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“Taking Criticism”

“The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence. The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”

(Proverbs 15:31-33)

I dreaded critiques but they were unavoidable. In upper level painting class a project wasn’t finished until it had been raked over the coals of public scrutiny. We often think of critique as being negative but to critique something simply means to evaluate it. The goal of critique is to point out the good, the bad, and, in the case of many of my paintings, the ugly, so as to improve upon it. But it always seemed like a raw deal to me.

After spending forty-plus hours on a painting we were forced to endure an entire class period of round robin nit-picking, pretentious displays of knowledge, and worse, vague and unthoughtful comments such as “I like the color,” “It makes me feel sad,” “I wish it was bigger.” Oh, and don’t get me started on the endless search for subtext! “What is the significance of the green dress?” Significance? The model just happened to be wearing a green dress when she showed up that day!

These are the thoughts of College Jerome: impatient, puffed-up, and generally not interested in what you have to say. Even if there was a worthwhile critique, I wasn’t apt to hear it let alone allow it to shape me as a painter. Why, you ask? Because I was young and foolish. Now, all young people are not fools in the same way that all old people are not wise, but I certainly was a young fool.

Surely then, you think, Christian Jerome does better with criticism. Well, on a good day when I’m focused on the right things, yes. But old habits die hard. That’s no excuse but it’s the truth. At the very least, I’ve learned the value of critique. When it comes from a place of love, (hey, even if it doesn’t!) reproof is “life-giving” and makes wise the simple. We ignore it to our peril and we die as fools without it.

Of course, this is not just about critiquing the art of painting but, rather, the art of living which counts a great deal more. Receiving criticism requires humility. You would be hard pressed to find a quality emphasized more in the Bible than humility. Only the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3). If you’re full of yourself, there’s no room for anything else. If you’re self-righteous, you’ll never grow (Mt. 5:6). If humility is the precursor to grace, and it is (1 Pet. 5:5), how can we respond humbly to criticism? Here are some things I try to keep in mind when being criticized:

  1. Be slow to speak & quick to hear (Jas. 1:19)
  2. Be slow to anger (Jas. 1:19-20)
  3. Do not retaliate (1 Pet. 2:23; Prov. 24:29)
  4. Resist the urge to defend yourself
  5. Evaluate yourself in light of the critique (2 Cor. 13:5)
  6. Respond gently (Prov. 15:1)
  7. Consider the source

Don’t rush to that last one. We need to weigh the critique before we weigh the one giving it. Even if the critique is designed to injure or is given tactlessly, there may be some truth to it. We know that people, even (especially?) religious people, can judge others hypocritically (Mt. 7:1-5). Just remember, life follows repentance, repentance follows conviction, conviction follows knowledge of sin, and we don’t always see our own faults.

A true friend tells you when your fly is down, when your hair is sticking up, or when you have mustard on your chin. A true friend pulls you aside and tells you “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). A true friend calls you out when you’re out of line (Gal. 2:11; 2 Sam. 12:7). Humble critique is an act of sacrificial love that limits the reach of evil (1 Pet. 4:8). Receiving criticism is an important part of our Christian walk. We must have both the grace to take it and the love to give it.

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