Good listeners respond in a way that makes it difficult for criticism to become further inflamed. Skilled listeners turn away wrath with a “soft answer” (Prov 15:1; 25:15). When you’re criticized, even unjustly, you must listen without interrupting or forming snap-conclusions. Pouncing on the words and approach of others stirs up strife and causes people to become exasperated and discouraged. Indeed, offenses caused by making hasty judgments are the most difficult to erase. Proverbs 18:19 says, “A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.”
Even if the criticism is fallacious, a good leader will not resort to personal attacks and blame-shifting. Too often, leaders are rightly accused of being unapproachable because they attack everything about their critic, from the unbiblical process to the attitude in which the criticism comes. Inevitably, this promotes frustration, bitterness, and sinful assumptions about motives. We must be mature enough to see others through the eyes of Jesus Christ, who loved the unlovely and gave Himself for selfish sinners (Rom 5:6-10). The “process” by which a person levels criticism is never the primary issue; rather it should be the content of the negative evaluation! The question we ought to be asking when we hear criticism is “Lord, how can I learn from what this person is saying?”
Furthermore, leaders must develop the skill of bringing biblical, timely, and edifying speech to every issue, especially when answering criticism. This involves cultivating several important habits of godly listening:
First, we must learn to bring only God’s wisdom to bear upon every issue and not human opinions (Prov 15:2; Eph 4:15; 2 Tim 3:16-17). Nothing is worse than adding human opinions to an already tense situation, yet we can sometimes respond to criticism with little or no thoughtful consideration of the Scriptures. In a dispute, the only opinion that matters is God’s! We should be fearful of straying into the minefield of our own authority; we should be thinking to ourselves, “What does the Bible say about the issue?” and “What kind of response would most please the Lord?” When others see your passion for truth and willing submission to it, defenses come down and hearts soften. Conversely, if we imply the authority of our own opinions, others will get the message that we’re not interested in even constructive critiques.
Second, we must learn to assess the best timing for a response to criticism (Pro 25:11; Col 4:6). When we become careless, we risk trampling the burdens and personal pain of others. Solomon’s analogy in Proverbs 25:20, of a happy songster carelessly chiming away to someone in anguish, paints the picture vividly. We might as well be removing the person’s shirt in freezing weather! Good timing reflects that we know how human beings work through difficulty. It takes time for people to grow, both in their own sanctification and how they view the weaknesses of others. We already know that criticism often comes from poorly handled frustration and sinful assumptions. Good leaders must always remember the pace of their own sanctification, and acknowledge that others need time to change as well. We can’t expect others to grow faster than we do.
It’s easy for us to assume that, as a general pattern, we respond to truth quickly and with little resistance. I may want to obey with a ready, willing heart, but I also know the truth about my sin better than anyone. Timely counsel blossoms from a relentless honesty about our own sanctification, causing us to be tenderly mindful of what others need in the moment. This isn’t a call to passively allow others to continue in sin, but we do well to look for the best possible disposition in others before we tackle an issue. For instance, it is never helpful to abruptly correct someone’s perspective when emotions are running high. As I have frequently told our congregation, “It sometimes takes a while for people’s emotions to catch up with their theology.” Nothing is solved by quickly pointing out the flaws of someone’s complaining attitude before we’ve genuinely considered the accuracy of the complaint itself.
Third, wise listeners always bring counsel that builds up the faith of another. When we are criticized, our speech should reflect our passion for the glory of Christ and the edification of His people. We are called to use speech that is “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4:29). In the face of unfair criticism, how many of us are thinking about being a minister of grace to the person? Why is this so difficult? Because criticism forces us to look closely at potential weaknesses and limitations when we would rather stay on cruise control where we’re comfortable. Consequently, we can quickly become like caged-animals, looking for ways to hide weaknesses and discredit those who point them out. Our responses will always be sinful if we don’t learn to pursue mutual edification at all costs. A complaint from others should alert us to the need for speech that is carefully seasoned and “gracious … so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col 4:6).
Jerry Wragg is one of our seven TES campus pastors—having served as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL since 2001. He also serves as President of The Expositors Seminary. This article was adapted from Jerry’s book, Exemplary Spiritual Leadership: Facing the Challenges, Escaping the Dangers (Day One Publications, 2010).