When I first started teaching college English, I’d encourage my students to confess their fears about writing and about English class generally. Some of my students were worried they wouldn’t be able to use commas properly; others were embarrassed by their misspellings. A few fretted over their inability to structure their essays properly.
At the back of the class, a student piped up. “I’m just scared I’ll get in trouble,” he admitted, “for writing what I want to write. I’m a Christian and whenever I write about Christianity in my papers, my professors give me a bad grade. I don’t think they like me being a Christian.”
I was appalled and chagrined at the thought. I imagined evil teachers shaking their head over every mention of God, slashing through his hard work with a red pen. “As long as we follow the rules for academic debate and good writing,” I told the class, “you can write about whatever you want.” I wouldn’t have fearful Christians in my class. No sir.
And then that student turned in his first paper, in which he’d focused on Jesus. It was awful.
Awful. I could barely get through the tangled morass of run-on sentences and fragments and typos. He’d accidentally erased two lines from the center of the paper and had forgotten to change the font where he’d copy-pasted in other chunks of text. Misspellings abounded. I couldn’t get to his ideas to evaluate them properly; the paper was literally beyond my understanding. On top of that, he’d written an essay that was two pages shorter than what the assignment demanded. I failed him with a clear conscience.
The next day in class, when everyone received their papers back, he got his and immediately rolled his eyes. I saw him lean over to his friend and whisper something. And as he walked by my desk to leave the room, I heard him say to another friend, “This always happens when I write about God.” He dropped the class not long after.
I think about that student sometimes. For him, it was easier to believe the world hated him and his faith than to imagine that his work needed improvement. And to some degree, I understand the urge. I find criticism difficult to deal with and – even when it’s valid and comes from trusted sources – I had to learn over time to fight off the knee-jerk urge to always view it as an unmerited personal attack. I will always wonder if my student eventually learned to do that, too, or if he contented himself with believing that every negative comment was evidence of a persecution that didn’t exist.
Either way, accepting criticism gracefully was a skill I had to learn over time as a part of my Christian walk. So I thought I’d write about five easy ways to do that here for those of us who find that any sort of criticism, merited or not, stings more than it ought:
- Don’t get defensive. When we’re approached with criticism, the first instinct is to defend and to explain to someone else why they are wrong – or to offer excuses. Put that urge away. I’m not saying you can’t defend against criticism, for there are times when might be necessary (especially if you do perceive it to be unmerited). Rather, don’t let your desire to defend against criticism generally impact your ability to hear and understand objectively what is being said. We all need to be criticized sometimes!
- Listen. Try to hear what people are saying instead of how you feel about what they are saying. Genuinely evaluate their words without questioning their motives or thinking out a protest. Ask God to help you discern the truth in their words.
- Remember perfection is not the goal. Criticism often frustrates perfectionists, who feel that someone criticizing them means that they are not doing something perfectly “right” (and who can subsequently become discouraged or disappointed in themselves as a result). But if we remember that we are God’s imperfect children (James 3:2) with the chance to learn and grow over our whole lives, we can embrace constructive criticism as a means to improvement. In other words: let’s recognize we could all stand to do something growing, learning, and improving.
- Put it to work. If you recognize the truth in some criticism you’ve received, rather than shut it out or ignore it, ask yourself how you can address that criticism. Turn criticism into the learning tool that it is meant to be.
- If you genuinely feel that criticism is malicious or unmerited, respond with kindness. A lot of criticism is constructive – it’s meant to help us improve or to become better. But some criticism is offered from a place of malice or anger, and occasionally can be meant solely to hurt. If you feel, after prayer and reflection, that this is the case, don’t meet malice with malice. You can disagree with someone or assert yourself without being unkind: “I have to say that after some consideration I disagree, but I’m glad you were able to be honest with me and I appreciate it.” Huffing off to pout or saying something critical back is not only unkind, but also not very Christ-like.
With a little practice, we can all learn to subdue our negative, knee-jerk responses to criticism and to learn from, or resist it when necessary, as a part of our Christian walk.