My dear brothers and sisters, always be more willing to listen than to speak. Don’t become angry easily. A person’s anger does not help him live right like God wants. So put out of your life every evil thing and every kind of wrong thing you do. Be humble and accept God’s teaching that is planted in your hearts. This teaching can save you. (James 1:19-21 ERV)
Thirty years ago, Dr. Neil Lightfoot, a respected professor and mentor, tried to teach me an important lesson on how to respond to criticism. He had gone to several places to speak on the differences in Bible translations. He is an expert on the subject and his book How We Got the Bible is still very helpful on this matter.
While Dr. Lightfoot was overwhelmingly praised for his thoughtful and gracious presentations on this subject, a few folks took exception to his conclusions. Some criticized him by letter. Others did so in a public forum. These criticisms were neither thoughtful nor gracious. Many were more personal attack than a discussion about what he said. Others were filled with hateful messages. His reaction to all of this should have been a powerful lesson to me ... one I wish I had better learned from him.
Dr. Lightfoot did not respond in any way to the unfair public criticism. Other than answer questions at a forum or two, he never spoke back to those who attacked him. His basic policy was to let the vitriol and bile that were spewed toward him go unanswered, believing that the method of this message spoke for itself and did not need to be answered.
He responded a little differently to questions and criticisms directed toward him by letter. (He also tried to use his experiences to teach his young and idealistic graduate students about godly Christian leadership.) First, he let the critical letter simply sit there for a day after his first reading of it. Second, he would re-read the letter carefully and then write a thoughtful and careful response. Third, and this is the key part, he would let his response sit there three more days and then re-read it before he would send it. More often than not, he would not send his first message. He would either re-write it in a kinder tone or simply choose not to reply at all.
Dr. Lightfoot counseled his graduate students to use this delay principle so we wouldn't hurt people by saying things we would regret later. He reminded us that by waiting three days, the sting of criticism has usually subsided and we could be more charitable and gracious in our response. On other occasions, Dr. Lightfoot counseled us that we would realize the best response to criticism would be no response at all.
Unfortunately, I have never fully applied these lessons in my life. I have tried to get better at practicing them, but I've never mastered them. I will get overly tired from trying to do too much, get frustrated about something, and then someone comes along and whacks me in a way that emotionally hurts. On occasion, I'll hold onto my missile of an email response and then either tone it down or never send it. Other times, however, I send my response prematurely, wounding others and ending up angry at myself for my insensitive stupidity.
My bad judgment, bad habits, and sinful behavior have proved that I am not capable of conquering this problem alone. No matter how genuine my intent and commitment, I must make myself accountable to someone else for getting enough rest and taking care not to respond too soon. I must delay my responses until I can think about them clearly and respond appropriately. I need someone praying with me and for me to deal with this issue. It's not enough that I help other folks get into "cord of three strand" groups, (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12) I must also place myself in one, too!
So, brothers and sisters, be careful that none of you is sinful, and refuses to believe, and stops following the living God. But encourage each other every day. Do this while it is "today." Help each other so that none of you will become hardened because of sin and the way sin fools people. We all share together with Christ. This is true if we continue until the end to have the sure faith we had in the beginning. (Hebrews 3:12-14)
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