Who in our life criticizes us the most? Spouse, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker? Who points out our faults, tells us what we’re doing wrong, or is never happy with what we do?
Years ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine on the phone, someone I love spending time with but whom I regularly disagreed with. While I was venting some problems of mine, he said, “You’re always complaining.” I was really deflated when he said that to me. But I tried to respond in a positive way so I accused him back: “And you’re always ignoring problems!” Suffice it to say, the conversation didn’t go anywhere after that, because we needed time to think and settle down.
I think most of us are like the officials in the first reading. When we get criticized or hear something we don’t like, we resent the person who said it, stay away from them or get rid of them. The prophet Jeremiah tells the people that they should surrender to the Babylonian invasion, but “the officials said…, ‘This man ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm’” (Jer 38:4).
The truth is God speaks to us through criticism, just as He did through the prophets. I went through the whole Gospel of St. Luke, the Gospel we’re listening to this year at Sunday Mass, and found ten occasions when Jesus directly criticizes (Lk 9:55; Lk 10:13-15; Lk 11:29; 11:37-54; Lk 12:20; Lk 12:54-56; Lk 13:1-5; Lk 16:15; Lk 20:45-47; Lk 24:25). While it’s true that Jesus mostly teaches and gives indirect examples to instruct, He also criticizes. Today He says that He came to bring fire to the earth. He didn’t come to pussyfoot around every tough issue. Because He loves us so much, He came to tell us the truth, confront evil and call us to change our lives.
So today is a bit of a reality check for us regarding criticism. Let’s deal with three things: 1) us; 2) the people who criticize us; and 3) the message.
1) One reason many of us resist criticism is because we’re simply not used to it; our culture doesn’t think about truth and doesn’t like to hurt feelings. But we also have to acknowledge that many of us are actually quite sensitive and fragile (something we have to grow out of). It’s likely too that we all have some unhealthy pride: We think we’re better than we are. We have no “negatives,” just “areas we can improve on.” But this isn’t true. The truth is we all have negatives, faults, failings and sins.
Part of maturing is being able to get over our sensitivity and unhealthy pride, so that criticism doesn’t shake or demoralize us, but becomes a spring board for growth. The most successful people in the world always want to know their faults. The best athletes want to know the weaknesses in their game. The saints loved to go to Confession to face their sins.
The first book I always start with when I give spiritual direction is this book, The Temperament God Gave You. I cannot tell you how good it is. It helps us make sense of a big part of ourselves. I give it so that both the person and I both know his/her strengths and weaknesses. For example, there are four temperaments and each has a classic weakness in getting things done. We know we should do something (e.g. a New Year’s resolution, write a paper, confront something unpleasant, exercise), but struggle to execute it. Perhaps you will recognize a weakness of yours here. 1) Some of us want to do everything and now, and so we do too much and don’t do it well; the key is to set the right goals and get advice. 2) Some of us over think everything and procrastinate and so never get started; one key here is to focus on one small task and not think about getting it perfect. 3) Others of us always start well but never finish; we talk big but don’t follow through; here a schedule can help. 4) Some of us are too relaxed about life and satisfied with the status quo, so we don’t make changes; here it’s important to create a sense of urgency and importance (174-195).
The person who wants to know his/her weaknesses is always fast to grow. Then the person who asks other people, “Do you see anything I can work on?” grows even faster. I just asked my spiritual director this question, and his response was a gem. I received it only because I gave him permission to tell me. The more we want to know our weaknesses, the more we can handle criticism.
2) Some people are very kind about pointing out our faults and do it with love—that’s easy to deal with; praise God for that! But many people criticize us out of anger, meanness or frustration; or they’re not our friends and don’t care about us. Because of this, we don’t listen to them. Now this is trap. Why? Because God often sends imperfect people to tell us our faults. The prophets were all imperfect, but were given the mission to tell people God’s message. Look at our parents: none of them are perfect, but God has given them the duty of raising us and that includes pointing out our faults. Should it be done with love? Of course. But it isn’t always.
And in certain difficult situations, sometimes we need tough love. While we were in Poland for World Youth Day, we had the privilege of having Fr. Antonio Diez de Medina, CFR, with us. He shared with us his beautiful story of how Jesus called him to be a priest. In one part of the story, while in college, he was lost and lazy. One day, he slept in until about noon, and his mother called him, and when she realized that he had just woken up, she ripped into him, “You’re living like a bum, we should have never helped you financially, we should have kicked you out of the house, go get a job.” Ah, yes, Asian Tiger Mom! But Fr. Antonio realized his mother was right, and those difficult but true words shook him up. God sends imperfect people to tell us the truth. Let’s listen to them.
3) The message. When someone criticizes us, the question is very simple: Is what they say true? If it’s true, listen to it. If it’s false, don’t listen. But maybe it’s partially true. When my friend told me that time that I was always complaining, I had to sit down and think about it: Was he right? I concluded that he was partially right. Part of it was my fault, part of it was his own disposition, part of it was the times we had talked. But whatever was wrong in my actions I had to fix.
One of the most beautiful things in life is when we mature and are able to stand tall in the face of criticism and calmly say either, “You’re right. Thank you for letting me know. I’ll change that,” or “I’ve been thinking about what you said and I don’t think it’s accurate. Let me tell you why,” or “What you said makes some sense. Let me explain what’s going on.”
This homily doesn’t mean we should criticize people more. (On the contrary, we should be very gentle, speak with love, not nag, and choose our words carefully.) There may also be times when the criticism we receive is unjust, and we may need to confront it. The main point of this homily, however, is that God uses both good and bad criticism to strengthen our character. A good prayer today would be: “Jesus, I want to grow and be more like You. So help me know my weaknesses. Give me a love for truth. When people criticize me, I’m going to ask one question, ‘Is it true?’” With this is mind, you may even want to ask God for criticism! Some people say God doesn’t answer prayers. Pray this. I’m sure God will answer!
This week, someone will probably criticize us. If they do, smile and think in your head, “You can’t hurt me. You can only make me better.” Think about that. If what they say is true, God will be saying, “Here’s an area you can grow in.” If it’s false, it won’t matter what they say. If they say it in a good way and out of love, great! If they say it in a mean way and it hurts us, God will be saying, “I want you to be more rooted in me, and not so concerned about other people’s opinions.”
God speaks through criticism. That’s why we can say, “You can’t hurt me, you can only make me better.”