Our reaction to criticism, therefore, shows us the degree of pride and arrogance in our hearts, especially when the criticism has a mixture of truth and error in it, as is often the case. Do we focus on the incorrect part of the criticism, or do we seek for what is true in the criticism? If we are honest, we will have to admit that criticism is not our favorite way of gaining wisdom. We would rather get it from a book that isn’t directly attacking us, or from someone who always phrases things in a positive way. Here, however, the proverb is plain: we are fools to hate the messenger who criticizes us, especially if that criticism has any validity whatsoever. Instead, we should thank the messenger for pointing out our blind spots.
Criticism is usually given much more freely on the internet than in person. It is one of the chief reasons why the internet seems to generate more heat than light. It is so easy to hit that “post” button when you don’t have to face that person’s reaction. In some ways, the internet can reveal our hearts better than personal interactions. This is why it is very important that we meditate on how to give and receive criticism. Proverbs tells us that the way we receive criticism marks us either as foolish or wise people.
Proverbs 9:7-12 occurs in a context of the choice between Lady Wisdom (verses 1-6) and Lady Folly (verses 13-18). The passage itself forms an envelope with chapter 1, especially since the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom is located in both places (1:7 and 9:10). The key verse for my purpose here is verse 8 (in the ESV): “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.”
The first (and rather obvious) point is that the wise one responds to criticism in exactly the opposite way to the fool. The wise man loves the one who reproves him. The foolish person responds with hatred and scorn for the messenger. The contrast is explained in the enveloping verses. The scornful person’s response is laid out in more detail in verse 7. Abuse and injury are the results that the reprover can expect from trying to correct the scornful. Verse 9, however, shows that greater wisdom and learning will be the result from reproving the wise man.
This shows us the underlying attitude towards correction and rebuke that the foolish and the wise have. The foolish person believes that he cannot improve anywhere, and that he is perfect just the way he is. He has enough experience in the ways of God, or he has enough letters after his name, in order to be someone of importance. That means he has arrived. The wise man, however, realizes that he is so far from God’s standard that he always has room for improvement, no matter how mature he is in the Christian faith, how old he is, or how educated he is.
How is this possible? What is the logic here? The answer is in verse 10. If a person fears God, he will not fear man. Fear of God and fear of man is a zero-sum game. They cannot co-exist peacefully. The wrong reaction to criticism stems from the fear of man. Read that last sentence again. So, if a person fears God, he will react quite differently to criticism, because he is not trying to look good in front of men, but is instead seeking to please his God. It will be a perception of iron sharpening iron, rather than personal attacks. The person who fears God does not wrap up his identity in how other people think of him. Instead, his personal worth is entirely dependent on what God thinks of him. The wise man would rather look foolish to the whole world, rather than be foolish in God’s eyes.