How to Understand and Approach Someone With a Critical Spirit
What Is the Curse and Consequence of a Critical Spirit?
Criticism is “an act of criticizing; to judge as a critic; to find fault; to blame or condemn.” Romans 14:10-13 tells us not to tear down fellow believers through criticism or judgment, because this can pose a stumbling block and cause serious damage to their faith. Among God’s warnings in Scripture, there are none more serious than the Matthew 18:6 warning to not become a stumbling block to His followers.
Have you ever noticed: We tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions? The truth is, we can’t rightly judge anyone else, because we don’t have a heart x-ray machine. That is to say, we don’t know the motivations of their heart. We should be content to judge only ourselves and seek to bring our own lives in alignment with God’s Word (1 Cor. 11:31).
What is a critical spirit? A “critical spirit,” is an obsessive attitude of criticism and fault-finding, which seeks to tear down others rather than build up. Destructive criticism is different from constructive feedback. The only criticism that is ever constructive is that which speaks the truth in love, to build up or edify another person for his or her good and for God’s glory.
What are some characteristics of constructive or healthy feedback?
- It is descriptive rather than evaluative, reducing the need for others to react defensively.
- It is specific rather than general; as a rule, the more specific we are, the more helpful we are.
- It is directed toward behavior that the receiver can control or do something about.
- It is well timed. Trust needs to be established, but generally the sooner the better.
- It is solicited rather than imposed. Feedback is most appreciated when it is requested.
- It is checked with the receiver in order to insure clear, factual or accurate communication.
- It takes into account the needs of the giver and receiver of the feedback – truth spoken in love.
- It is always expressed face-to-face and never as gossip behind another person’s back.
A critical spirit dwells on the negative, looks for flaws rather than positive qualities in others. They are constantly complaining or criticizing and usually upset with something or somebody. They often have little control over their tongue, their temper and have tendencies for gossip, slander, strife and malice. These are some of the sins spoken of by Paul in Romans 1:29-32.
Do you know anyone who has a critical spirit? I’m sure we all do. But the question that we really need to consider is: Do you have a critical spirit, and if so, how would you know? If you have a critical or judgmental spirit, you would probably refer to it euphemistically? You would probably refer to this poisonous character quality by saying something like: “I’m just being discerning,” or “I’m just being honest,” or “Get real, I’m just telling it like it is.” Do you ruminate on your negative feelings, thinking about how bad or wrong something or someone was? Do you say things like: “I can’t believe he was such a bad listener; man, is he full of himself.” Or: “She is so vain.” Or: “Look at her clothes! I wonder how much money she spends on her wardrobe.” Sometimes the negativity of our hearts finds its way to the tongue, and other times it just stays in our hearts. Either way, the root sin of a critical spirit is the same.
A critical spirit can be very detrimental and damaging to a person’s personal faith or to the health and vitality of a local congregation. Over time, if left unchecked, it prevents us from seeing, appreciating and enjoying all that’s truly good in the world – all that God is actively doing. It is the exact opposite of wearing “rose-colored glasses.” A critical spirit is like putting on sunglasses when the day is full of clouds: everything in life begins to take on a dark, drab hue. The critical person comes to expect, even to hope, that everything will have something wrong with it. Taken to the extreme, a critical person can assume the role of the “devil’s advocate.” One’s very identity can be marked by this “need” for negativity. But critical people aren’t just hurting themselves; they are also negatively affecting others as well.
What Are the Causes of a Critical Spirit?
(These factors aren’t mutually exclusive and the more factors present, the worse the problem.)
Let’s briefly consider some important factors (causes) contributing to cultivating a critical spirit:
- Our Sinful or Selfish nature is referred to in the Bible as “the flesh.” A critical person is walking in the flesh, not the Spirit. Rather than drawing on God for strength and perspective, the critical person relies upon his own resources. Cynicism inhibits faith and quenches the Spirit of God, causing us to live based on negative feelings, not faith. Godly people will always be optimistic and full of hope because they know, love and serve a good, great and gracious God. On the other hand, the outlook of the sinful nature or “the flesh” will be one of despair. Why? Because apart from Christ, we have no realistic basis for hope (Jn. 15:5; Phil. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:58)
- Poor Self-Concept: It’s been said, “Hurting people hurt people.” This is demonstrably true. When you meet people who are constantly critical, you can be pretty sure that they’re suffering from a poor self-concept which is a works-based self concept. They see themselves as unattractive, failing, or in some manner unworthy, perhaps they even condemn themselves. Finding faults keeps us from seeing, feeling and dealing with our own pain and shortcomings.
