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4 Truths to Respond to Criticism with Grace

A long time ago in a church far, far away, I received a rather critical letter in the mail.
A friend and colleague in the church had been sent the letter as well. As soon as he received his copy, he called me. During our conversation, he urged me not to respond for 24 hours and then to meet with him prior to doing so.

I took his advice, mulling for 24 hours, which is shorthand for thinking, praying, agonizing, worrying, feeling upset and trying to listen to what God might be saying to me about how to best respond.

After that period of time, I met with my friend and he suggested that I look again at the letter to see where there was truth, where there was inaccuracy, where there were misunderstandings and where it was unkind.

His suggestion was to reply in a letter, but to lace the letter with grace. Endorse the truth (and apologize if necessary), gently correct inaccuracies and clarify misunderstanding.

Regarding the unkindness, he urged me to pray for the person’s forgiveness, but to not respond to those portions.

I wasn’t sure about that approach because I was still smarting from some of the comments, but because I trusted his wisdom and judgment I attempted to follow what he had advised.

Looking back on this experience, I feel that I learned several important lessons.

  • Truth is always truth.

It does not change and is worth endorsing and affirming even if it shows our failings and inadequacies. If we take the time to mull on challenges, even those that sting, God’s Spirit can minister truth to us.

  • It is worth correcting inaccurate statements.

Doing so is not in order to prove that you are right, but so that the other person may be able to evaluate the situation more accurately and won’t appear silly if they rely on information that is incorrect.

This relates to inaccuracies of fact, not opinion. If I have a different opinion than someone else, that is something that needs to be discussed rather than seeking to force an opinion on someone.

  • Misunderstandings are a bit like inaccuracies, but I try to treat them as a failure on my part to communicate clearly enough.

If I can clarify what I am trying to say, then it will make it easier for the other person to understand me, even if they still don’t agree with me.

  • Responding to unkindness with forgiveness is a way to practice Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek.”

It is a way of defusing anger and diffusing tension. To respond in kind to the unkind will only escalate and antagonize.

To refuse to retaliate is to emulate Jesus and that’s well worth doing. It might also result in the opportunity for reconciliation.

I am glad that I listened to my friend and mulled because it inspired me to write a very different letter to the one I would have written had I replied immediately.

I believe God used my reply to help change that person’s perspective so that they could see the issue, which was the subject of the initial letter, differently.

When the matter was ultimately brought to a church meeting, this person actually voted in favor of the issue that they had been so strongly against in the letter.

This is nothing new. In fact, it is age-old wisdom. Thousands of years ago, in the book of Proverbs we read: “A tender answer turns away rage, but a prickly reply spikes anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

Nick Lear is one of the pastors of Colchester Baptist Church in Essex in the United Kingdom. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Nukelear Fishing, and is used with permission.