Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Never mistake your critics for your judge

I could never be a politician, for many reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is that my fragile ego couldn’t take the abuse. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with the constant criticism that they receive. Everyone is listening to every single word they say, ready to pounce on those words or twist them or take them out of context. Everything the person ever did is scrutinized. Every term paper they ever wrote, every person they ever talked to at a cocktail party, every stupid thing they ever did as a kid. And people will go after them on the basis of their race or their gender or their age. Nothing is off limits because the goal is to tear someone else down so you can win. How can these people stand it? How can they tolerate being criticized so mercilessly without taking it personally, without being crushed? It’s brutal. Thank God it’s not the way people usually treat one another.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t all know what it’s like to be criticized. We’ve all prboably had people in our lives who tell us how to dress, how to talk, how to think, how to live. How do you respond to criticism?

When dealing with our critics, we can make one of two mistakes. We can ignore them, which can work sometimes, but if they’re telling us something we really need to hear, blowing their criticism off isn't helpful. On the other hand, it can be an even bigger mistake for us to take our critics too seriously and assume they're always right. When we do that, we're promoting a critic to the status of judge.

Dr. Lewis Smedes talks about the difference between a critic and a judge. He says that critics give us their opinion and it’s up to us to decide if we’ll take it or leave it. But when we receive a judgment, we have no choice, we simply have to take it. So, he says, we should listen to our critics, but never let them become our judges.

Now, this whole idea caught my attention because it calls me to dig a little deeper into our core value at Holy Trinity, Loving Not Judging. Being judgmental is not the same thing as being critical. There's an important distinction to make between the two.

Often I think we don’t want to be viewed as judgmental, so we give the impression that no matter what a person does, it’s OK. It’s like anything goes. But anything doesn’t go. There are some things that are unacceptable. We'll say, "It's not for me to judge" as a way to let us off the hook, to exempt us from any kind of criticism, whether giving it or receiving it. Is it possible to offer criticism without being judgmental? And is it possible for us to receive criticism without feeling like we’re being judged?

The Apostle Paul had his share of critics and he had a word for them that’s helpful. He said, “With me it is a small thing that I should be judged by you—or anybody else for that matter. I do not even judge myself…. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4). He identifies three kinds of critics in his life: 1)other people, 2)himself, and 3)God. These are the same three critics we all have.

Paul’s critics were all over his case for the way he did his missionary work. And he responded to them by saying that he was listening to their words but he knew that their words were never the last word for him. They were not his judges.

Our human critics are our friends, our mothers, our children, people who go to our church, people we work with. They can be a blessing for us. We can learn from them and often, if their criticism is constructive and offered in love, it can lead us to make some changes in our lives that are for the better. But if we allow our critics to become our judges, we let them decide whether we’re good enough or beautiful enough to be loved and accepted, and any blessing that might have come to us from their criticism becomes a curse. Can we receive their criticism without allowing them to become our judges?

Our second critic, and for many of us our most brutal critic, is our own self. God created us with an ability that no other creature has – the ability to examine our own lives, to take stock of ourselves and become our own critics. The only way we will ever grow in our lives is by being somewhat critical of ourselves, being dissatisfied with ourselves as we have been and pushing ourselves to become something more. Being critical of ourselves can be healthy, but it crosses the line when we become our own judges. Remember, when a critic gives you their opinion, you can accept it or reject it. But when someone pronounces judgment, you’re stuck with it.

The fact is, we’re not competent to judge ourselves. We tend to see what we want to see. When we’re feeling up, we want to see only the good stuff about ourselves. When we're down, we actually look for bad things about ourselves to hone in on. How we see ourselves is always confused by how we’re feeling at any given moment. Besides that, we’re way too complicated for us to understand ourselves. You could see a therapist your whole life and still only scratch the surface of what you’re all about because there are so many sides to you. There’s light and darkness, evil and good, ugliness and beauty, hate and love. It’s all in there and you can never sort it all out because it’s always changing.

It’s troubling when people look inside themselves and like everything they see. They never do anything wrong. In any confrontation, they’re always the innocent ones. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re above reproach. But it’s also troubling when people look inside themselves and conclude that no matter what they do, they never measure up and they’re always lacking. Again, the mistake is not in criticizing. It’s in judging. And it’s something a lot of us do to ourselves.

And that leaves just one more critic. The apostle Paul refused to let his human critics be his judge. And he refused to be his own judge. But it wasn’t that he refused to be judged by anyone. He did have a judge. “God is my judge,” he said. God is the only one qualified to be our judge, because God knows us right down to the core. He knows everything there is to know about us. Good and bad.

And here’s the thing, the really BIG thing. The only critic who is really able to judge us also loves us and forgives us. So, despite anything you have ever done or ever will do, God will never reject you. The only critic qualified to be our judge is the Lord himself. And the good news about our divine judge is that he refuses to condemn us. As Paul puts it: there is therefore no condemnation. Only forgiveness. Only love.

As long as I know I have a judge like that, I suppose I can handle my critics. But that doesn't mean I'll be running for public office anytime soon.

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