Recently several people have asked me 'how do you deal with harsh criticism?' In each case, the inquirer had felt stung by what they felt were unfair attacks on him or her. In this internet age, anyone can have their views censured unfairly by people they don't know. So what do you do when that happens? Here's is the gist of the counsel I give people when they ask me about this. For years I've been guided by a letter by John Newton that is usually entitled "On Controversy."
The biggest danger of receiving criticism is not to your reputation, but to your heart. You feel the injustice of it and feel sorry for yourself, and it tempts you to despise not only the critic, but the entire group of people from which they come. "Those people..." you mutter under your breath. All this can make you prouder over time. Newton writes: "Whatever...makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit." He argues that whenever contempt and superiority accompany our thoughts, it is a sign that "the doctrines of grace" are operating in our life "as mere notions and speculations" with "no salutary influence upon [our] conduct."
So how can you avoid this temptation? First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides. There is usually such a kernel when the criticism comes from friends, and there is often such truth when the disapproval comes from people who actually know you. So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong. Perhaps you simply acted or spoke in a way that was not circumspect. Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own short-comings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said.
If the criticism comes from someone who doesn't know you at all (and often this is the case on the internet) it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. I am often pilloried not only for views I do have, but also even more often for views (and motives) that I do not hold at all. When that happens it is even easier to fall into a smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. "Pathetic..." you may be tempted to say. Don't do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace. Newton talks about it like this:
"If you account [your opponent] a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab concerning Absalom are very applicable: 'Deal gently with him for my sake.' The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should show tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself. In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever."
So whatever you do, do anything you can to avoid feeling smug and superior to the critic. Even if you say to yourself that you are just 'shrugging it off' and that you are not going to respond to the criticism, you can nonetheless conduct a full defense and refutation in the courtroom of your mind, in which you triumphantly prove how awful and despicable your opponents are. But that is a spiritual trap. Newton's remarks about this are very convicting:
"A man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature, and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress his wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify. I hope your performance will savor of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others."
Tim Keller is senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York, and author of numerous books. He is also co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition. For more resources by Tim Keller visit Gospel in Life. You can follow him on Twitter.