February 26, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer


Part 3—Listen to your critics



    This is week 3 of “Listen.”  We’ve been looking at what the Bible says about listening.  We started by seeing that God listens to us.  Then last week, we talked about listening to those we love.  And this week, we are going to talk about listening to our critics.  

    First video clip.

    Obviously, not everything our critics say is true and should be taken to heart.  But our critics may tell us things that our friends may not.

    Second video clip.

    Even when our critics are mostly wrong—like these two bozos—there is usually a grain of truth in their criticism.  There is always something we can learn, if we’ll listen.  

    Everyone wants to be heard and understood.  And when we fail to listen to our critics, we confirm their worst suspicions about us, and we fail to learn and grow—especially when they are right!

    Third video clip.

    We better pray!



    I thought that we could practice listening to criticism this morning—just tell someone what you don’t like about him!  But most of us get enough of that all week.  So find someone and tell him one thing you appreciate about him.

Introduction and offering:

    Listen!  Last week we talked about listening to those we love.  Today we are talking about listening to your critics.  Friday a friend asked me, “What if those are one and the same?”  Sometimes those we love and are closest to are our best critics…and we resist them the most.

ILL: I think if you asked Laina, she would tell you that early in our marriage, I was not very receptive to her criticism, no matter how kindly she put it.  It wasn’t her problem; it was mine.  I had some deep-seated insecurities, and I needed her affirmation, and was undone by her criticism.  (Words of affirmation are my love language; Laina says my love language is being right.)  This created some real problems.  She often told me, “I’m afraid to say anything to you because you react and get angry.”  It has taken me a long time and a lot of conscious effort to learn to listen to and appreciate my wife’s loving criticism—I finally did it yesterday!  

I had to accept that I’m not always right—no one is.  Sometimes I’m wrong.  Turn to the person next to you and say, “Sometimes I’m wrong.”  This is hard for us to admit, but until we get comfortable with the fact that we are sometimes wrong and still loved by God, we will struggle to accept criticism.

As I’ve matured, I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m often wrong, and need to listen to my critics.  But that doesn’t make it easy. It’s still hard.  Do you like to be criticized?  Neither do I.  But if I don’t listen, I miss out on a huge opportunity to grow and to build the relationship.  And God is all about relationships.  That’s why we’re talking about this.  The most important thing in life is loving God and loving people.  Good relationships are built on good communication, and good communication is built on listening.  God is all about relationships.  So here is:

The Big Idea: If you listen to your critics you will learn and grow; if you don’t, you miss out and may be hurting yourself and others.

Listen to your critics.  Two caveats.

First, today we are talking about listening to your critics, not about being one.  It is better to be generous with praise and sparing with criticism.  So this is not a message encouraging you to be critical; it is a message about listening to your critics so you can learn.  I love this proverb: “Before you speak critically about someone, walk a mile in their shoes.  That way, when you say bad things about them, you are a mile away and they are barefoot.”  Don’t be critical.

Second, not everything a critic says will be true.  In fact, sometimes they will be mostly wrong, and occasionally, completely wrong.  But you won’t know if they’re right or wrong unless you listen.  You can’t learn if you don’t listen—so listen, even if you think they’re wrong.  

    How many of you tend to react angrily to criticism?  Our verse for this series is more apropos today than ever.

James 1:19–20 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry—with everyone, but especially with your critics.  We’re going to talk about the danger of not listening to your critics, and the value of listening to your critics.  But first, let’s go for the jugular.


1. The critic may be speaking for God.

    Or, God may be the critic—and then it becomes especially important to listen without being defensive.  I know this makes some of you uncomfortable.  You don’t want to think of God criticizing you; you only want to imagine God smiling and sending rays of sunshine your way, and sprinkling angel dust on you.  God certainly has lots of good things to say, but He also doesn’t hesitate to correct us when we need it.  And we often need it.  But we must remember that God’s correction is an expression of His love.

Proverbs 3:11–12 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, 12 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.

This is quoted again in the NT in Hebrews 12.  And Jesus speaks to the church in Laodicea and says:

Revelation 3:19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.

God’s discipline or correction is an expression of His love.  He wants the very best for you!  So when God criticizes you, when He says, “This is wrong, or that needs to change,” remember that He loves you and delights in you and that’s why He corrects you.  He wants the very best for you.  

    The critic may be speaking for God.  The big example of this in the Bible is the prophets.  A third of the Old Testament is the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 Minor Prophets.  Israel strayed from God and their lives and society reflected it.  There was rampant immorality and injustice, and widespread idolatry.  They abandoned the God who had made a covenant with them.  So God sent the prophets, and they spoke for God.  In fact, they often began their speeches by saying, “Thus says the Lord!”  They called people to repent, to turn back to God, to forsake their sin.  Were they critical of the people?  Oh yes.  And did the people listen?  Oh no.  

