Thursday, November 13, 2008

How To Listen To The Critics

Regardless of the choices one makes in life, one is bound to come into conflict sooner or later with people who think that one ought to have made different choices. In his song "Garden Party," Ricky Nelson acknowledged that such was the case. He responded with this astute observation: "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

I would agree, but I would add that pleasing one's self is less important than pleasing the God who made you.

Recently, megachurch pastor Joel Osteen astutely wrote, "I tell people all the time that when you are doing what God wants you to do, there will be people who will criticize you in a destructive way in hopes of destroying your purpose. It is important to listen to God's voice and not to those whose intention is to pull you away from your God-given destiny."

I don't agree with everything Osteen does or says. I tend to agree with those who say that he sometimes needlessly soft-pedals the more negative aspects of the Christian message in an effort to market the message of the Church to people who can't handle the complete truth. Nevertheless, I think that Joel Osteen is absolutely correct with regard to the substance of the preceding quotation.

Of course, it should be acknowledged that people sometimes confuse their own bad ideas with the voice of God, and it should likewise be acknowledged that God sometimes speaks to people through other people. Therefore, we all need to be humble enough to seriously consider the merits of all suggestions and criticisms, rather than automatically becoming defensive and rejecting such suggestions and criticisms.

Also, regarding Osteen's comment about "intentions," I don't think that we should automatically assume evil intentions on the part of people who criticize us. Even when their criticisms are flawed, our critics may still be motivated by good intentions. Unless we have substantive reasons to believe that their intentions are malevolent, we ought to try to give our critics the benefit of the doubt insofar as their intentions are concerned, since that's the way we would wish to be treated.

However, we ought not to automatically assume that all criticisms of our ideas and plans are valid, any more than we ought to assume that such criticisms are not valid. This is particularly true when our ideas and plans pertain to ministries which have the potential to substantially advance the Kingdom of God. Satan loves to discourage people from doing things which have the potential to undermine his destructive activities. And even godly men can sometimes unwittingly become tools of the devil in particular circumstances. (You may recall, for example, that Jesus replied with the words, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" when Peter tried to discourage Jesus from going to Jerusalem, knowing that crucifixion was the fate which awaited him there. Remember, Peter was the man destined to become the "rock" on which the Church would be built! If the devil can use Peter in order to undermine the work of God, he can use anyone for that purpose!)

Often, when people are criticized for ideas which ought to be embraced, the problem is simply that such critics lack vision. One of the most difficult aspects of being a visionary, I have found, is the frustration which comes from having to deal with people who lack vision. Sometimes such people fail to perceive the needs which one perceives. At other times, they perceive the needs, but they fail to perceive their responsibilities to help to meet those needs.

What makes it particularly difficult to deal with such people is that some things which badly need to be done can only be done with the enthusiastic help and cooperation of others. It can be very frustrating to feel as if one's hands are tied, on account of one's inability to persuade others who are in a position to make a real difference that one's ideas are worthy of support.

The problem of garnering support for new and visionary ideas is compounded by the existence of numerous people who presumptuously and falsely assume that lack of prior support for particular ideas automatically means that those ideas lack merit.

History refutes that idea. In the life of every invention, innovation and breakthrough, there is often a period of time, in the earliest stages, when the idea is embraced only by a handful of people --- or in some cases, by just one individual. Precisely because their ideas are sometimes ahead of their time, society's visionaries are often forced to endure numerous rounds of rejection by people who lack vision, prior to finally finding enough help and support to enable such visionaries to prove that their critics were wrong.

I am discussing these things, in part, because of negative feedback which I received a while ago by someone who was made aware of my vision for a ministry to be known as the Christian Arts Initiative. (I quoted that criticism in a previous blog post.) It was clear to me that his criticism was based on a couple of major factors:

First, he didn't perceive the need for the ministry which I'd envisioned. He was happy, it seems, with the status quo, insofar as the relationship between the church and the arts was concerned. He thought that the Christian ministries which already existed were doing an adequate job of promoting the arts in such a way as to counter the negative influences of artistically talented but godless people.

I personally think one would have to live a very sheltered life to think that way, but I suppose that I can understand why he might think that way nevertheless. After all, he is not an artist himself, so he probably hasn't spent much time acquainting himself with the numerous examples of depravity which are abundantly evident in secular or "mainstream" culture. It's hard to get a burden with regard to a particular problem if one isn't aware that the problem exists. Secondly, he probably doesn't have firsthand knowledge of the daily struggles experienced by people who, having sacrificed certain economic opportunities which are available to less principled people, have very few viable options in terms of being able to earn the money with which to purchase or pay for the resources they need in order to achieve what they're capable of achieving.

Second, my critic argued that the principles of political conservatism (to which we both subscribe, at least in part) were inherently opposed to the goal of helping struggling artists. Clearly, his definition of "conservatism" was different from mine. He couldn't seem to grasp the idea that the arts play a vital role in shaping the values of the members of any society, so he seemed to be equally unable to grasp the idea that one of the best ways to promote a particular ideology or belief is to support and empower like-minded people to use their artistic talents for the purpose of promoting that ideology or belief.

It's hard not to respond with a measure of anger when obstinately obtuse individuals such as the aforementioned critic stand in the way of doing what needs to be done. But I suppose that occasional rejection is just part of the process of launching new visionary projects. Sometimes anger is an appropriate response (as Jesus demonstrated in his response to the travesties perpetrated by the money changers in the Temple), but there are also times when anger is counterproductive. Sometimes the best response is to shake the dust off one's feet and move on with one's life. Perseverance and tenacity are as important as great ideas when it comes to the character traits which are necessary in order to insure the eventual success of those ideas.

Such traits don't come easily, though, especially for discouraged people who have been knocked down time and time again. These are the issues with which I am dealing in my own personal life.

One needs to be open to the possibility that one's critics may be right, but one also needs to have enough self-confidence to defy one's critics when one is honestly unpersuaded by their arguments. That's a difficult balance to achieve. It requires humility, self-awareness and courage in equal amounts.

That, it seems to me, is where faith comes in. To avoid being overcome by discouragement and depression, one must have faith in the belief that worthy ideas will eventually find a home, even if that doesn't necessarily happen in one's own lifetime.

It also helps to know and believe that God only requires that we do our best. The question of whether or not we succeed is a separate matter altogether. Success is never guaranteed when we obey God, but we must do so nevertheless, knowing that God's criticisms are ultimately the only criticisms which count for anything.

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