Dealing with Criticism in a ‘Cancel Culture’ Era
I hate being criticized. Don’t you?
Because everyone is flawed, everyone can also expect some criticism from time to time. But these days, a carefully timed, carefully placed call-out can have the effect of “canceling” the person being criticized socially, culturally, professionally, and in many other ways.
Even when a person’s overall history, accomplishments, and personal character are laudable, a negative word spoken these days can swiftly reduce him or her to a single, defining worst moment. To make matters worse, a damning narrative doesn’t even have to be true anymore to ruin a person’s good name; in many cases, it only needs to be told. In a quick flash, a voice is discredited and silenced, influence is lost, and career and reputation are destroyed.
In today’s court of public opinion where it’s expected that people will get “canceled” for having their own, unique point of view on certain issues, we can no longer assume we’ll be judged innocent until proven guilty. Instead, we might expect to be judged guilty until proven innocent. And if we are proven innocent, it may be too late. For this reason, those of us who serve in the ministry (or who are in any other public role) can live in fear of being “canceled” for any number of things. As one colleague of mine who has been in ministry for nearly forty years said, “If I get behind a microphone and say just five, poorly stated or misunderstood words, it could potentially ruin my entire ministry.”
While I have my own concerns about “cancel culture,” over the years I’ve also grown to appreciate how being criticized can contribute to my growth and help me address my many blind spots. This includes criticisms of the ill-intended, irritating variety. As Tim Keller once reminded me, even false criticism creates opportunity to search for kernels of truth therein. As these kernels are discovered, we are given fresh things to bring to the Lord for repentance and grace. This isn’t always fun, but it can be fruitful.
Here’s a case in point from my own experience. A few years back, a man who visited our church while traveling through Nashville called me out with a public criticism on Twitter, in which he relayed to me several things that, in his “humble opinion,” were wrong with my sermon. Feeling defensive and irritated, I foolishly retaliated with a criticism of my own, along with a Bible verse to justify.
The man then sent five more messages on Twitter, piling on more criticism, taking my words out of context, putting words in my mouth that I did not say, and ascribing motives to me that I did not have. I responded a second time, again in a way that was not helpful. My friend and longtime encourager, pastor Scotty Smith, saw the exchange between the Twitter critic and me. He swiftly sent me a text message that said, “Scott, my brother, you forgot that you’re not supposed to wrestle with pigs.” Scotty’s text was not intended as an insult to the man on Twitter. Instead, he was reminding me of a phrase that he and I had picked up from an article by leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof.
“Don’t wrestle with pigs” is another way of saying that when people try to pick a fight or seem bent on criticizing you, it’s usually best not to engage them. Why? Because when we wrestle with pigs, we risk becoming pig-headed ourselves in the process, and everyone ends up getting mud on their faces.
There is another cost for wrestling with pigs. When we strike back in retaliation instead of defusing a situation with a gentle answer, we condition ourselves to reject all criticism, even the kind that is fair. When this occurs, we are playing the role of victim-martyr, listening to the twisted voice of self-righteousness instead of resting in and responding in light of the righteousness that is freely ours in Christ.
Like the man from Twitter and those who seek to advance “cancel culture,” ill-intended criticism ought not to be engaged because it distracts us from where our focus ought to be. Our aim is not to please other people, nor is it even to put our critics in their place. Rather, our aim is to please Christ with lives of humility, faithfulness, and love. Sometimes, even an ill-intended criticism can serve that purpose.
Our starting point in this endeavor, which is also our ending point is to remember that Christ himself was “canceled” for our sake. This was voluntary on his part, as a way to cover and protect us from the very true things about us that give him every reason to cancel us. How marvelous, and how wonderful, that he does not so much as consider doing that. Thanks be to God for his unfathomable grace.
This is a modified excerpt of Scott’s newest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them. Used by permission from Harper Collins.
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