On criticism

“When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’” (John 8:7).

The “her” in reference is a woman guilty of adultery, and Jesus is speaking to a group of law-teachers and Pharisees who mean to stone her to death for her sin. This verse is, in my mind, one of the most important passages in the entire Bible, and I think it may be one of the most important teachings that any resource has to teach us about what it means to be a sheep in Christ’s flock.

Firstly, it teaches me that because we are all human (and fallibly so), that we must be mindful that our fellows under God are likewise human, and that our humanity makes us susceptible to failure. With these words, Jesus reminds the mob that next to God, we are all in the same sinking boat of frailty and fallibility.

Secondly, it teaches that our province as humans is not to judge sin. Judgement, and forgiveness, are the sole province of the Lord. It is neither my responsibility, nor my responsibility, to judge others.

Today is a different time, and we live in a very different place than Judea. Thankfully, people here aren’t stoned in the streets these days. (We leave it to our criminal-justice system to dole out ultimate punishment, and that is a conversation for another day.) The question is: what does this lesson mean to my own insulated life, and how can I use this to become closer to God and to my fellows?

One of the things I am particularly guilty of is criticism. It can feel good, even righteous, to be critical. I’ve written before about how addictive rage and outrage can be–pundits (comedian and otherwise) like Sean Hannity and John Oliver have made a living off of that principle. Criticism is no different. I often read a review every day: of a movie or television show or car or restaurant. And because I read in a language of criticism, I believe I’ve started to think in a language of criticism.

I don’t necessarily tend to be vocally critical of people close to me; I’m mostly tactful, and often gentle. But I do tend to be be a perfectionist. When I write or build something, I tinker and toy and fidget until it is as good as I can possibly make it, and if the results are substandard, I will often trash that thing before it ever sees the day’s light. In that way, I am my own harshest critic. Perhaps that is good, perhaps not. But, because I see myself that way, I tend to hold others to the same standard. If something isn’t absolutely perfect, wonderful though it may be, I find it all too easy to pick it apart. That song could have used a different key for the bridge. This language of this book is too simplistic. This movie was 20 minutes too long. I have never written a song or a book, nor have I made a movie, but I still have been guilty of considering myself an expert in those arenas, if only by virtue of being a consumer.

I feel as though I’m at my worst when I am critical of someone close to me. It’s so easy to cherry-pick bad decisions in hindsight, or to point out where something went wrong. What I sometimes lose sight of is the effort that went into creating something, or making that decision. I can’t see the different viewpoint from which the author of that thing, whatever it is, viewed that moment.

Being critical makes us feel smarter than our peers, more evolved than our fellows, and better than the average person. Am I actually any of those things? I make mistakes every day. I give partial efforts where full effort is due. I commit sins. My results, such as they are, are no better than those of whom I’m being critical. This comes back to humility, and seeing myself as equal to my fellows, both in my ability to achieve, and my ability to fail.

So, who am I to criticize? Who am I to pass judgement?

Prayer:

Heavenly Father, please help me walk humbly among my fellows. Let me see their efforts and intents rather than imperfect results, and help me see that next to you, we are all imperfect.

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