Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.

Really? I think that innocent childhood adage should be revised. Sticks and stones can break my bones but words … can break my heart. Broken bones will mend, but surgery can’t heal a broken heart.

This week I’ve been thinking about criticism. I’ve discussed Criticism vs Feedback and Keys to Responding To Criticism. One additional thought seems crucial to the basic premise of SetFreeToday.

You might guess that an event in my own life has prompted this analysis, and you’d be correct. I’ve been watching someone close to me in a wrestling match with criticism disguised as feedback.

Forgive me for repeating from the previous posts, but since this article appears in two different blogs I’ll clarify a few basic points.


I believe that criticism and feedback differ fundamentally in intent, process, and impact.

    * Feedback intends growth and improvement. Criticism destroys.
    * Feedback centers on behavior. Criticism attacks the person.
    * Feedback focuses on the receiver. Criticism focuses on the critic’s status as expert.
    * Feedback invites partnership, a shared journey of relationship. The critic stands outside the process.
    * Feedback involves humility and service. Criticism is boastful and arrogant.
    * “Constructive criticism” isn’t constructive at all. It’s simply criticism dressed up to make the critic appear concerned.


That doesn’t mean that feedback isn’t sometimes painful. When I fall short or miss the mark, it’s difficult to be held accountable. I may rebel initially, but I ultimately want both positive and negative feedback. In the end, I recognize the intent. I understand that offering feedback isn’t comfortable, that it might be easier for those who care about me to avoid the discomfort.

My best response to sincere feedback, even when it’s painful, is sincere thanks. I’m grateful that others invest enough in my welfare to confront my errors. I’m thankful for a circle in which folks care and want what’s best for me. I thank God for people who understand my priorities and aspirations and tell me when I’m settling for less.

That’s not a bad little prayer: Thank you, Jesus, for people with the courage, compassion, and conviction to speak into my life when I miss Your mark.


I’ve said previously that it’s best to ignore or discount criticism whenever possible, as difficult as that may be. Certainly it’s best not to reward and encourage a critic with the desired anger or tears.

But the Bible tells me something more. As a follower of Jesus, I’m called to go beyond dismissing a critic’s harmful words. Jesus doesn’t call us to ignore or condemn our critics. In fact, some of the most familiar passages of Scripture present a very different principle.

Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors … For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:12, 14-15

The parable of the unmerciful servant [Matthew 18]; the speck and the plank [Luke 6]; the parable of the prodigal son [Luke 15]; the parable of the good Samaritan. [Luke 10]

    Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

    Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Matthew 18:21-22

When I’m attacked by a critic’s harmful words, my human instinct screams at me to lash out, fight back, and get even. Rational analysis directs me to simply ignore my tormentor. But Jesus says that not enough. He tells me to forgive.

I don’t like that. I don’t want to forgive when I’ve been harmed for no reason, when I don’t deserve the hurtful words and the broken heart. But it gets worse.


    “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

    “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:27-36

Getting even isn’t Christ’s way. Ignoring and dismissing aren’t steps on His path. Even passive forgiveness isn’t sufficient.

Jesus instructs me not only to forgive, but to love those who mistreat me. Love is active; it requires me to reach out and invest myself emotionally in the person who hurts me. Bless, pray, do good, and turn the other cheek involve action and sacrifice; they’re admonitions to purposely seek the best for my critic.


How can I possibly be free when I actively seek the best for my tormentor? I think that, in simplest terms, there are two reasons.

Practically, even in ignoring or discounting my critic I’m allowing harmful words to direct my behavior. When I consciously choose forgiveness and love, I free myself from the burden of reacting. I decide. I’m free.

Beyond worldly practicalities, Jesus is always concerned more with His kingdom than ours. He wants me to be free from the things of this world, and He clearly lights the journey toward His sort of freedom with forgiveness and love.


Please don’t perceive these words as a guilt trip. When someone’s broken your heart, forgiveness is hard. Loving your enemies is nearly impossible.

But Jesus didn’t take the easy route; He took the right one. He didn’t succumb to His human instincts; He conformed to God’s plan even when it meant horrible suffering and an undeserved death. His heart, and His body, were broken, but He responded with forgiveness and love. He could have avoided it all, but He did His Father’s will, not His own.

He calls me to follow in His footsteps, knowing that it’s hard, knowing that I’ll fail. And He walks beside me even when I miss the mark, leading me gently on the path to forgiveness, love, and freedom.

I’m glad I don’t have to do this stuff alone. By myself, His brand of forgiveness and love are beyond my grasp. Fortunately, I don’t have to walk alone. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13]

One who refuses to forgive burns a bridge that he himself needs to cross.

What’s the hardest part of responding to criticism for you?