we’re better than other people.
Peter offers an alternative. He reacts to criticism with patience. He spends eleven verses explaining his actions to his detractors. Luke writes that Peter “began at the beginning and narrated and explained to them step by step the whole list of events.” Acts 11:4 (Amp Bible, brackets removed). To hammer home the point, the Bible repeats for US those events, line by line, step by step – even though we have literally just read the same verses in the previous chapter. It’s as if Luke, the author of Acts, is painstakingly showing us what it looks like to be patient in the face of criticism.
Being patient when criticized means to take the time to explain something that seems so obvious to us we’re tempted to react with irritation. We so often think: how can you not KNOW this??? And why should I have to take my precious time to explain the obvious? But what would happen if, instead of being impatient, we were patient and kind? What would happen if, when someone said something that sounds offensive, rude, mean or critical, we were to ask: what did you mean by that?
The rest of the chapter corroborates the powerful benefits of this alternative to criticism. The chapter moves to Barnabus, the epitome of encouragement, and says he was “full of joy” and “continuously exhorted, warned, urged and encouraged the people to remain faithful” to God. Barnabas presents a positive alternative to criticism – warning, urging and encouraging. The key, however, is to do this kind of urging with love and joy instead of hostility. For as we are told in the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13, love is never “touchy”. 1 Cor. 13: 5.
Wouldn’t it be great to not be touchy? When we’re not touchy, we can ask people to explain. We no longer feel hostile. We can dig deeper and ask questions. We can empathize. We can sit in someone else’s chair – wear their shoes – walk in their moccasins.
We can. We could. We should.
But honestly – who does? Who can – all the time? We know we should. We know the world would be a different place. We know that. But how can we NEVER be touchy? How can we ALWAYS be patient? It seems impossible.
It is impossible.
And here’s why the gospel of Jesus Christ is called the good news. First of all, it’s good news because God knows we often have a critical spirit toward others, and He knows we are often touchy when others criticize us. That’s why He died on the cross for us. He forgives us for all that. His love makes us truly sorry for being that way. His love can so fill us up that we find ourselves not being as touchy as we were, and not being as critical. It’s a process. The journey doesn’t end overnight. But the more we feel loved by God, the more we love others and ourselves. In other words, the more we take in God’s kindness, the more kind we become ourselves.
Because recognizing God’s love and understanding the cross means we have taken in that none of us have any right to criticize anyone else. The cross means we all fall short of the glory of God. Are we better than anyone else just because for one hour we’re sitting on a hard bench in a stuffy church trying to stay awake? Of course not. The gospel – or good news – is that sitting in church, preaching to others or reading the Bible does NOT earn your way into heaven. Nothing does. No work of man – NOTHING – acts like a rung on which we can climb our way to heaven. THAT is the good news.
Why is it good? Because it means that we can let go, and let God, as they say in AA. And if you know anyone who’s “worked the program”, recovering alcoholics among the most embracing people you can meet. Why? Because look at their “first step”. It doesn’t say “you’re all that, and follow these rules, and boom, you got what it takes baby.” It says: you’re hopeless. You can’t do it on your own. You need God’s help.
Their first step is EVERYONE’s first step. They’re just lucky enough to know it.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only antidote to that critical spirit that rises up in all of us. More than that, the Bible teaches that true repentance comes ONLY from the Holy Spirit convicting us. The Spirit whispers lovingly in our hearts that our behavior has grieved God. Karadzic doesn’t sound sorry. He may not be. But if Karadzic believed God loved him, and he started asking God to show him his fault, the world would find Karadzic weeping and apologizing. Because God never excuses sin. But He speaks the truth in love – and calls us to do the same. Worldly repentance is just annoyance that we got caught and leads to death. Godly sorrow is intended to lead us to true repentance – and forgiveness – and new life.
So instead of criticizing others, God calls us to ask why and to pray for them. Instead of criticizing ourselves, He asks us to ask why we do what we do. We’ll find we stop being so hard on ourselves, not just others. It’s a kinder way to live.
If you read Dale Carnegie’s book, which you should because it’s AWESOME, he goes on to explain what it looks like to not criticize. It looks effective. It looks loving. His isn’t an overtly Christian book. It’s just a true one.
Because the gospel is true. We’re not better than each other – not in the ways that actually count, and not compared to the perfection of God. We’re all jealous, rude, boastful, selfish and prideful. And the reason we don’t need to be touchy when we are criticized for being this way is that we ARE loved. God knows our hearts better than we do ourselves – He literally made out hearts. He knows even our critical, superior spirits. And yet He completely loves us. He sees us through the lens of the cross. He sees us as forgiven new creatures because His son paid the price for all our crimes against humanity. And if we accept that, He’ll free us from the impossible burden of trying to “be good” and carry us to heaven in His arms. And as we’re rising up, we’ll look around and hope we see everyone else we’ve ever met rising with us. Because we finally love them – really love them – and don’t just pretend to.
And maybe Jesus won’t even be carrying us. Maybe if we really, really took in how much God loved us, we would become so light we would float.
posted by Caroline Coleman on October 24, 2012 in A Chapter a Day – carolinecolemanbooks.com