The Blessing & Curse of Criticism

PART 1: Church Pastor Eric Herrstrom gives us some wise words on handling criticism in this two part blog.

Isn’t it interesting how we give criticism very well but receive it horribly. For some of us, it makes us angry, insecure, fearful. It drives perfectionist crazy. Not processing it well can lead to burnout with people pleasers. Here’s the thing…Criticism will either sharpen you or break you. Often, we’ve held “thick skin” as a virtue, but we need to consider how a hard heart can get us into trouble and keep us from experiencing Godly growth. The flip side is that “soft skin” can become porous and allow for great woundedness if you don’t have a filter for criticism. So, we need to get to a place where our skin is soft enough to absorb truth and thick enough to resist unjust attack.

Warren Wiersbe offers immense wisdom when he says, “The way we respond to criticism pretty much depends on the way we respond to praise. If praise humbles us then criticism will build us up. But if praise inflates us, then criticism will crush us; and both responses lead to our defeat.” 

There’s a great passage in 2 Samuel 16.5-23, that illustrates Biblical wisdom on handling criticism. To give you context, King Saul was the ruler of Israel. He’d grown disobedient to God and eventually God anointed David to replace him. The Problem was Saul hadn’t died yet, nor had he abdicated the throne, and he had no intention of doing so! Saul knew that David had been anointed the next king and looked for many ways to kill him over time. By contrast, David had several opportunities to kill Saul but refused. As a result, David became a fugitive and outcast until the day Saul took his own life. Now, 30 years into his reign, David’s son, Absalom, attempted a coup and David was forced to flee Jerusalem. In 2 Samuel 15, we see that Absalom had been planning this for years…glad-handing people and bribing them. Absalom may have said things like, “If I were judge, then I’d do it this way…” Eventually, he goes to his father, David, and says, can I go to the city of Hebron and worship. And what does do? He goes and declares himself king. Scripture says, “the hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.” It was at that point, David knew he had to flee for a time.

And here is where we find David (2 Samuel 16.5-23)…fleeing Jerusalem, all to come across a gentleman named, Shimei. He’s angry and cursing David for how he handled Absalom, or at least based on what he understood as to how David handled things. So, let’s consider some of the characteristics of criticism that we see here…

One, Criticism never comes at a good time. Criticism often comes when it is least needed. You’re on vacation, working on a big project or spending time with your family. David had things going-on as well. David was in recovery and grief from his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). David’s daughter Tamar is raped (2 Sam. 13). His son is conspiring against him (2 Sam. 13). David found out that his friend Mephibosheth had deserted him. (2 Sam. 16). David had career problems. Absalom was taking his throne (2 Sam. 14-15). David’s army was in retreat (2 Sam. 15).

Secondly, criticism often comes when it is least deserved. David was accused of shedding the blood of Saul’s house. The reality was Shimei was taking up an offense for a friend/family without all of the correct information (dangerous place to be). If Shimei had known that David had spared Saul in the cave and camp, killed Saul’s murderer, and mourned Saul’s death maybe he would have had a different perspective. Rather, he accused David of reiging in Saul’s place. If you remember, God shoes David to be king, and David waited about 20 years from his anointing to step into that role. 

Third, criticism often comes from those least qualified to give it. One of the things that happens often is people criticize when they don’t have all the information. Subsequently, they’ll make statements or accusations rather than ask questions to get the truth. Proverbs 18.2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Shimei was not qualified to give King David feedback. He was from Bahurim, a real “no place” with no historical record of significance (v. 5). He may have been from Saul’s clan, but would have been a distant cousin and probably had never met Saul. He was a son of Gera, who was never mentioned in Scripture again (v. 5). The point being, Shimei had no relationship to or good information of the real situation. 

Lastly, criticism can turn into a personal attack. I remember while in seminary, I would referee basketball games. It was a lot of fun and kept me in good shape. I’d ref 1st graders and high schoolers. And can I just say that it is immensely more difficult to referee children’s games than high schoolers. All that to say, making consistent calls on the court are a greater challenge when you’re refereeing players that are learning the game. Well, a parent of a 3rd grade girl had enough of my refereeing that Saturday afternoon and invited me to the playground for a good-ole play-yard fight. Ha, easy for us to see this parent needed some perspective, but the we’ve all experienced how criticism can turn into personal attack. Shimei cursed David, threw rocks, slandered, and tossed dirt on him. 

So, how do you respond, rather than react in situations where criticism is being levied? How do you keep criticism in proper perspective without flying-off the handle or moving to deep shame? Should we look for God’s truth in every criticism? How do we stay curious? History tells us that Curious people are often the least cynical people…because they value personal growth. Cynical people are rarely curious because they don’t think they have much else to learn.

Look for the insights to these questions in Part 2 of this article…


Eric Herrstrom
Senior Pastor, Lake Church