The word criticism itself is neither positive nor negative - it comes from the basic idea of criterion. A criterion is a standard or principle by which something or someone can be evaluated. For example, in the field of engineering there are certain specifications for a piece of machinery that are used as criterion to judge the quality and value of that part, especially if it is made by different companies. The parts that adhered most closely to the specifications (criteria) would be judged most valuable and having the best quality. In this way, a criterion is the standard against which you measure the value of something or someone.
Once we understand the idea of criterion, we can put the problem of "criticism" into perspective. Criticism is the judging or evaluating of a person based on certain criteria. There are two forms of criticism:
1. Legitimate criticism
A qualified person makes an informed judgment based on acceptable criteria. For example, a quality control manager examines a product based on manufacturing specifications.
- A teacher corrects a student's assignment on a given subject.
- A parent judges the behavior of a child based on the house rules.
- A journalist analyzes government policies against the impact on society.
There are many examples, but I've chosen a few examples of legitimate criticism to put to rest the false notion that it is always wrong to criticize. Legitimate criticism is necessary; to test the validity of products, ideas, and the behavior of people.
However, to be legitimate, criticism needs to possess three basic components:
A. A criterion for judgment
For criticism to be legitimate it must use an acceptable standard in its evaluation. You can't judge apples against oranges. Proper criticism needs a consistent and legitimate standard to measure against.
B. A knowledge of the subject
The more knowedgeable the judge, the more valuable the criticism. Part of the work of "experts" is to offer criticism within their field of expertise in order to raise the level of quality or knowledge.
C. An unbiased judgment
The most valuable and constructive criticism comes from a knowledgeable and unbiased judge. This is why many companies (especially pharmaceutical) have to send their products to outside companies for evaluation. When criticism contains these basic elements, it serves its purpose which is to separate and evaluate the good from the bad.
The Bible makes reference to legitimate forms of criticism.
But if we would examine ourselves, we would not be judged by God in this way.
- I Corinthians 11:31 (NLT)
The first word "examine" is from a Greek word which means to distinguish, or to discern (to evaluate according to a standard = criticize).
The second word translated "judge" means to condemn, as in a court of law.
Paul says that if we criticized our own attitude and conduct in worship carefully, according to the standard of good conduct, we would not be condemned for poor conduct. The point of legitimate criticism is to identify and remove what is lacking and what is flawed, with the goal of restoring to what is best according to an accepted standard.
2. Illegitimate criticism
In our survey I don't think people were concerned about giving or receiving legitimate criticism - I believe the concern was the problem of illegitimate criticism. There are several forms of illegitimate criticism:
A. Criticism without criterion
This is the most common type of criticism. People criticize without cause, knowledge or standards. They criticize without thinking or basis. Many hide their criticism behind the comment that they're giving an "opinion."
An opinion is simply another word for criticism, but some people think that if they wrap their criticism in an opinion they will not have to take responsibility for what they say.
If you have no knowledge and no standard, it is better to ask questions or remain silent.
Even a fool when he keeps silent is considered wise.
- Proverbs 17:28
Criticism without knowledge or criterion is ignorance.
B. Constant criticism
Some people judge and criticize because that's what they do. Criticism is their main form of communication and expression. It's as if they are compelled to judge and critique every experience they have or person they come in contact with. The problem here is twofold:
- No one person has enough knowledge to legitimately criticize everything and everyone.
- These people are mostly negative in their criticism; even in their positive opinions there's always a "but..."
There are times when criticism is needed, but if this is all that one produces, it can't be legitimate. Constant criticism is usually a sign that a person is not happy with themselves, and criticizing everything is a way of deflecting the criticism one feels for oneself.
C. Condemning criticism
This is the most damaging because it may be based on acceptable standards or the critic may have knowledge and expertise.
The problem is that the judgment/criticism is formed negatively or hurtfully. Since perfection isn't possible, it is easy to always frame our critique in negative ways.
For example, let us look at Simon Cowell, a former judge on American Idol:
- Had knowledge/expertise and qualified to judge.
- His criticisms were mostly framed in negative terms.
- Even his compliments insulted others (best of a bad bunch).
- Negative criticisms often go beyond judging to condemnation and hurt.
Condemning criticism is the type of evaluation that is always framed in negative terms. This is what Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:1-5.
1 Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
Some think this is a command never to judge anything. They think this passage supports the toleration of all kinds of social and moral misconduct. For example, you are wrong if you criticize the gay lifestyle or someone's poor attitude towards others or their work.
But what Jesus is saying is:
Vs. 1-2 – Be careful how you judge, not don't ever judge. You need to be careful because you also will be judged.
Vs. 3-4 – Don't judge with a "log" (negative attitude, ignorance, prejudice) in your eye (your criticism/perception) because this will spoil your ability to judge correctly.
Vs. 5 – First, evaluate yourself and this will enable you to recognize and eliminate your "log" (prejudice, ignorance, etc.) so you can render a fair and accurate criticism.
Negative criticism is justified if it comes from one who is aware of the criterion for judgment, and keeps an eye on himself to make sure the criticism is fair and doesn't become simple condemnation and bullying.
As Christians we know that criticism is sometimes necessary and, when done correctly, can be quite helpful. We can, however, avoid the temptation to become people who give too much or too negative criticism of others if we remember some simple rules about the use of criticism in general:
1. Use criticism sparingly
No matter how much expertise and insight you have or how fair you are about it - no one likes to receive criticism. There is no rule that says that you have to give your opinion on everything. When it comes to criticism the old saying, "less is more," truly applies. One way to break yourself from the habit of being overly critical is to offer your criticism only under the following circumstances:
- When your criticism will save a person from evil of some kind.
- When your criticism is based on your true expertise, whatever that is.
- When someone actually asks you for your opinion.
Following these rules for the times you offer criticism will greatly reduce those times, and, along with them, the trouble caused by improper criticism.
2. Balance your criticism
Of course there is always something negative you can base your entire judgment on; this is an imperfect sinful world. But the bitter will be so much more palatable if you provide some sweetness to help the medicine go down. Sometimes there is a need to make a judgment call on someone's sin or failure, and you are in the right position to do so.
However, if a ray of hope and encouragement are provided along with the bad, a person is not left feeling completely lost and defeated. All the prophets in the Old Testament, when they were chastising the Israelites for their sins and moral failures, would follow a pattern:
- They would begin by listing the offenses committed.
- Then they would warn of the terrible and sure punishments.
- But they would finish with the promise that God would eventually restore them to a position of hope one day.
Balanced criticism builds the person up because a fair assessment of both the bad and good is made about them when needed. A good rule here is to include two good things for each negative so that the net result is hope for the future from the base of good things now present.
3. Always criticize self, first
The best type of critique is the one that has taken a long look at self first. When we do this we tend to be a little more merciful towards others.
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
- Romans 2:1
Paul says that there is no excuse for the one who criticizes someone else for the things he excuses in himself. Usually when we see ourselves, we are less prone to criticize others; and when we do, we are a little more generous.
4. Realize that Jesus is the true criterion
The problem with criticism, judgment and opinion, especially of others, is that we tend to use ourselves, or our best image of self, or the expectations of others as the criterion/standard for judgment.
If we compare and judge ourselves and others to Jesus as the standard there will be no jealousy, negative envy or false criticism. We all fall short of God's glory and are in need of His mercy.
This attitude creates patience, mercy, kindness, long-suffering and forgiveness towards others. Instead of criticism there is concern. Instead of judgment there is joy that no matter what our failing, all of us have been saved by the blood of Christ.
In the end, when the log is removed from our eye, we see all men as Christ sees them: the objects of His mercy and salvation. If He does not criticize us anymore, we tend to let it go too.