I've faced it quite pungently as a pastor, and as a blogger. I'm sure that those whose criticism I don't fully and instantly embrace are sure that I've callously and arrogantly brushed it aside without a thought, and I understand that thinking. However, this is seldom (if ever) the case.
Evaluating and responding to criticism is a very thin tightwire, I think; and I think you'll agree, if you think it through with me.
"Squish" Hewitt likes to quote a proverb, "When everyone tells you you're drunk, sit down." There's clearly wisdom in those words: if you keep hearing the same thing from person after person after person, the odds are good to excellent that they're seeing something. And you're a fool if you shrug it off without a thought.
The proverb has wisdom, I say, but not all wisdom. The answer to the rhetorical question, "Can [however many] Frenchmen be wrong?" is "Of course they can." Think of it Biblically. Consider this:
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: 'Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." (Exodus 14:10-12)It's all there. These are the people of God! They'd just prayed (v. 10), so what they said had religious backdrop! They said en masse that Moses had brought them all out to die in the wilderness! They said they knew it all along!
And they were all wrong!
Then think of the spies' report in Numbers 13. Twelve spies sent, twelve came back, ten of the twelve — a landslide! — said that there was no way they could take the land. And they were dead wrong.
But they did persuade most of the people, and most of the people took their counsel and acted on it. And they were dead wrong.
We could go on and on. Think of Israel at Jesus' time. "Crucify! Crucify!" Religious people, all united and fervent in their opinion; all dead wrong. For that matter, think of Israel today, the vast majority of whom still are stubbornly and hard-heartedly in a state of Deuteronomy 18:19.
So the Christian must know that is possible for the vast majority of any body of religious to be absolutely certain, blood-earnest, heartily and specifically condemning, and utterly, completely, dead wrong.
And think of "leaders" we've all known who lead by the wet finger raised to the breeze. You know the sort: every decision, every phrase, is poll-tested and designed to play to the masses. The only principle on which you can be sure they'll stand is the principle of the retention of power. Too many Republican senators have shown this characteristic in recent years and days.
But it isn't merely a political phenomenon, for scores of pastors and writers are little different. They preach topically, so as to avoid unpopular truths. In interviews or private conversations, they may insist that they hold these truths. "Hold them" they may; "hold them high" they do not.
Paradoxically, folks do not have much respect for "leaders" whom they know to be easily "rolled" by popular opinion, whereas they tend (tend) to respect principled leadership. Think of conservative reaction to Mitt Romney, who was insistently and forever pro-abortion when running for office in a pro-abortion state, and now is insistently pro-life, as he runs for nomination within a (largely) pro-life political party.
So we should disregard all criticism, right?
Well, of course not. And here we must turn about, lean over and examine the other side of this narrow ridge on which a Christian leader must stand, with its equally disastrous dropoff.
We also read insistent, pointed, forceful exhortations like these:
Proverbs 12:15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,The stance of the wise should be to be very open and receptive to criticism; indeed, to welcome it. After all, what is our goal? Is it to maintain every position intact, never grow, never realize that a thing can be handled better than we'd done in the past? Or is it to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, which necessarily involves what Luther's first Thesis calls an "entire life... of repentance."
but a wise man listens to advice.
Proverbs 15:32 Whoever ignores instruction despises himself,
but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
Proverbs 17:10 A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
than a hundred blows into a fool.
Proverbs 19:20 Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom in the future.
Proverbs 29:1 He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck,
will suddenly be broken beyond healing.
Ecclesiastes 7:5 It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
If you've spilled nasty things all over your shirt/blouse, would you rather that no one say anything, so that you can maintain the illusion of perennial and perfect tidiness—until you get home and realize you'd looked like a pig all evening? Or would you rather someone tell you in kindness, so that you can try to do something about it?
So if we've ugly and destructive attitudes or behaviors, is our priority to maintain the illusion that we've Arrived, until we arrive Home, and realize what a perfect mess we've been?
So, yikes: this second body of texts strongly urges listening to criticism, hearing and heeding it, taking it to heart. It urgently warns us against deaf ears, hard and arrogant hearts, and stiff necks.
So what do we do? We daren't assume that majority opinion is right; we daren't assume that any criticism is wrong.
Actually, I think that is exactly what leaders must do. If you hear criticism, and never think it has even a grain of wisdom and truth in it, you're either Jesus, or you have your heart in the wrong place. But equally, if you're like President Logan in Season Four of 24, with no root nor rudder, you're not wearing the mantle of leadership well.
When it comes to criticism, I think the best target is: Be neither aloof, nor a slave. You should listen, and listen hard; you should weigh carefully and unsparingly before God. But you must weigh, honestly and humbly. Our own personal stance should be like that of the wise man in Proverbs 9:8b-9:
...reprove a wise man, and he will love you.Now here's the sad part. Almost invariably you will infuriate, and perhaps unintentionally make an enemy of, every critic whose advice you don't fully follow. Show me a leader with no enemies, and I'll show you a nothingburger. The wiser of your critics will realize that you will ultimately not stand before the judgment seat of Them, but the judgment seat of God—and at some point this must rule your perspective. They'll not make everything ride on your accepting the infallibility of their judgment.
9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
And given that God both counsels us to take criticism very seriously, and not to be its slave, His perspective will be our wisest perspective.