- Little or no Grace: A critical person has experienced little or no grace from God. It’s far easier to see others’ sins than our own. Judgmental people rarely get in touch with God’s perspective on their own ugly failures, or with God’s incredible gift of forgiveness. We’re all Pharisees at heart. Have we honestly faced our sin and experienced God’s grace? Have you ever wept over your sins? When you see the sins of others, are you aware that you are just as capable of the very things they do, were God to withdraw His grace from you?
- Pessimism or Negativity: A negative emotional focus, a bad attitude or a negative, cynical, secular view of life. A negative person may have unconfessed sin in his life (Romans 2:1). There are some individuals who are so negative they assume the role as the devil’s advocate. It seems that no matter what opinion you have, they’ll take the opposite and argue with you. The devil gives us enough problems, we don’t need to have anyone advocate for him!
- Insecurity: Criticism is often a conscious or subconscious means to “elevate one’s own self-esteem or self image.” By putting others down, they’re inwardly trying to build themselves us by feeling more important or appearing more knowledgeable. Envy of the good fortune of others is often the cause of a critical attitude and/or action. Ministers can be guilty of this as well. We need to learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and be happy for the good fortune of others.
- Immaturity: Christians must always keep their faith focused upon Christ and His Word, not on others who will invariably disappoint (Heb. 12:2). Immature believers haven’t progressed very far in their faith and are perhaps too dependent upon the faith of other Christians. Unfortunately, when they begin to notice the flaws or shortcomings in others, this becomes a subconscious threat to their own faith and walk. Criticism becomes a reaction of disappointment, because their unrealistic expectations in others have been crushed.
- An Unrenewed Mind: Put-downs, making fun of, criticism, sarcasm are the world’s ways of reacting to the faults of others. However, as Christians we shouldn’t behave this way. Paul says that our thinking and attitude should be regularly renewed by God’s Word, which teaches us to bear the infirmities of the weak, to love, show compassion and offer encouragement (Rom. 12:2).
- A Root of Bitterness develops when we fail to obtain the grace of God to forgive. When we fail to forgive others we become angry, bitter and resentful, not better. Hebrews 12:15: “Look after each other so that not one of you will fail to find God’s best blessings. Watch out that no bitterness takes root among you, for as it springs up it causes deep trouble, hurting many in their spiritual lives.” Such people develop a negative emotional focus by harboring bitterness or resentment toward one who has offended them. Our ability to live healthy, happy, harmonious lives is largely related to our willingness and ability to consistently forgive and ask forgiveness.
- Bad Company: The reality is, for better or worse, we become like those with whom we associate. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: 33, we should not be deceived, bad company ruins good morals or corrupts good character. If you are basically a positive person and you associate with a lot of negative people, and you are not having a positive influence on them, over time, they can have an adverse influence on you and pull you down into their negativity.
- The Devil specializes in influencing negative, obsessive, sinful attitudes and behavior. He may use any of these factors or other techniques, to influence a complaining or critical attitude and to stir up turmoil and strife within the body of Christ (Eph. 6:12). We must be on guard so we won’t be used as a tool of the Devil to discourage or tear down others through criticism. In Ephesians 4:27, Paul warns us not to give the Devil an opportunity to be used by him. Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10). Don’t allow Satan to use you!
What Do We Need in Order to Overcome a Critical Spirit?
