The Cross and Criticism (Proverbs)


We’re in the middle of this series on relationships, and today we come to a very delicate question. It’s a little awkward. Let me explain the dilemma to you by telling you a true story as told by a pastor in Florida:

As I sat with my family at a local breakfast establishment, I noticed a finely dressed man at an adjacent table. His Armani suit and stiffly pressed shirt coordinated perfectly with a “power” tie. His wing-tipped shoes sparkled from a recent shine. Every hair was in place, including his perfectly groomed mustache.
The man sat alone, eating a bagel, as he prepared for a meeting. As he reviewed the papers before him, he appeared nervous, glancing frequently at his Rolex watch. It was obvious he had an important meeting ahead.
The man stood up, and I watched as he straightened his tie and prepared to leave. Immediately, I noticed a blob of cream cheese attached to his finely groomed mustache. He was about to go into the world, dressed in his finest, with cream cheese on his face. I thought of the business meeting he was about to attend. Who would tell him? Should I? What if no one did?

Let me stop there for a minute. What would you do? Would you go running off after the stranger and tell him about the cream cheese? Or would you find it too awkward, and hope that somebody else would get to him first? What if you were the man? Would you want someone to tell you? Or would you rather discover it yourself when it was too late? What do you do when you need to say or hear something that’s both hard and that has to be said?

Listen to how the story played out in Florida:

I pushed my chair back and stood to warn him, but the tables were too close and the noise of the crowd too loud. He was at the door and on his way before I could stop him. Hopefully, the man looked in the mirror when he got into his car and saved himself from embarrassment.

Commenting on this story, pastor and author C.J. Mahaney writes:

The harsh reality is that we all have cream cheese on our faces; in fact, whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s cream cheese on your face right now. Others clearly see it. And you need their help to identify its presence.

If we are going to be in relationship, we need to face the issue of cream cheese moments and how we handle criticism. This morning I’d like us to look at God’s Word to discover how we can do this.

I want to keep this sermon as simple as possible and simply look at three realities related to criticism. First: we need criticism. Second: we’re afraid to receive it. Finally: how the cross gives us exactly what we need to receive criticism.

First: we need criticism.

This morning we read a number of proverbs that talk about this. The proverbs were given so that we would learn how to live skillfully. They’re written so that we would know how to live well in this world that God has created. And one of the major themes running through the book of Proverbs is that we need to be open to receiving advice; that we need to be receptive to correction.

The way of fools seems right to them.
but the wise listen to advice.
(Proverbs 12:15)
Where there is strife, there is pride,
but wisdom is found in those who take advice.
(Proverbs 13:10)
A rebuke impresses a discerning person
more than a hundred lashes a fool.
(Proverbs 17:10)

According to these passages, being teachable and willing to receive correction is the mark of a mature person. The ability to take advice, correction, and rebuke is not only considered a mark of the wise, but it is also thought to determine the path of the wise. In fact, Scripture tells us that both the wise and the foolish reap consequences according to their ability to take criticism:

Whoever scorns instruction will pay for it,

but whoever respects a command is rewarded.
(Proverbs 13:13)
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,

but those who heed correction gain understanding.
(Proverbs 15:32)

I think my favorite proverb in all of Scripture is the one found in chapter 27, verses 5-6:

Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses.

In this passage we see that there is such a thing as “friendly wounds” and, in a sense, there is such a thing as wounding kisses. If you have a trustworthy friend, and they bruise you, it’s because that wound is inflicted for the good purpose of correcting you. The bruises represent “painful and plain words that must be spoken in true friendship in order to heal the beloved and/or to restore a broken relationship” (Bruce Waltke). Those bruises are redemptive. They love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Love and correction go hand in hand.

But on the other hand, an enemy may sweet-talk you and say nothing but good to you, but fail to tell you that you have a blob of cream cheese on your face. They don’t love you enough to tell you the truth.

The Scripture is clear: we need criticism! Every single one of us needs loving correction and rebuke. It’s a mark of true friendship.

I love how Paul David Tripp puts it:

We must remember that sin is deceitful. Sin blinds – and guess who gets blinded first? Me! I have no trouble seeing the sins of my family, but I can be astonished when mine are pointed out!…My self-perception is as accurate as a carnival mirror. (Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands)

This is a universal need. If you don’t have people in your life who are telling you the truth, and if you aren’t humble enough to receive it, then you are missing out on something that is critical for your wellbeing. Not only that, but if you are not doing the same for your friends, then you aren’t really a true friend. Correction is absolutely necessary for wise living, and it’s the mark of true friendship.

