Anyone who has ever served in leadership will know that death and taxes are not the only two certainties in life. There is at least one other that we can add to the list: criticism. Leadership and criticism go hand in hand. The more public our leadership role, the more frequent, unfair, and unpleasant that criticism will be. It is, after all, the soldiers who lead the charge in battle who take not only the bulk of the enemy’s fire but its greatest intensity as well.

With that in mind, the question we need to answer is not, How can we avoid criticism?—because we cannot avoid it and still be faithful in serving the Lord with the gifts and abilities He has given us; rather, we should ask, How can we prepare ourselves for the criticism that will come? In this way, when it does come, we will know how to respond and how to keep it from destroying us and the work God has given us to do. I have personally found help in answering this question from Ecclesiastes 7:21–22: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. Your heart knows that many times you have yourself cursed others.” This passage has helped me to see three things in particular.

First, we should “not take to heart all the things that people say” (emphasis added). Some of the criticism we receive needs to be ignored entirely. False accusations and malicious gossip fall into this category. We should not take these kinds of criticisms to heart, not even for a moment.

In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that we ought never respond to false accusations. Clearly, there are times when we need to protect the integrity of our work and to ensure that our leadership is not compromised. The Apostle Paul seems to have done that on several occasions—most especially in 2 Corinthians, when the integrity of his ministry was being attacked by a group of “super-apostles” (see, e.g., 2 Cor. 11:5–6; 12:11). On each of these occasions, Paul rose to the challenge and defended his ministry. So, I am not suggesting that we ought to sit idly by when false accusations are leveled at us. What I am saying is that we must not take these false accusations to heart; we must not allow them a platform to destroy us or to eat us up on the inside. Instead, we should try to ignore them and to act as though we never heard them.

Most criticism, however, is not entirely false. Most of it has at least some basis in the truth. But even when we face this kind of criticism, we need to be careful “not [to] take to heart all the things that people say” (emphasis added). That is because this kind of criticism is not usually constructive. It is not typically seasoned with grace and Christian charity but is instead characterized by a desire to tear down the other person rather than to build him up. Because of that, this kind of criticism is generally formulated from an overly critical attitude and expressed in ungracious language. While we ought always to look for the truth in this kind of criticism (something that we will talk about in more detail below), we ought never to take to heart the critical spirit and ungracious language with which that truth is conveyed. These things need to be ignored entirely as well.

Let us ask the Lord to allow us the grace to receive criticism well when it comes, because it will come.

C.H. Spurgeon deals with Ecclesiastes 7:21–22 quite helpfully in a chapter from his Lectures to My Students titled “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear.” Spurgeon says, “You cannot stop people’s tongues, and therefore the best thing is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken.” When false accusations and destructive criticism come our way, he says, we should refuse to hear them; we should give them—or at least the destructive elements within them—our “blind eye” and our “deaf ear.” If we fail in this regard, we will more than likely begin to pull back from people and to isolate ourselves so that we cannot be hurt by them, or we will adopt some illicit way of coping that numbs us from feeling the pain, or we will give up and quit altogether. Effectiveness in ministry requires that we develop the ability to ignore the destructive elements in other people’s criticism of us and not take these things to heart. As Spurgeon says, it requires developing a “blind eye” and a “deaf ear” and using them in dealing with criticism.

The second thing I have learned from Ecclesiastes 7 is that we need to be gracious to the one who is criticizing us. Verse 22 reminds us that we have all said things that we should not have said, and we have all been guilty of criticizing others in ways that are less than helpful and kind. We need to remember that when we are criticized ourselves, and we need to let that color the way we treat our accusers. If we lose this kind of perspective, we will be tempted to respond in kind when criticized, to match hurt for hurt, or to get angry and say things we might later regret. Either way, we will run the risk of losing future influence with those individuals who criticize us. We might even bring our jobs or our leadership into question. A good leader never wants to sacrifice the entire war in order to win one battle.

The third thing I have learned from this passage is that there is always some amount of truth in every criticism. Even though we do not want to “take to heart all the things that people say,” that doesn’t mean that we ought to ignore everything. I am convinced that there is some amount of truth in every criticism, no matter how exaggerated or unkind it may be (apart from false accusations and malicious gossip, of course). There is something that we can learn from it, and we ought to look for that and take that to heart, even while we ignore the rest with our “blind eye” and “deaf ear.” Charles Spurgeon even goes so far as to say that criticism—if we can receive it well—can be a “far greater blessing” than indiscriminate praise. His point is that criticism will help us to grow and improve if we can learn from it, whereas indiscriminate praise will lead to complacency instead.

To be sure, we all need the encouragement that comes from knowing that our labors and our leadership are not only valued but are being used by the Lord. Too much encouragement, or too much indiscriminate encouragement, can be stifling and can keep us from achieving our best. But too much criticism is also not good. It can be debilitating and can cause us to second-guess ourselves. We need both, but we need them in the right proportions and quantities. Let us ask the Lord to grant us enough encouragement to counterbalance the criticism and to allow us the grace to receive the criticism well when it comes, because it will come.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 26, 2019.

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