One thing is for sure: we don’t need to go from one extreme to the other. That is to say, the solution is not to exchange “our dull gray sunglasses” for a pair of “rose-tinted glasses.” Following Christ doesn’t make someone a naive person with a Pollyanna attitude. Fake smiles, repressed anger and a lot of superficial “praise-the-Lords” do not build the Kingdom of God. Sin needs to first be confronted and defeated in ourselves. Jesus said that we need to first take the log out of our own eye before we can see clearly enough to take the splinter of another’s eye. Critical people may be misusing the gift of discernment. If you have that gift, be grateful to God, but don’t misused/abuse it by judging, condemning or constantly finding fault with others.
What Are Some Crucial Changes a Critical Person Needs to Consider Making?
Here are just a few:
- We need to have our spiritual eyes opened to see two complementary spiritual truths: a) The depth of our own sin, and b) the greater depth of God’s grace toward us in Christ. Spiritual sight here isn’t something we can “will.” God must give it, but we can ask Him for it: Pray, “God, would you help me to see myself more clearly and know your love more intimately?” We all need to experience the depth of our own sin, and the abundance of God’s grace. James 4:9-10: “Let there be tears for the wrong things you have done. Let there be sorrow and sincere grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter and gloom instead of joy. Then when you realize your worthlessness before the Lord, he will lift you up, encourage and help you.” When King David’s blind eyes were finally opened to his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, he didn’t merely acknowledge it in some academic, emotionally removed way; he fell on his face, wailed and fasted for three full days! The more we experience God’s grace, the more grateful we are and the more we’re motivated to extend grace to others by being gracious and forgiving!
- We must be deeply convinced that only God can accurately discern the motives of the heart. Since we can never know with certainty one’s true motives, we must not assume for ourselves the role and the responsibility of judge that belongs to God alone. James 4:11-12 says: “Don’t criticize and speak evil about each other… If you do, you’ll be fighting against God’s law of loving one another, declaring it’s wrong. But your job is not to decide whether this law is right or wrong, but to obey it. Only he who made the law can rightly judge among us. He alone decides to save us or destroy. So what right do you have to judge or criticize others?” There are so many factors, beyond our knowledge, that go into another’s actions. Only God sees the heart and only His judgment will be 100% accurate and fair (Jer. 17:9-10). Some of you may hear this admonition, yet still secretly think, “Well, yes, but you see, I really do know why Person X does what she does.” Yes, sometimes you’re right; but you may very well be wrong as well. “What right do you have to judge or criticize others?” (Jas. 4:12b).
- We need to learn what to do when we’re bothered by bad behavior of a Christian brother. We must pray for both the person and our response to them instantly and fervently! What would happen if we channeled all our critical energy into an honest dialog with God? It’s always better to talk to God about another than to talk to another about what they should do. It’s just plain wrong for us to have a double standard, one for us and one for others, isn’t it? Instead of judging others, we should, like the Psalmist, ask God to search and examine us. Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” If we don’t first take the log out of our own eye, we’re not in a position to restore a fallen brother or sister.
- We must learn to engage in clear, direct, face to face communication with other people. No fake smiles where we try to call darkness “light.” No repression of true feelings, but clear, caring, constructive communication. The goal isn’t to tear down by revealing hidden character flaws; it’s: repentance, reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships. And remember: there’s no guarantee people are going to respond the way God wants them to.
- We need to be encouragers; genuinely up-building others and helping them become all that they can become and all that God longs for them to become. Get excited about building people up, not tearing them down! Be an encourager like Barnabas was to Paul and trust God to provide encouragement for you as well. A timely word of genuine affirmation may mean more than you know. Encouragement empowers; it is oxygen for the soul. Instead of seeing only the downside of those around us, let’s pray for the ability to see what God is doing in others’ lives and then make our own small contribution in furthering along God’s good work in the lives of others.
What Are the Cures For Conquering the Causes of a Critical Spirit?
Since many causes contributing to a critical spirit, the cures must be related to particular causes:
- If the cause of a critical spirit is a life style based on living by our sinful selfish nature, we need to cultivate our new nature and learn to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:16: “…obey only the Holy Spirit’s instructions. He will tell you where to go and what to do, and then you won’t always be doing the wrong things your evil nature wants you to.” Ephesians 5:18b: “be filled instead with the Holy Spirit and controlled by him.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is a poor self-concept based of our works, we need to cultivate a healthy self-concept based upon God’s grace, not our works. First Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is that we have experienced little or no grace from God, we need to humble ourselves before God, confess, repent of our sins and ask His forgiveness. James 4:6b: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is our insecurity due in large measure to lack of self-acceptance, we need to learn to accept God’s acceptance of us and find true security in God’s love for us. Romans 8 says that nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Jesus Christ our Lord.
