I Hate All Criticism and Probably Shouldn’t — Here’s Why


I hate it when people criticize me.

A few years ago, a man who was traveling through Nashville and had visited our church sent me a public criticism on Twitter, telling me all of the things that, in his “humble opinion,” were wrong about my sermon. Feeling defensive and irritated, I foolishly retaliated with a zinger or two of my own. 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 never said, and assigning motives to me that I never had. I then responded a second time, again in a way that was not helpful.

My unofficial “big brother,” Scotty Smith, saw this Twitter exchange and swiftly texted me a short message: “Scott, don’t wrestle with pigs.”

Scotty’s text was not intended to insult the man on Twitter. Rather, he was reminding me of a phrase that he and I had picked up from an article by Carey Nieuwhof about healthy leadership. “Don’t wrestle with pigs” is another way of saying that when people try to pick a fight with you or seem bent on criticizing you no matter what you say or do, it’s usually best simply not to engage them. Why? Because when leaders “wrestle with pigs,” we, too run the risk of becoming pig-headed in the process.

There is another disadvantage to “wrestling with pigs.” When we fight back—instead of seeking to defuse the situation by not responding or by answering gently—we condition ourselves to reject all critique, even the kind that is fair. When we do this, we harm everyone including ourselves.

In each of us, there is potential for good and also for evil. We are, at the same time, both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, saints and transgressors, old man and new man, flesh and spirit. We are, as Luther said, simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously righteous (in Christ) and sinner (in our flesh).

Throughout the pages of Scripture, God responds to our sin and foolishness with reassurance instead of shame, kindness instead of punishment, mercy instead of judgment, and love instead of abandonment. We are told that it is his kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). This being true, why would we ever consider not repenting of our sin as a viable option? Likewise, why would we continue to go to such great lengths to avoid all criticism?

Criticism that is constructive—whether directly from Scripture or from a person—is one of the ways God answers our prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

This portion of the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that all sin is absurd and futile and stupid—because  sin is not just an act of rebellion against the law of God. Even worse, it is an act of hatred against the love of God.

This is why King David, reflecting on his adultery, murder, and abuse of power, wrote that his sins brought him no joy but instead crushed his bones and sapped his spirit of joy (Psalm 51:8, 12). Clinging to sin afflicted him, tormented his soul, blocked his vision, wearied him with grief, and wasted him physically (Psalm 31:6-10).

Whenever we sin against God, we also sin against ourselves. We cannot thrive outside the blessed boundaries of God’s law any more than a fish can thrive outside the water. As those created in God’s image, his law is our roadmap for how to “image” him. His law is our design and our most natural and life-giving habitat.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases well in The Message: “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself.”

Although the wisdom of adhering to our design may seem obvious, we still need help. Specifically, we need Scripture and truth-telling friends to anchor us daily in the things that are right, good, and true. Our hearts are deceptive and frail, and therefore capable of justifying even the worst thoughts and words and actions. Our hearts are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” We need frequent reminders that we have not arrived yet and that, as Luther uttered on his deathbed, “We are all beggars, this is true.”

Because we are not yet what we are meant to be, we need honest voices in our lives to help us see in ourselves the sin that we cannot see and to confront us when we need confronting.

In her excellent book, Hope Has Its Reasons, Rebecca Pippert wrote about how true love detests whatever destroys the people that we love: “Real love stands against the deception, the lie, the sin that destroys … The more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.”

Bonhoeffer said something similar when he said “Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”

King David, ultimately, did not shield himself from critique. This is part of what made him such a great human being. When Nathan the prophet came to him and called him out for the evil in his life, David did not respond by saying, “Who do you think you are, Nathan? Do you know who it is that you are talking to? Where do you get off … ?”

Instead, David received Nathan’s confrontation humbly, repented of his sin, and sought to right the wrongs he had done. His story gives us one of the most comprehensive, historic confessions of sin ever offered:

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight … Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart … wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow … Hide your face from my sins … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit … ” (Psalm 51:1-19)

But David did not only confess his sin to God. He also turned and confessed to Nathan, saying, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Then he turned to Bathsheba, the widowed wife of the soldier that he had murdered, and became her husband.

Then, in an act of immense kindness, through Bathsheba God gave David a son whose name, Jedediah, means “Beloved of God.” This son was then given a second name, Solomon, which means “Peace.” This child, born from circumstances involving adultery, murder, and the abuse of power, would later be listed in the ancestry of Jesus as a picture of how long, wide, high, and deep the love of God travels:

David was the father of Solomon
by the wife of Uriah (Matthew 1:6).

Matthew goes out of his way to include that allusion to the unsavory circumstances surrounding Solomon’s birth. He could easily have left out the phrase or said “by Bathsheba” instead of “by the wife of Uriah.” Instead, he helps us see how God worked to redeem the sin that David committed and from which he later repented.

As if this weren’t enough grace for David, Jesus—the King of all Kings and Prince of Peace—would later identify himself as “the son of David” and would call David “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).

