A long time ago, a young man in my church was competing in a national trumpet competition, and he asked me to accompany him on the piano. I was happy to do it, because he was a talented musician who was fun to perform with, and the music itself was a welcome challenge. But he was a busy teenager in a large family, and I was a busy working mom with young children, so we struggled to find opportunities to rehearse together.
One evening his mother asked if I would come to his house to practice with him. I packed up my three little ones and hauled them in the van to the next town where they lived. When we arrived, my two preschoolers ran off to play with the other children in the house, and I left the baby in his car seat to sit beside the piano where I played.
The older mom walked in, saw the baby sitting there quietly, and asked if I needed her to take him. I told her she was welcome to hold him if she wanted, but that he was fine sitting there listening. “He usually sits in his seat while I teach lessons every day,” I explained.
“You leave him in his car seat while you teach lessons every day?” Her eyebrows raised. She repeated the sentence two more times to me, then walked away shaking her head.
My face burned with embarrassment and annoyance. I was going out of my way to help her son, and she was criticizing what I did with mine? If I was happy and my baby was happy, why did she need to butt in?
It was a small remark, really, but it bothered me. It festered in my brain. For days I heard her voice echo back every single time I placed the baby in his car seat. I found myself wrestling with my feelings toward the woman; I didn’t want to be bitter toward her, but those words (and eyebrows) kept coming back.
Finally, a few weeks later, I asked myself why does this bother me so much? If I’m as happy with my decisions as I keep telling myself, what about her remark hit a nerve? When I was honest with myself, I realized that I did fear that I pushed my children around my own schedule. There were changes I knew I should make in how I cared for my babies while ministering to others. I wasn’t as balanced as I pretended to be.
Criticism hurts. Sometimes that pain is a pressure point that needs adjustment. So many times when I find myself overreacting to a comment or perceived negativity from someone else, I’m really defending a flaw I know I should correct. That’s the worst kind of criticism — the one I secretly feel I deserve.
That’s what constructive criticism means. I have a chance to grow through it, to admit my mistakes, and to become better. I owe that mother a debt of gratitude for the reminder that my babies grow too fast to waste their infancy hurrying them through other people’s agendas. Babies should be held more than buckled. I needed to change.
Criticism offers not only an insight into what our needs are, but also at what the critic is struggling with. I look back on the car seat incident differently a decade later. That mother was then where I am now — watching her oldest leave the house, looking back at growing children and empty cribs. She likely longed for the chance to hold those babies again, to squeeze their meaty thighs and laugh at their cute lisps and silly foibles. There I was with what she no longer had: a chance to nuzzle and rock and hold babies for just a few more brief moments.
You likely can think back on some painful, unfounded criticism that left you bewildered until later when you learned the rest of the story. The man who constantly pointed out other women’s hemlines in the church choir until he was later found to be addicted to pornography. The woman who was always railing about people gossiping about her, though no one knew until later she was hiding an addiction.
Often times, our worst critics are the ones who most need our forgiveness and grace. Ironically, if they are close enough to hurt us, they are standing close enough to be impacted by us. We don’t always see what they need or why they are defensive, but in time we will make a difference with them by our gracious reaction and consistency.
That’s why ultimately, when we allow criticism to be a force for good in our lives, we allow ourselves to grow. True, lasting, godly change is only a result of God’s work, not of our own human striving. It is about Christ living through me, not my doing God’s work my way. These lessons in humility are a necessary part of God’s pruning in my life, my relationships, my work, and my service. The more of my sinful self that God removes, the more of Himself can shine through to others.
Author of Rocking Ordinary: Holding it Together with Extraordinary Grace, Lea Ann Garfias helps women recognize the extraordinary impact they make with their seemingly ordinary lives. Join Lea Ann for live Facebook chats filled with encouragement to help you rock your ordinary life. facebook.com/lagarfias