There is so much to be upset about in our world today! Pray first, criticize second

speak the truth

   In the target-rich environment that is the Trump Presidency, and as the honeymoon with our charming Prime Minister fades, it is easy to lapse into a posture of constant criticism. There is so much to be upset about!

Meanwhile, the Christian world has its own controversies and scandals, of course—most recently, the removal of the senior administrators at a leading Christian college in Chicago. There is so much to be upset about!

The Bible doesn’t discourage criticism, particularly of leaders. In fact, much of the Old Testament is devoted to prophetic warnings to political and religious leaders of God’s people to shape up or face certain and awful judgment. The sins of such leaders are listed and denounced both specifically and graphically. There is so much to be upset about!

I have offered here earlier a defense of my own public criticism of others, and particularly of fellow Christians. Naming things for what they are is part of telling the truth. And telling the truth to power, and about power, is a deeply Biblical thing to do.

But so is love.

So is making sure that I treat these neighbours I am criticizing truly as neighbours, as fellow strugglers and sinners, as those created in the very image of God, for whom I have a sacred responsibility to pray and serve.

Indeed, I had better not criticize someone until I have prayed for him. I had better not criticize someone unless I am confident, having prayerfully considered the situation, that this criticism will maximize shalom, will accomplish the most good…for everyone involved. I must be calmly convinced that the absence of this criticism will result in a worse situation than if I keep silent.

“First of all, then,” says the apostle Paul to his student, Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:1-3).

That person I am about to criticize: Am I feverishly delighted to unload on her, or, like God, am I desirous that she “be saved and…come to the knowledge of the truth”? Before I put him squarely in my sights, have I put him squarely in my prayers?

We are, after all, all in this together. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” writes John Donne, “because I am involved in mankind.” “If one member of the body suffers,” Paul writes to a fractious church full of people criticizing each other, “all suffer together with it” (I Corinthians 12:26).

And, recognizing that I am also a sinner, the Golden Rule tells me to treat others the way I will want to be treated when my own sins come into view.

We dare not silence the victims who have dark stories to tell. We must encourage appropriate transparency in our leaders. The Bible tells us to correct each other, so we do.

But always, always, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)—which is to say, trying to help people, and the situation, and the community to flourish, not just to get something off my chest or, even worse, to get even.

And anything we say to others should start where our work in the world should always start: with a prayer to God. If I haven’t prayed, I shouldn’t criticize.



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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).