We can learn many things from David. There are many ways that we leaders especially can look to him  for inspiration. But one of the most important things we must learn from him is the wisdom of positioning ourselves to invite constructive, redemptive critique from those around us—especially those who know us best, such as colleagues, friends, church leaders, and family members. Our pursuit of character must matter more to us than protecting our reputation. We must learn to love the light, even when it exposes the darkness in us, instead of using our power to run from and hide from the light.

This, in spite of his many faults, was where David shined. The aftermath of the Bathsheba scandal presents to us a portrait of greatness—not because David was perfect but because he was ready to own his imperfection and to do so publicly to those he had injured the most. His greatness was found in his readiness to humble himself. In this, we see evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within: a willingness to lose face when he could have easily saved face and a readiness to repent when he didn’t have to because he was the one holding all the power.

David could have done the same thing to Nathan that he had previously done to Uriah—finish the man off in order to save his own hide and reputation. But he did not. Instead, he chose to listen, humble himself, repent, and right his own wrongs.

Writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard wrote, “The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.” By this standard, David was a great human being.

By the mercies of God, may we, likewise, allow ourselves to become “great.”


Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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9 responses to “I Hate All Criticism and Probably Shouldn’t — Here’s Why”

  1. Tara Bryant says:

    Ugh. This is more frightening than a terrorist attack! “Our pursuit of character must matter more to us than protecting our reputation. We must learn to love the light, even when it exposes the darkness in us, instead of using our power to run and hide from the light.” This terrifies me! Yet, the purpose is entirely different. The severe mercy of our loving God works to expose for the purpose of making all things new according to His plan. Terrorists destroy for evil intent not the flourishing of creation. Ah, and character is built on our sufferings (often wrought by criticisms), and in some upside down way that only a sovereign God could conceive, it gives birth to hope. Oh God, let me pursue character, not reputation, and in so doing trust that Your good heart is pursuing me through the pain of exposure for the purpose of grasping the hope of the gospel in me and the world. Amen. Thank you Scott for this needful reminder!

  2. Chris Highfield says:

    Another disadvantage of wrestling with pigs is that both of you get dirty and only one of you likes it! 🙂 God bless you, Brother!

  3. Wes Alford says:

    Very helpful. Thank you!

  4. Virginia Steele says:

    What more can I say? I say “EXCELLENT” !!!!!!

  5. Greg says:

    “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.””
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭3:10-12‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    And in the case i was tempted to believe that this does not apply to me, a new creation in Christ,even the apostle Paul goes on to say about himself: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good…
    For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭7:15-16, 18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    Then when there’s temptation to think that there’s no hope anywhere Paul continues:“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭7:24-25‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    Paradoxically, looking forward to that day where we will shed these broken bodies and receive the greatest gift of full realization of the Glory of God in Jesus Himself takes the edge off and power away from our earth bound sinful flesh that so wants to dabble in the trinkets of making much of self!

    “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
    ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭5:1‬ ‭ESV‬‬

  6. Patrick McClarty says:

    Excellent article. Only thing I would add is even with total forgiveness there is still consequences of sin. David was forgiven, restored, but he suffered much due to his great sin. Just read Psalms.

  7. Angie says:

    “ from an article by Carey Nieuwhof about healthy leadership. “Don’t wrestle with pigs” is another way of saying that when people try to pick a fight with you or seem bent on criticizing you no matter what you say or do, it’s usually best simply not to engage them. Why? Because when leaders “wrestle with pigs,” we, too run the risk of becoming pig-headed in the process.
    There is another disadvantage to “wrestling with pigs.” When we fight back—instead of seeking to defuse the situation by not responding or by answering gently—we condition ourselves to reject all critique, even the kind that is fair. When we do this, we harm everyone including ourselves.”

    Yes. But when I think about the times when I have NOT fought back, instead choosing to take the more gracious, gentle, path, I have found it REALLY hard. Because I have not felt vindicated in the face of wrong. I feel I have sacrificed MY right to be right. I have been ‘done bad’ against with no recourse to truth and justice. It just doesn’t seem FAIR.
    I agree that the gentle answer is the right way, but how to deal with these feelings? And yes, I know the answer is Look to Jesus! It takes more strength and courage than I have… which, I suppose, is the point. Jesus is to be my strength and courage.

  8. Tim Aagard says:

    I don’t have any criticism for Pastors. I have “rebuke and correction”, the two middle purposes of scripture. 2 Tim. 3:16,17. But when I give it, complete with the scripture. I always get an accusation back. “You seem to have an agenda.” “You must have been hurt in the past.” “When you have ministered to as many people as I have, you can help me grow.” And many more. The scripture I gave, was rendered meaningless, by those who allegedly devote “full time” to the scripture. I admit, what I have to “rebuke and correct” are SYSTEMIC disobedient practices in every Pastorate, and have been polished and perpetuated for 500 years. I am a reformer, like the reformers and the anabaptists who worked to reform the reformers. I know Baptist Pastors, and elders know this history, but they appear to be clueless that more reform is needed, and that God will not funnel it directly to those who are systemically disobedient. It’s in all of their Bibles. They are blind to the reality that DISSENT is still needed today. Jesus will not marry a bride in it’s current condition. I realize I am just a messenger. I don’t have to launch back. There is a reward for receiving false accusation and betrayal by brothers in Christ.

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