2 Kings 17:13–14 The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.”

14 But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not trust in the Lord their God.

There is a two-verse summary of hundreds of years of Old Testament history!  God spoke through the prophets, and the people refused to listen.  There are dozens of verses about this, and I’ve listed just a few on your outline.  You’ll notice that there are several from Jeremiah—there are many more in Jeremiah.  He is called “the weeping prophet”; he was broken-hearted that his people had turned their back on God.  Over and over, Jeremiah laments the fact that his people refused to listen.  A couple examples.

Jeremiah 6:10 To whom can I speak and give warning?  Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.

Jeremiah has a corrective warning from God, but he weeps that no one will listen.  They should find pleasure in the word of the Lord, even when it is corrective (critical), because God loves them and wants the best for them.  But their ears are closed and their hearts are hard and they take offense at God’s loving criticism.  

Jeremiah 32:33 They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline.

They turned their backs to God and to Jeremiah, and they walked away.  They wouldn’t listen or respond to discipline.  

ILL:  My son Jeff was always very sensitive to correction.  He would get very angry, and often would just turn and walk away, sometimes shouting, sometimes muttering.  He would “turn his back to me.”  It was very frustrating for me, because I wanted to help him and he wouldn’t let me.

That’s the picture here.  I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to turn my back on God when He corrects me.  Listen to the phrases we just read, and ask yourself if they ever describe you when God (or someone else) criticizes you.

  • They would not listen.  

  • They were stiff-necked and stubborn.

  • Their ears were closed.

  • The word of the Lord was offensive to them.

  • They found no pleasure in it.

  • They turned their backs to God and not their faces.

  • They would not listen or respond to discipline.

Lord, I pray that these things would not be true of us.  I pray that we would be soft-hearted and responsive to your loving correction.  I pray that we would turn our faces toward you and delight in your words and listen eagerly.  Amen.

    The critic may be speaking for God.  God may be the critic!  Remember that He disciplines those He loves, and receive it that way.

Am I saying that every critic speaks for God?  Of course not.  Most of the people who criticize us are simply expressing their opinion. And some are kooks!  But knowing that God sent people to speak for Him, to correct those He loved and call them back—knowing that makes me want to pay closer attention to my critics, and ask, “God, are You trying to get my attention?”

God may be speaking through your critics.


2. The danger of not listening to your critics.

    When we fail to listen to our critics, we confirm their worst suspicions about us—they walk away more critical than ever.  And we miss out!  We miss an opportunity to learn, grow and change—especially when our critics are right!  (And they often are, because “Sometimes I’m wrong”.)

    1 Kings 12 tells the story of the passing of the crown in Israel from King Solomon to his son Rehoboam.  Solomon had a long and prosperous reign.  He had amassed great riches, and gone on an extensive building spree.  He built the Temple for God, and an even bigger palace for himself.  He built fortified cities, military fortresses, stables, on and on.  To do all this, he enslaved his own people and taxed them heavily.  

    So when Solomon died and Rehoboam took over, the Israelites sent a delegation to the new king and asked him to lighten their load.  “Lighten the harsh labor and heavy load your father put on us, and we will serve you.”  Rehoboam asked for three days to think this over and get advice.

    First, he sought advise from the elders who had served with his father.  They told him, “Listen to them; they’re right.  If you will serve these people, they will serve you.”  Their advice: lighten up!

    But the young king didn’t like that advice, so he sought out his buddies, guys his age who had grown up with him, and asked what they thought.  “Stick it to them!  Tell them, ‘You think my dad was hard; you ain’t seen nothing yet!  My little finger is thicker than my dad’s waist.  I’m a beast!’”  

    So three days later, the delegation returned, and Rehoboam answered them harshly, promising to increase their load.  Here’s the end of the story:

1 Kings 12:15–17 So the king did not listen to the people…

16 When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David!” So the Israelites went home. 17 But as for the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah, Rehoboam still ruled over them.

The mighty kingdom of Solomon—one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties in the region—split in two, and never recovered.  It was the end of Israel’s golden age—all because a young king wouldn’t listen to his critics.  They had valid criticisms that deserved a fair hearing and a good response.  But Rehoboam responded selfishly, defensively, immaturely—and it cost him most of his kingdom.  And it cost Israel their unity as a nation.

    Failure to listen to our critics will cost us—big time!  At the least, it will cost you an opportunity to learn and grow.  At the worst, it can be a disaster!

    Here’s an interesting thing.  Rehoboam did some things right.  He didn’t react immediately—that’s a good one.  

ILL: I learned this one the hard way.  For years, if someone approached me after a service and criticized something I said, I would almost always start defending myself.  Usually, this resulted in an argument that solved nothing and left both us upset.  It was an ugly way to end church and I went home discouraged and upset.

    Proverbs 13:10 Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.

    What is pride?  “I am right.”  But “Sometimes I’m wrong.”  Believing that I am always right only breeds quarrels.

Slowly I figured out that my best response was simply to listen, thank the person for their input, and assure them that I would take it seriously and think about it.  Two things happened.  First, most of the time, that person left happy—they had been heard and taken seriously.   Second, I started learning some things.  By listening and waiting to respond instead of just reacting, I was able to get past my initial defensiveness and began to see the truth of their criticism.  