- If the cause of a critical spirit is a negative emotional focus or negative worldview, we need to learn to see God’s view of Jesus and not from a worldly secular point of view. Second Corinthians 5:16: “Though we once regarded Christ from a worldly point of view, we do so no longer.” Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is immaturity resulting from an improper faith focus, we need to learn to focus our faith on the atoning sacrifice of Christ and God’s promises to us. Hebrews 12:2-3: “Keep your eyes on Jesus, our leader and instructor. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy he knew would be his afterwards; and now he sits in the place of honor by the throne of God. If you want to keep from becoming fainthearted and weary, think about his patience as sinful men did such terrible things to him.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is an un-renewed mind based on the world’s ways of reacting, we need to submit ourselves to God and be daily transformed by the renewing of our minds. Romans 12:1-2:“I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is a root of bitterness due to a lack of forgiveness on our part, we need to appropriate God’s grace by forgiving others as God for Christ’s sake forgave us. Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind/compassionate to one another, forgiving just as in Christ God forgave you.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is the result of our associations with an unhealthy peer group, we need to associate with those who have godly values and a positive mental attitude. First Corinthians 15:33: “Don’t let anyone deceive you. Associating with bad people will ruin decent people.”
- If the cause of a critical spirit is the result of the devil negatively impacting your life, we need to learn to resist Satan so that we would not be used by him to discourage/hurt others. James 4:7-8a: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
How Can One Offer Godly Constructive Feedback?
- Directly (face to face), not indirectly (through intermediaries).
- Soberly (seriously), not flippantly (in a lighthearted way).
- Importantly (major offenses), not inconsequentially (minor offenses).
- Privately (alone together), not publically (in the presence of others).
- Lovingly (concern for other’s best interest), not malevolently (returning evil for evil).
- Accurately (factually), not based on gossip (incomplete or inaccurate information).
- Timely (sooner rather than later), not conveniently (whenever we get around to it).
Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on.” The reason we come together as a church isn’t to criticize, but to “encourage” one another. “Cursing the darkness” won’t change anything; instead we must learn to “light a candle.” Ephesians 4:15 says we are to “speak the truth in love;” in so doing, others will change for the better. Loving encouragement is a “motivational force.” If we ever hope to help others, we need to learn to encourage them. Just as sugar attracts more flies than honey, so encouragement helps others more than a critical spirit or a judgmental attitude.
Let’s use our tongues to build up not tear down: “Let no foul or polluting language, nor evil word, nor unwholesome or worthless talk (ever) come out of your mouth; but only such speech as is good and beneficial to the spiritual progress of others, as is fitting to the need and the occasion, that it may be a blessing and give grace to those who hear it” (Eph. 4:29, Amplified Bible)
Here is a “Prescription for a Healthy Mind” by psychiatrist Dr. David H. Fink:
Several years ago, a psychiatrist wrote a magazine article, “Release from Nervous Tension.” In his article, he outlined his research into the causes of mental and emotional disturbances. From over 10,000 case studies, he discovered that there was a common trait with all his patients who suffered from severe tension. They were habitual fault-finders, constant critics of people and things around them. Those free from tension were the least critical. The conclusion of this study is that fault-finding is a prelude or mark of the nervous or mentally unbalanced person. What’s the bottom line? Those who wish to retain good emotional, mental and spiritual health should learn to free themselves from a negative, critical, judgmental attitude!
Isn’t this what Paul says in Philippians 4:8-9? “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, [for good] will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”
Remember: the Bible doesn’t promise peace to those who dwell on the faults of others! It says, “[The Lord] will keep them in perfect peace, whose minds are stayed on [Him]! (Isa. 26:3).
Written for The John Ankerberg Show by, Dr. Steven C. Riser; ©2011.