Anyone with a public profile, including writers, inevitably receives criticism from to time. How do we handle it?
I know criticism bothers some people greatly, but I have never had a great problem with it. Some of this has to do with my background.
I was trained as an academic, in a milieu where scholarly debate was considered a good thing, since questioning and debating are necessary tools in the search for truth. Proverbs 27:17 (NIV) says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The idea is that as an iron file sharpens an iron tool, so criticism can grind the rough edges off a theory (or a person) and make it more correct. The process might be painful, but it is useful and helpful.
Of course, this comes with the condition that the scholarly debate sticks to the issues and does not become a personal attack. When one academic debate got out of hand, another professor (R.H. Tawney) cautioned, “An erring colleague is not an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh.”
My other learning experience in this area came when I was an editor with a denominational Christian magazine for nineteen years. That magazine had always had a robust Letters to the Editor section. We used to say that we counted on one of our columnists to fill two pages in the magazine, one with his column and the other with letters responding to his column. This columnist was an academic who usually addressed important issues and stimulated people to think. We thought the resulting debate often helped to clarify issues.
Several principles helped guide our practice as editors.
1. It was helpful to realize that we had no monopoly on truth, we were not always right, and it was a good thing to let others correct our mistakes. That iron sharpening iron thing again. Proverbs 27:6 (KJV) says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” The idea is that a friend will correct your mistakes by telling you the truth even if it hurts, whereas an enemy will gladly let you continue on in your error. Proverbs 11:14 (KJV) says, “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” In modern parlance, “Many heads are better than one.”
2. It was also helpful to remember that the magazine belonged to all of the members of the denomination. The editors controlled most of the content, so it was important to let the other owners of the paper also have their say. Something similar may be said of authors who write a book or an article and release it to the public. The author owns the copyright on what he or she wrote, but not on the resulting discussion.
3. We also found it helpful to consider that we were often right and that other people’s criticisms didn’t negate that fact. That is, we realized we needed to have confidence in what we were presenting and not be threatened by every criticism.
4. It was helpful to put criticism into perspective. By that time, our magazine had established an enviable track record. The reality was that we received far more praise than we did criticism (even though people tended to write more often when they were upset with something), and we learned to take the good with the bad.
5. Another editor offered this advice: “Never take yourself too seriously.” One of my favorite illustrations of this came very early, when I was co-editor of our high school newspaper. It was the 1960s, the era when radical, left-wing groups were springing up on university campuses all over North America to demand all kinds of changes. A friend of mine wrote a letter to the editor criticizing something I had written in the high school newspaper and signed it, “SCN (Students for a Cogginsless Newspaper).” I laughed and published the letter.
6. We also had to accept that ultimate truth belonged to God and that while we were privileged to have been given some aspects of the truth, God would judge all of our words in the end and reveal what was true. In the presence of God, a little humility is in order.