I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of different types of people in my life from all sorts of backgrounds and with all kinds of outlooks on life.
And I’ve had the chance to get into disagreements with lots of different types of people from all sorts of backgrounds with all kinds of outlooks on life.
But I’m not sure anyone I’ve encountered anyone who is quite so bad at handling criticism as Christians are.
Particularly my teenage self. Ugh, he was the worst.
Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, the comment section of a blog, a conversation in real life, or simply those moments when we’re sitting at home alone yelling at the TV we seem to explode in defensiveness at the drop of a hat whenever anyone says anything remotely critical about anything we believe and no matter how small that criticism is or even what the specific criticism may be we treat it not simply as a personal attack against us, but as a direct assault on God.
Too many of us seem completely ignorant of even the most basic criticisms of our beliefs or the flaws in our theology, dumbfounded with astonishment when we hear them as if we had never heard something so absurd. When presented with these criticisms we too often appear utterly incapable of addressing them, instead dismissing them as persecution, straw man arguments, attacks against something “we don’t really believe,” or we accuse our critics of simply not being informed or not understanding “the truth.”
Too often we flippantly dismiss our critics without ever directly addressing their criticisms, instead side stepping them with proof texts from the Bible or attacks on their personal character. And the idea that someone could have a legitimate, informed criticism of our position and not also hate God seems beyond the scope of our imagination.
We’ve become so entrenched in our defensive positions and so trained to attack that we’ve all but lost the ability to hear what our critics are actually saying. Instead, like a built-in early warning system that we can’t control we latch on to key buzz words and phrases in a title, an opening line, or quote then proceed to attack based on what we assumed is being said.
And when the criticism comes from within the Body of Christ we seem to respond with even more petulance, acting as if criticism of other Christians is some sort of unforgivable sin (never mind the fact that Jesus was constantly criticizing other Jews, i.e. the chosen people of God). Moreover, the idea that there could be more than one answer to a question of faith or worse that the answer could be beyond our ability to understand it strikes us as totally abhorrent if not altogether contradictory to the faith.
It’s enough to drive a person insane.
Or drive a person to abandon the Christian faith altogether.
Which is sadly what happens all too often.
I don’t know all the reasons why so many of us in the church are so terrible at handling criticism, but I can’t help but think our defensiveness stems from deep seeded insecurities we have not simply about our own doubts, but about the credibility that that so often exists between what we proclaim to believe and how we actually live our lives.
I also can’t help but think that our defensiveness is the product of an incredible lack of maturity coupled with an acute myopathy that only allows us to see things our way. Like a spoiled child who’s been insulated with praise their entire lives, we seem to lack the tools to deal with criticism and disagreement as well as the ability to honestly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider their perspective or the possibility that their disagreement isn’t part of a covert attack to destroy us.
And I also have to think our innate desire to be in control is a driving factor in defensive posturing. Coupled with a misunderstanding of our own faith that has us convinced that being a disciple of Jesus is about being right about everything always and for all time, we denounce dissenters as deceivers and revile at the thought of acknowledging that there is anything we could possibly not know the answer to.
Far too many of us approach the Great Commission as if Jesus said “Go into all the world and argue with everyone you meet until they acknowledge that you’re right and they’re wrong.” We have an almost gnostic approach to the faith as if we possess secret knowledge and the only reason anyone could possibly disagree with us is that they don’t have our secret knowledge, but if they did they would recognize that everything we say and think is 100% and they would never question it. And, of course, it’s possessing that secret knowledge that is the key to heaven and so we become the gatekeepers to heaven – admit we’re right or go to hell.
To be clear, I am not at all saying we shouldn’t defend our faith.
But the way we go about doing it matters.
In an age of science we want our faith to be like a mathematical formula that can be unequivocally proven, an equation that is beyond questioning. But Christianity isn’t about unequivocal answers and absolute control. It’s about a self-sacrificing way of life. We defend against our critics and prove the truth of the gospel not by arguing someone to Christ, but by incarnating the love and grace of Christ to them.
And when our critics are members of the Body of Christ, we can’t simply dismiss them as ignorant heretics. We must listen and respond with patience and wisdom. That doesn’t mean we cant argue vigorously. We can and we should. But we can’t outright denounce and dismiss others simply because they disagree with us. If we do, then it is us who are the fools, not them. For it could very well be that they understand something about our shared faith that we do not.
Ultimately, I wonder if all of our poor handling of criticism comes down to the fact that we’ve convinced ourselves that in defending our doctrine we are defending Jesus, that somehow Jesus will be disappointed in us or perhaps even cease to exist if we don’t defend him. If that is true, it would explain why so many of our battles look more like jihad than honest conversation and debate.
Simply put, we need to stop waging holy war against our critics and begin to focus more of our energy on how we are loving and serving the lost, the least, and the dying.
But, of course, that’s much easier said than done.
The truth is there’s no easy solution to our problem with criticism.
It certainly begins and ends with being more humble, with accepting the fact that saying “I don’t know” is ok and with treating our critics with the love and respect they deserve as people made in the image of God, but humility is a difficult path to tread particularly when our faith is grounded in always being right about everything always and for all time.
Again, to be clear, I’m not calling on us as a church to relinquish our grip on “truth,” but I do think we need to reassess where the truth of our gospel is found.
It’s not found in winning unwinnable debates.
It’s found in the followers of Christ living out Christ-like lives.
Until we do that we can scream and shout till we’re blue in the face that we know the truth and nothing but the truth, but no one will ever believe us.
And why should they?
Grace and peace,