So encourage others to speak truth into your life. Invite them. Say, “I need your caring eyes on my soul. I need your help. Where do you see cream cheese?” Spurgeon said:

Get a friend to tell you your faults, or better still, welcome an enemy who will watch you keenly and sting you savagely. What a blessing such an irritating critic will be to a wise man…

We need criticism. But then we need to see:

We’re afraid to receive it.

You’ll notice that the proverbs all assume a reality: we are hesitant to receive advice. We all suffer from a fatal condition called pride.

There are all kinds of proverbs that get to the heart of this, like this one:

Whoever heeds life-giving correction

will be at home among the wise.
Those who disregard discipline despise themselves,

but those who heed correction gain understanding.
Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the LORD,
and humility comes before honor.
(Proverbs 15:31-33)

This passage says that if we welcome life-giving correction, we will be at home among the wise. If that’s the case, why in the world wouldn’t we all be looking for correction? This passage tells us why: because we haven’t cultivated humility. The problem is that we are often unwilling to admit mistakes. We’re prone to reject criticism. The problem, when you get right down to it, is pride. And pride is deadly. As Proverbs 26:12 says:

Do you see people who are wise in their own eyes?

There is more hope for fools than for them.

The best definition of humility that I’ve read is this one by C.J. Mahaney: “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” To be humble we really need to understand God in his holiness, and us in our sinfulness. The opposite of this is pride, in which we have an exalted sense of ourselves, and we’re interested in our own self-satisfaction, self-justification, self-protection, and self-exaltation.

We’ve already seen that we all need criticism. The problem is that good criticism dethrones us and puts us in our rightful place. Every part of you will fight against this. When you get right down to it, we’re talking about the idol of self. Do you recognize the idol of self here–the deep-rooted desire to place ourselves, our reputation, and our honor above all else? Do you see the controlling desire for self-justification–to be proven right (or righteous) in the eyes of others? Unfortunately, our idols have consequences. If we persist in idolatry, it’ll lead to our ruin.

This is where even unfair criticism can be tremendously helpful. Criticism – even unfair criticism – will reveal whether we’re on the throne, or whether God is. We resist criticism because criticism threatens to dethrone us. Critics are our friends, because they reveal if we’ve been thinking too highly of ourselves or not.

Ultimately, it’s the cross that gives us everything that we need to receive criticism.

We read Romans 8 this morning:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then can condemn? No one. Christ Jesus who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

What Paul is telling us is that the gospel gives us everything we need to accept criticism. What Paul is saying is this.

First: because of the cross, we can affirm God’s judgment of us. There is no escaping the truth, as God’s Word says: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:9-18). As a result of my sin, the Cross has criticized and judged me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than any person ever could. In other words, no one else’s criticism of me could match the thoroughness of God’s criticism of me. Knowing this, we can respond to all other criticism by saying, “That’s just a fraction of it!” We are more sinful than we ever believed. Spurgeon once said, “Our best performances are so stained with sin, that it is hard to know whether they are good works or bad works.”

In other words, we can fully agree with any criticism made of us because Scripture has already condemned us for failing to keep the entire law, and for breaking the whole law. In light of these massive charges against us, any accusations launched at us by humans are mere understatements about who we are and what we’ve done!

But then we can look at the cross and affirm God’s justification of all who trust in Jesus. We can look at the cross and understand that on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death, God justifies ungodly people. We can understand that Christ has paid the penalty of our sin and that God has reckoned Christ’s righteousness as our own.

And then, as Paul says, we can have confidence. If you truly take this to heart, the whole world can stand against you, denounce you, or criticize you, and you can reply, “If God has justified me, who can condemn me? If God declares me righteous, accepts me, and will never forsake me, then why should I feel insecure and fear criticism? Christ bore my sins, and I received his righteousness. Christ takes my condemnation, and I receive God’s great approval–‘JUSTIFIED!'”

And you can begin to live out the implications of these great truths in your life. We can face any criticism with confidence, knowing that no criticism of me could be greater than the cross’s criticism of me – a criticism with which I’ve already agreed. We can know that we’re accepted and that we have nothing to prove. “You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there” (C. John Miller). We won’t have to fear man’s criticism, because we’ve already agreed with God’s criticism. And we won’t have to seek man’s approval, because we already have something much better – God’s approval.

The salvation of Jesus humbles us profoundly – we are so lost that he had to die for us. But it exalts and assures us mightily — we are so valued that he was glad to die for us. Only the gospel can humble us and exalt us at the same time.

I invite you to apply this in your life. Ask God to give you this solid bedrock confidence that you are sinful and yet accepted by him. Walk daily in light of the cross and get your security there. And then open your life to speak truth and allow others to speak truth to you, so that you will be able to say with the psalmist David in Psalm 141:5: “Let a righteous man strike me–that is a kindness; let him rebuke me–that is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it…”

some parts adapted from a sermon by Alfred J. Poirier

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada