I decided to write one more post on handling criticism and praise. My wife noted an omission in my last two posts: any discussion on how to guard our hearts when praised or criticised. So this is that.
Both praise and criticism can damage us. Praise can swell our head, criticism poison our heart. Praise can lull us into vanity and complacency. Criticism can waylay us with resentment and defeat. I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had seasons when so many people were applauding me, I became entitled and smug. And I’ve had seasons (why do they seem so much longer?) when so many people found fault with me, I became testy and sullen.
I call it the criminal/god syndrome: one minute, people treat you as sub-human, the next they hail you as super-human, with hardly a pause in between to see that you’re only human.
The Apostle Paul’s suffered the criminal/god syndrome, and gives us a model of how to deal with it. Two stories from Acts illustrate. One is in Acts 14:8-20. Paul, with Barnabas, is in Lystra and heals a man born lame. The crowd goes wild. They hail them as gods, and try to sacrifice burnt offerings to them. They protest vigorously but barely restrain the crowd from worshipping them. But that soon changes. Some of Paul’s enemies show up and persuade the crowd that he’s really a scoundrel. Next thing, the crowd stones Paul, drags him outside the city, and leaves him for dead.
He goes from god to criminal in a breath.
The other story is in Acts 28:1-6. Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta. A poisonous snake slithers from the brushwood and bites him: “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:4-6).
He goes from criminal to god in a blink.
No one is immune to this syndrome, especially leaders. The more you try to make a difference in the world, the more liable you are to be seen as one or the other, a criminal or a god: one minute a hero, the next a villain; one minute a sage, the next a fool; one minute worthy of swooning adulation, the next deserving brutal rejection.
How did Paul handle it?
Simply and profoundly, he knew his identity in Christ. He knew his role and value in the eyes of God. He took his deepest cues from his Father in heaven. Whether treated as a criminal or a god, Paul remained rooted in his true identity: a servant of the Most High God, and a servant of others.
He best sums it up in 1 Corinthians, to people who had swung from lionizing him to vilifying him. He writes to them:
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
Herein lies a whole spirituality of dealing with the criminal/god syndrome, of handling praise and criticism. Here are the key points:
- Know your identity in Christ and your call in God. Paul knows he’s a servant of Christ – his identity- and that he’s entrusted with the mysteries of God – his call. He is bound to this, not to anyone else’s expectations or demands.
- Be unswervingly faithful to that identity and call. Paul lives, neither to win man’s applause nor to avoid man’s criticism, but for one thing alone: to hear God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.” He plays to an audience of One.
- Care very little what others think of you. Paul simply refuses to give much weight to anyone who does not acknowledge his identity and purpose in Christ. The Greek for “I care very little” carries the sense, “your opinion is the least of my concerns.” Again, I emphasize that Paul is dealing here with those trying to pressure him to compromise his God-given identity and call. He is not deaf to honest critique: he’s just deaf to useless distraction.
- Care very little what you think of you. Paul refuses even to judge himself. He knows how warped and skewed, how self-serving or self-defeating, our own self-assessments can be. So he avoids passing final verdict on himself.
- Be able to look God in the eyes. Paul says his conscience is clear. How I apply this: Can I look God in the eyes? Am I confident that I can stand before God and, without shame, tell him what I’ve done and why?
- Don’t assume you’re right. Even still, Paul does not pronounce himself innocent. It’s possible, he acknowledges, that he’s wrong. The jury’s still out, and so he denies himself any self-righteous posturing.
- Trust God to judge finally and rightly. Paul knows that God in his time will render a perfect verdict – vindication, or condemnation. At that point, no earthly court’s verdict matters a whit. No human opinion, our own or another’s, means a thing. God deals with the real stuff – the motives of our heart – and gives a true, just and final judgement. It’s the only one that matters. Wait for it.
- Live in such a way that you anticipate God’s praise. Paul anticipates that he will receive God’s praise. He lives for it. He endures brutal opposition in the hope of it. He never compromises his identity or his call, because he knows that man’s praise without God’s praise is nothing, but God’s praise, with or without man’s praise, is everything. The only prize he sets his sights on is God’s praise.
Who sees you as a criminal? A god? If that is messing with you, apply Paul’s remedy. I’d love to hear about it.