Jesus said, “Do not judge or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). I attempted, in my previous post , to show that this verse is often misquoted. People frequently interpret it to mean that we have no right to criticize anyone else or to call their actions sinful. I argued, based on Scripture, that this isn’t what Jesus meant, that He was speaking instead about having a critical or judgmental spirit toward others. In this post I’d like to explore what that means.
What’s the difference between having a wise, discerning spirit and having a critical spirit? It can be a subtle distinction, at least on the surface. Both of them criticize at times. They may, in fact, agree with one another that such and such is wrong. And they may both be correct. The distinction lies in why they focus on it and in how they deal with it. Let’s explore these differences.
1. A wise, discerning spirit is guided by the Spirit while the critical spirit is guided by the sin nature
The standard of wise discernment I will describe below springs from God the Spirit. It reflects the unique balance that comes with “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and carries with it a divine aroma. The Spirit also guides the timing and approach of the wise discerning spirit so that it speaks astutely in a way most likely to be heard (“A word aptly spoken is like applesof gold in settings of silver. ”Prov.25:11). Conversely, the Spirit often prompts the wise, discerning spirit to not speak, since “a man of knowledge uses words with restraint. . .” (Prov. 17:27). The critical spirit lacks these resources.
2. A wise, discerning spirit cares about the welfare of the person being criticized while the critical spirit does not care
Jesus, while criticizing Jerusalem for rebellion, wept over them (Lk. 19:41). A wise, discerning spirit flows out of a loving heart. If they criticize, it’s because they care; because they want the other person to spiritually thrive.
A person with a critical spirit, on the other hand, may say that love is their purpose (“I’m telling you this for your own good!”) but, in truth, other motives dominate – like selfishness or irritation or the desire to hurt or the need to control (Matt. 23:4).
3. A wise, discerning spirit approaches those criticized with humility, while the critical spirit approaches them with pride
One reason that Jesus told the critic to “first take the plank out of your own eye” is that personal plank recognition and removal is humbling. The Apostle Paul, confident though he could be, also recognized himself as having been “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16). A wise, discerning spirit is humble, remembering their own sins and failures as they deal with others.
A person with a critical spirit, on the other hand, usually feels superior to those they critique. They do not identify with the “losers” as fellow sinners or as equally fallible human beings (Luke 18:9-14).
4. A wise, discerning spirit prefers gentleness while a critical spirit is often harsher than necessary
Paul exhorts the saints at Ephesus to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph. 4:2). This approach is meant to be the preferred way of dealing with others. I say “preferred” because sometimes sterner measures are required. The wise, discerning critic prefers gentleness because they wish to minimize the pain caused by their criticism and because others usually respond more positively to gentle criticism than to harsh comments.
The person with a critical spirit, on the other hand, has no hesitation about swinging a big stick. They may, in fact, take pleasure in crushing others or making them uncomfortable. These people may revel in ‘telling it like it is’ and in holding nothing back from their critique. When others protest the unnecessary humiliation the critic brands them as whiners or as people in denial.
5. A wise, discerning spirit seeks to approach those criticized in a balanced, impartial way while the critical spirit is more concerned about winning the exchange.
In His address to the seven churches in the book of Revelation Jesus carefully balances His praise and His criticism. To Ephesus He says: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance…” and then adds “But I hold this against you. . .”(Rev. 2:2-6). He’s tough but fair. A wise, discerning spirit is careful to see both sides of an issue, careful not to caricature or exaggerate, and willing to listen before passing judgment. This not only minimizes the hurt of criticism, it also gives the critic more credibility.
A critical spirit is not concerned about fairness. They cherry-pick—grabbing for what’s negative while ignoring the positive. They give too much credibility to overly-biased witnesses, don’t hesitate to exaggerate, rush to judgment, and set moral or practical standards for others which they don’t require for themselves or their friends. For them, being proven right is more important than being fair.
6. A wise, discerning spirit is generous with praise while the critical spirit rarely affirms
A wise, discerning spirit loves to praise whenever possible, knowing how much most people can use encouragement. They actively seek opportunities to affirm and set the bar of expectation reasonably low so that they will be able to find them. Although criticism is sometimes necessary, they prefer to praise knowing that most people are better motivated by positive encouragement rather than negative critique.
A critical spirit, on the other hand, is stingy with praise but quick to criticize. One may do a hundred things well and be greeted with silence, while the occasional mistake is always quickly noted. The critical spirit acts as though this negative focus is unavoidable (“I’d love to praise you if you would just give me something to praise!”) but that’s untrue. There’s plenty to praise in most people if we’re willing to set a reasonable standard and then look for opportunities.
7. A wise, discerning spirit nudges people toward God while the critical spirit drives them away from Him
“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life. . .”(Prov. 10:11). The wise, discerning spirit points others toward God even on the occasions when that pointing involves criticism. That nudging may or may not work. Some accept a wise, loving criticism and grow toward God while others reject it.
On the other hand, the critical spirit drives others off of the Divine path. This is true even when its criticisms are theologically correct (ever been in a nasty church fight?). The fleshly, demonic spirit behind the words distorts them and robs them of their healing power. If those criticized embrace the criticisms at all they may also absorb the poison accompanying the words and end up passing on the nastiness (man yells at wife, wife yells at son, son kicks the dog, dog bites the cat).
If I’ve shared anything useful about the critical spirit it’s because I know it well. My personal version is not as extreme as the one described above, since I love the Lord and try not to yield to spiritual meanness. Yet it’s a stubborn intruder nonetheless--notoriously difficult to detect in oneself (it camouflages exceedingly well) and infernally difficult to root out. Fortunately, God the Spirit is capable of doing just that—of flushing out this toxic attitude and replacing it with that oddly divine combination of unflinching discernment leavened by unstoppable love.