Did you ever stop to notice how much of the conversation that goes on around you every day consists of judgment and criticism of other people?
Consider a very common scenario. You’re hanging out with friends, workmates or schoolmates, and the focus of the conversation shifts to someone who is not present. Everyone has something to say, and very little of it is constructive, positive or complimentary. On the contrary, most of what is said consists of putdowns, mocking humour, and complaints. This tendency is especially common when the person we are talking about is a recognized figure who has attained some success in business, sports or entertainment, or who has some influence or control over our lives – a boss, manager, teacher, parent, spiritual leader or politician.
I grew up in what was in many respects a wonderful family. However, we certainly weren’t immune from this very common tendency to find fault with others; in fact it was part of the daily bread on which I grew up. We were a very opinionated bunch, and somehow it seemed we always knew what was wrong with everyone. On Sunday afternoons after church we would often have roast pastor for lunch. So, when I surrendered my life to the Lord at age 34 and the Holy Spirit began putting his finger on the areas in which my thinking and behaviour needed radical surgery, one of the first areas to go under the knife was my well-developed tendency towards sarcasm, criticism and judgment. I’m very grateful to God that before long I was introduced to a form of prayer ministry that helped me to go to the root of these issues, looking deeper than the outward behaviour and addressing the hidden motivations and reasonings of the heart.
Prayer ministry taught me much about my own heart and much about God’s wisdom. I learned that this tendency to be critical of others may be fuelled by bitterness, resentment, insecurity, inferiority, superiority, or a toxic mix of all of these and more, but the core issue is always the same. At the root, it is a form of rebellion against God. Whatever our reasoning, we assign ourselves the right to judge someone who is not accountable to us. This is always an illegitimate exercise and can never lead to any good. In the words of the Apostle Paul, Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. In other words, mind your own business. You and I have enough to do looking after the areas that God has assigned to us, without troubling ourselves with someone else’s failings – perceived or real.
One factor that probably feeds our tendency to be critical of leaders is the fact that we live in a democracy. We are raised on the idea that public criticism of leaders is part of how we protect ourselves from bad government. Well, democracy is not actually a Biblical idea, but like all political systems it can be used by God. One of the keys to making democracy serve God’s purposes is the recognition that all leaders are appointed by God. Even if He is simply allowing us to have the government we have chosen, in the end our leaders are accountable to God, not to us, and our role is not simply to push for our preferences but to seek leadership that will further God’s Kingdom. We do this, in part, by honouring and praying for the leaders that God has either caused or allowed to be put in place, even if we don’t always agree with them. There is, of course, a place for constructive criticism, but one of the keys to keeping it constructive is humility and submission to God. Even in extreme situations (Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe) where a monster rules and must be actively resisted, we still need to guard our hearts. Ultimately God, not you or I, is qualified to judge. If we forget this, we become monsters ourselves.
But what about the areas closer to home – work, family, church? The more experience I have of being in leadership, the easier I find it to forgive the failings of the leaders in my life. Admittedly, even the best leaders have faults; and I’m not suggesting we should simply turn a totally blind eye to these things. At times we may be called by God to make an appeal to one of the people who gives leadership in our lives. If we are given the opportunity to do this, and we can do it with grace and humility, we may be used by God to help the leader be more effective. A wise leader will welcome open discussion of issues in a constructive spirit. However, I’m far more likely to be trusted by a leader who can see that I haven’t got an axe to grind or a point to prove. If at all possible, I need to make it my aim to work with the leaders in my life to help them succeed. In the process, I too will be blessed, and so will all those around me.
In the end, the remedy is simple. Guard your tongue, and guard your heart. Why complicate your life by making it your job to identify and address everyone else’s failings? If you want to do this, the Devil will give you lots of ammunition, but you won’t be giving glory to God and your relationships will be stormy at best. If I can learn to mind my own business – keeping my gaze focussed on trusting and obeying God, recognizing that He has assigned a sphere of responsibility to me, doing the best job I can to be a good steward of what He’s put into my hands, and recognizing that everyone around me will answer to Him just as I will – life becomes a lot simpler, less aggravating, and much more satisfying and productive. Who wouldn’t want that?