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Sermons

The Negative or Criticizing Spirit

February 15, 2004

Bible Reading

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a person. . . . Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a person. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.

(Matthew 15:11, 17-19)

And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me remove the speck out of your eye"; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother's eye.

(Matthew 7:3-5)

Reading from Swedenborg

People who have no kindness think and speak nothing but evil of the neighbor. If they do say anything good, it is for their own sake, or for someone with whom they seek to curry favor through an outward show of friendship. But people who do have kindness think and speak nothing but good of the neighbor--and not for their own sake or for someone with whom they seek to curry favor, but from the Lord at work within their kindness.

The former are like evil spirits, the latter like angels, dwelling in us. Evil spirits never do anything but stir up people's evils and falsities and condemn them. But angels stir up nothing but goodness and truth--and anything evil and false they excuse. So it is clear that those who have no kindness are ruled by evil spirits, through whom we are in connection with hell; and those who do have kindness are ruled by angels, through whom we are in connection with heaven. (Arcana Coelestia #1088.2)

Sermon

Today I'd like to take a few moments to think with you about criticism--whether it happens in a meeting, at work, or most especially at home with our families.

Criticism is something we have all experienced in one form or another, to one degree or another. We all have this in common. And it has probably happened more often, sad to say, than experiences of being loved. Isn't that your experience? If you were to count up the number of times you have experienced criticism on the one hand, and genuine love on the other, which do you think would be the greater number? Why do you suppose that is?

And how many of us have had just a wonderful time being criticized? If you're anything like me, it's your second favorite thing after being told you have an incurable disease! The reality is that not many of us cherish the experience of being criticized, even though often enough, the criticism might contain some truth. The truth value involved in the act of being criticized often escapes us--or may not make much difference to us even if we manage to hear it.

Being criticized, in short, can be a very difficult experience for any one of us--which is why none of us likes it, in spite of the fact that, as the book of Proverbs points out, it could be very helpful if we could somehow get to a place where we can listen to its message, and then take it to heart.

This might be a lot easier if we were criticized in the right way, or in the right spirit. Unfortunately, though, that's a rather rare event in my experience. It usually goes much differently. Criticism is most often done in anger--designed to hurt us, not to instruct us or make us a better person. And it is usually some kind of payback or retribution from an earlier dispute or squabble. Control may also be an issue.

Isn't this much more like your experience with criticism?

Wouldn't it be nice if it were done right?

What is right criticism? I believe criticism is best when we actually feel and believe that the person addressing us first loves us, and both the content and the manner of expression of the criticism expresses that. It is critically important for all of us that the reality of the other person's love for us doesn't get lost or drowned out in the act of criticizing us.

How many have had such an experience lately? Such criticism is a rare event, indeed, in this world of delivered criticisms! That may be the way it is in heaven, but that sure ain't the way it is here on earth. Most of the time it is very, very different from that, isn't it? Why is that, do you suppose? What's going on here?

What is your experience with being criticized? How do you react to it? Do you bristle so fast that it becomes too painful from that point on to actually evaluate the content of the criticism (assuming there is any), or to have any will left to take it seriously?

Clearly, some criticism is meant only to hurt us because someone is angry and hurt--and that's all there is to it.

But criticism can be awful even if it is not meant only to hurt us. What is it about criticism that makes it so instantaneously painful and biting, as it so often can be, whether someone is doing it to our face or behind our back? (Incidentally, I don't buy the idea that if we're going to criticize someone, it should always be to their face.) I think there is another much more important issue that must first be decided, and that is really what makes it all so difficult to hear and receive in the first place.

This brings me to the simple and central issue of this whole message: the spiritual dimension involved in being too critical.

Probably most people do not think of being critical, or being a critical type of person, as a degree and form of being possessed. I think that's exactly what it is!

From a spiritual perspective, modern-day co-dependency (what used to be called "neurosis"), and the other forms of personal and family dysfunctions, are just a lesser degree of what the Bible refers to as "being possessed." All psychological problems have their spiritual causes and dynamics as well!

Now, I realize that it is a very startling thing to say that being a critical type of person is a degree and form of being possessed. But bear with me. I am speaking from personal experience! Most of my life I have been a very critical person; and I am still facing, with the Lord's help, the consequences of having been that way with family and friends. I can still sometimes get caught up in it if I'm extra tired or in some kind of pain. It was only after my own spirituality kicked in that I became much less critical in my own feelings and behavior. It was my spirituality that made all the difference. Coming to know the Lord had the overall effect of softening me, and especially of softening that part of my personality.

Yes, in my own experience, and from my own point of view, I was caught in hell. And just exactly what is possession if not being somehow caught in hell? That's what it is! And I think, at base, that this is what being too critical is all about--that if we really look at it, the idea of being partially possessed is probably the most helpful and truthful way to look at this particular problem.

We are not children anymore. We are not at the whim and mercy of our parents. We are free adults, even if we don't feel that way. And when we peel away the mask of the critical person, what we will find, from the point of view of the spiritual dynamics involved, is a kind of possession taking place. Why? Because there really is no legitimate reason not to be encouraging or supportive to another human being on an ongoing, continual basis.

Once again, I know what I am saying: I am speaking autobiographically. And when I do get caught up in it, there is no legitimate or rational basis for this kind of a spirit dropping in and hanging around, or even being there in the first place. Ninety percent of my own critical or criticizing behavior could have been prevented had my own spirituality been intact and functioning.

What I am also saying is that it doesn't matter how any of us got there. All the so-called "legitimate" psychological reasons for being consistently critical--such as that we were a victim most of our childhood or adult life, or that our life is extra hard now in the present . . . none of this satisfactorily or fully accounts for what I am describing as the "critical spirit": the person who is predisposed inwardly or behaves outwardly in a critical, criticizing manner on a more or less consistent, ongoing basis.

I think the deeper truth is that we are dealing more with someone caught in hell than with merely wrong learning or with any other kind of explanation, psychological or otherwise. I believe that we should not criticize except from an inward place of actually experiencing love for the other person--in other words, because we care for them, are actually feeling that, and then are letting that caring guide our tongue.

We need to understand that words can hurt. Words can kill. Words can be the agents of despair and death . . . or conveyers of care and concern, life, encouragement, and love.

At some point, some of us may simply need to arbitrarily call a halt to our own overtly critical behavior--something I have done on more than one occasion because, in the light of the Lord's love and spirit, that behavior is clearly and simply wrong!

The deeper truth is that we need to call a halt before we get stuck in a place that has a stronger lure than we might like to recognize or think about. Hell is about liking hurt and destruction. Liking it! And that is exactly what often happens on the inside of the criticizing person.

This may be an uncomfortable idea, and may seem harmful to our self-esteem. But any self-esteem that asks us to turn away from what may actually be happening is quicksand wanting us to think it is rock--and should itself be turned away from!

This does not mean there is never a place for criticism. Far from it! Clearly there is a place for it. What it does mean is that we should all be very clear as to where we are moving from within ourselves before we offer it. At base, criticism is really a function of competence: we need to know what we're talking about!

And how do we get to know what we're talking about? How do we become competent to criticize? It's all summed up in one simple phrase: You can't really understand people until you first come to love them. You can't become competent to criticize someone until you come to love them first! That is a prerequisite. Love is a condition of understanding.

There is something about loving the other person that makes us more deeply knowing and wise. And what's really interesting to me is that when we get to that place, there's much less starch in our sails to even begin to criticize! Look at the angels. They are so good and so warm that they will even defend or make light of the evils that they see in us much more clearly than we do. Do you see the dramatic difference in attitude and outcome that loving the other person makes?

The ninth commandment is about "not bearing false witness." That commandment in its internal meaning goes way beyond merely refraining from malicious and intentional lying. It also requires honesty with ourselves and with others. We must not only not lie and bear false witness; we must also seek to recognize and support the good in one another, and not misjudge or exaggerate each other's problems or evils. This will put us in the best position to make criticism a creative and constructive experience whenever it is truly called for.

Prayer

Dear Lord, it is so easy to point out and criticize everything that is wrong in others, while excusing and defending anything wrong in ourselves. It is harder to refrain from criticism or excuses. It is hardest to both offer and accept criticism in love and honesty. Help us, we pray, both to give and to receive right criticism, so that we may all grow in spirit, in love, and in community. Amen.

Rev. John Billings