I was that little girl who cried if she got a 95 rather than a 99 on her homework. I was that girl who could hardly see the world through the tears and rage when I only made third place in the citywide spelling bee. I was the girl everyone approached very gently with even the smallest of criticisms, like an active volcano that would spew prideful drama all over anyone foolish enough to cross a certain line.
And I still am that little girl, way more than I would like to be.
I’ve known it’s a problem since forever, and I’ve been trying to find a solution since forever. “Just lighten up!” was most people’s advice in those childhood days. But I didn’t know how, not in the moment when I felt strangled by impending tears, when any harsh word felt like a weapon. And I’d never been taught the way of peacemaking, so I fought back with everything I had. And far too often, I still do; the years have etched those habits into me so they’re instinct now.
The more I learn about God’s ways, the more I realize I’m being called to completely turn this around. Not just to endure criticism, but to embrace it. When someone tells me something negative about myself, whether they’re right or wrong, I have something to learn from it. If they’re right, I need to be grateful for the impetus they’ve given me to change. And even if they’re wrong…
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”
Uh, come again, Jesus? Leap for joy when people hate me and exclude me and insult me and call me evil – for no good reason? Sure, I’ll do that, right after I walk on water. It’s just one of those Scripture passages that never fails to shock me.
The book of Proverbs has a lot of crazy passages about taking criticism, too. It doesn’t mince words, either. This book contains such pithy phrases as “whoever hates correction is stupid,” and “whoever scorns instruction will pay for it.” Okay, okay, I get it, I think, but then I realize I obviously don’t, or I would be living my life differently. Then I read Proverbs a few more times and hope the wisdom will sink in sooner or later.
There’s one quote about criticism that seemed especially bizarre to me. It’s found in Psalm 141: “Let a righteous man strike me—that is a kindness; let him rebuke me—that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it…” When I first read this passage, I thought, What does this even mean? Oil on my head? Why would someone put oil on my head, and why would that be a good thing?
And then I remembered: this is a Psalm, traditionally attributed to David. David the king.
And the lightbulb went on. That’s when you get oil on your head: when you’re being anointed as a king.
There are kings and then there are anointed kings, of which David was one. Meaning not only did he have earthly power, he also had God’s blessing. Despite his scandalous sins, David dominated the Jewish cultural memory as a king “after God’s own heart.” And posthumously, he received the ultimate blessing: God’s human form in his family tree.
So why would David associate a rebuke with his special anointed status? I think this verse has a lot to teach us about the value of criticism. Here’s what it said to me:
1. Criticism may mean I’m considered a leader. The more power I have, the more people scrutinize me, and rightly so. Like with King David and the prophet Nathan, someone may have noticed that I’m abusing my power. If I listen to their words, I can still apologize and turn things around to the best of my ability. Recognizing and owning up to mistakes is the mark of a great person and a great leader. When someone criticizes me, I can feel lucky that I have so much influence over them and that they think enough of me to urge me to use it for good.
2. Criticism may mean I’m loved. Being anointed didn’t just mean David was powerful; it meant he was chosen and embraced by God. Criticism, likewise, may mean someone cares enough about me to want me to change for the better. They feel safe bringing this complaint to me, trusting that I won’t think less of them for saying what they really think. They’re with me for the long haul. When a close friend or family member criticizes me, I can focus on the good intentions and trust behind their words.
3. Criticism identifies me with Christ. Jesus, as the Christ or Anointed One, was the King of Kings in the succession of David. Yet despite his many followers, Jesus suffered harsh criticism from the Pharisees, the Romans, and even his own family. People called him heretical, a glutton and a drunkard, demon-possessed. And of course, although completely innocent, he was executed as a criminal, crucified publicly as a way to shame and intimidate others. Yet Jesus didn’t try to defend himself. Though he knew and spoke the truth about himself, he was empty of ego, pouring out his life in servitude and accepting the shame of crucifixion, aware that even those who killed him didn’t truly know what they were doing. I am called to imitate his nature, to transform shame into glory by meeting it with humility and love.
I love it when I find an image that breaks through my lifelong issues and gives me a new perspective. I hope this one will help me live and love more boldly, accepting words that once drove me to tears as the oil of blessing on my head.
Do you struggle with taking criticism? What helps you overcome your fear of criticism?