Here’s a take-away: respond to criticism by listening, thanking your critic, and promising to think about it.  Don’t defend yourself; just listen and try to understand.  Rehoboam got this one right.

    He did another thing right: he asked for advice from more than one source.  

Proverbs 15:22 Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.  *

When you aren’t sure, seek advice from more than one source.  It’s a good move.  Don’t just look for people who agree with you.  Rehoboam sought advice from multiple counselors; unfortunately, he listened to the wrong ones—he listened to the ones who said, “Don’t listen to your critics.”  

    Failure to listen to your critics will cost you.  


3. The value of listening to your critics.

    When we listen to our critics, we learn and grow.  It’s that simple.  Sometimes I’m wrong.  My critics help me see that and change.  

ILL: Do you know that some people pay others to criticize them?  When I pay a golf pro $80 an hour for a lesson, I’m asking him to critique my swing.  When I did that last year, the pro took one look at my swing and said, “Where do I begin?”  There was lots to change!  

    Or businesses will hire a consultant to come in and observe what they do, and suggest ways to do it better.

We pay good money to someone who can help us improve!  And all of us have people who want to help us for free: our critics.  So listen and learn!

    The verses from Proverbs all say that when we listen to advice or rebuke or correction, we gain wisdom.  We become wise.  One example:

Proverbs 19:20 Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.

When we listen to our critics, we learn and grow.  We become wise.

ILL: In his book, Necessary Endings, Dr. Henry Cloud discusses the difference between a wise person and a fool.  He points to these verses from Proverbs and says that it has nothing to do with position, intelligence or talent. The one major difference between a wise person and a fool is how he or she receives instruction and correction.  Cloud says that a wise person listens without being defensive, accepts responsibility without blame, and changes without delay.  Fools resist change, are defensive and blame others.  

How do you respond to your critics?  Wise people listen and learn.

There is a story in the Old Testament that illustrates this; it is in Exodus 18.  Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  From early morning to late at night, all the people came to him to solve their disputes.  One judge for hundreds of thousands of people (up to 3 million).  Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, watched this one day and:

Exodus 18:17-19 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you.

“What you’re doing is not good.”  What’s that?  Criticism.  Moses’ father-in-law criticized the way Moses was handling things, and gave him some advice: delegate!  He suggested that Moses establish a hierarchy of courts and judges, much like we have today.  There would be judges over tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands.  Moses would be the Supreme Court and hear only the toughest cases.  It was great advice—good for everyone.  Good for Moses—it probably saved his life—he didn’t have to spend all day in small claims court.  And it was good for the people—they got justice more quickly.  It was good advice; did Moses listen?

Exodus 18:24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said.

That’s a verse I asked all my kids’ spouses to memorize!  Moses listened to his father-in-law’s criticism and advice, and it was good for everyone.  Everyone benefitted.  

    When we listen to our critics, we learn.  This is true of those who, like Jethro, are right.  It is also true of those who are only partly right, or even mostly wrong.  I believe there is something that I can learn from every person, if I am willing to listen without being defensive.  Even if they’re wrong, I can learn something.  

ILL: My pastor, Roy Hicks Jr., who is in heaven now, was an amazing man, and I learned so much from him.  Like all of us, he was a mix of good and bad—sometimes I am wrong.  He was a great communicator, an inspiring leader and he loved Jesus.  He also could be very abrupt.  One time I called him at his office, something I rarely did even though I worked for him.  His secretary put my call through, and he picked up the phone and said, “I’m busy, make it quick.”  

“Well, it’s good to talk to you too.”  I did make it quick, but I hung up and thought, “I don’t want to treat people like that.”  (Roy listened to his critics and mellowed.)  But I learned from Roy, from both the good and the bad.

Here’s the thing: If you listen and learn from the good and the bad, you’ll learn twice as much!  

    When we listen to our critics, we learn; we grow wise.

    When we listen to our critics, we learn, and we heal the relationship.  Listening is one way to turn enemies into friends, to make our most outspoken critics into our biggest fans.  People want to be heard and understood!

    In Matthew 18, Jesus gives instructions on what to do when a brother sins.  He gives a series of steps to take that start with simply going to your brother in private (or sister—becomes sometimes even women are wrong).  

Matthew 18:15 If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

If he listens to you—to your criticism—you have won your brother over, or won your brother back.  In other words, the relationship is restored.  We usually read this from the perspective of the person going to the erring brother.  But look at it from the position of the erring brother for a moment.  If you listen to your critic, the relationship is restored.  The friendship is restored, and your critic becomes your friend again.  

    This may be the greatest value of listening to your critics—it keeps relationships healthy.  And God is all about relationships.  

    I told my wife on Friday that for some of you, this could be a life-changing message.  If you can drop your defenses, get comfortable with the fact that sometimes you’re wrong, and listen to your critics—it could transform you and your relationships.