As some of you know, I wrote an article for Her.meneutics a few weeks ago that incited the rage of my readers. In all honesty, I was utterly shocked by the response. The article, titled How to Talk About Having Children, was not intended to be controversial. In fact, I thought it would go right under the radar as one of the more boring posts of the month. I was wrong.
The post not only generated criticism about my writing and ideas, but about me as a person. And while I have a number of speculations about why people responded the way they did, suffice it to say that it hurt. That was my first real initiation into the brutal side of writing and publishing, and I walked away with a limp.
Since then I have regrouped, picked myself back up, and moved on. But the whole situation gave me a lot to think about as my writing becomes more public. I am sure to receive criticism in the future, so how will I respond to it?
Providentially, I came across a relevant article by Tim Keller this week. The piece was called Speaking with Contempt, and in it he examined Jesus’ words against harboring anger in your heart. What was particularly interesting about Keller’s analysis was his explanation of Matthew 5:22, which reads,
Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
According to Keller, the word “raca” is like the modern-day equivalent of calling someone an air-head. A quiet giggle might have arisen from Jesus’ audience upon hearing such a silly insult…that is, until Jesus ended his statement with a judgment. This, Keller speculated, would have caught the crowd off guard. Why such a harsh condemnation against such a harmless action? To this Keller responded with a quote from R.T. France: “The deliberate paradox of Jesus’ pronouncement is that ordinary insults may betray an attitude of contempt which God takes extremely seriously.”
Keller then brought this lesson to bear on Numbers 20, in which Moses strikes a rock to bring forth water. In a show of contempt towards the critical Israelites, Moses struck a rock to bring water from it, even though God had instructed him only to speak to the rock to bring forth water. In response to Moses’ brash sign of anger, God forbade him from entering the Promised Land. Seems a little harsh, right?
Here Keller explains that God was rebuking the orientation of Moses’ heart, not the action of striking the rock. God admonished Moses for the contempt, the bitterness, and the pretension he held toward God’s people. Moses thought he was better than them, and his actions betrayed his arrogance.
This, Keller, points out, is the great danger for Christians who receive criticism. Keller describes Moses’ mistake saying,
“The relentless criticism had made him self-righteous. He held them in contempt. He had wrath but no compassion, and that is the mark of a man who is becoming less like God, not more…Moses is a man who has forgotten grace, and the sign of it is a sanctimonious spirit along with words of denunciation without humility and compassion.”
He then adds,
“All leaders, and especially Christian leaders, must be on guard against this inevitable temptation and this terrible sin. It is natural, when under criticism, to shield your heart from pain by belittling the critics in your mind. “You stupid idiots.” Even if you don’t speak outwardly to people like Moses did, you do so inwardly. That will lead to self-absorption, self-pity, maybe even delusions of grandeur, but the great sin is that the growth of inner disdain leads to pride and a loss of humble reliance on God’s grace. Moses treated God with contempt when he became contemptuous toward his people.”
What a powerful word! I can relate to it all too well. It is easy to protect my heart by tearing down my critics, even if I do so in seemingly harmless ways. I let those minor insults slide as long as I don’t display outright rage.
Yet even the most benign insults betray a heart of contempt, one that spurns the grace of God in favor of self-righteous judgment. And as Keller noted, this mindset makes me less like Christ, not more.
Christians receive a lot of criticism in our culture–some of it deserved, and some not. But how we respond to undeserved criticism is what makes us truly Christ-like. Will we bear the injury, showing grace and mercy instead of wrath? Or will we defend ourselves and attack our critics? Of the two options I know how Christ responded, so for me to respond in any other way is to be remarkably ungrateful for the mercy shown me. What a difficult but strangely beautiful perspective as I journey forward in ministry.