A father’s voice

When my boys were little, I watched a phenomenon play out so many times that I'm sure it's an infallible truth: If they are playing and their father shouts from the sidelines, they hear him. Over every other voice, they heard their dad. Most times, they would execute the play or correct their position accordingly. They trusted him and they responded out of that trust. They heard him above all the other voices, especially above the negative voices or those whose messages were counter to his.

Recently, I've encountered the criticism and disdain of someone who matters to me. It's never easy to hear criticism or to have to sift through angry words spoken in the heat of the moment. And women's hearts can be broken by stony silences. Some lessons are harder than others to learn. Learning to handle criticism well is one lesson I've taken my time to master.

Sometimes, we have to experience the same ache in different places before we can begin to heal the disease at its root. This time, I look at the familiar landscape that is the negative reaction of someone and I see it a new way. Maybe I do that because the familiar voice that has called out to my boys from the sidelines is one that I hear, too. My husband speaks truth into my confusion over relationships. The grace of marriage is real and alive. Maybe I see it differently this time because a dear mentor has echoed my husband. Or maybe it's that I've looked God square in the eye and finally recognized that to respond in the old way - to let someone's criticism of me destroy my own self-image and erode my peace of heart - is to be controlled by someone other than God. Probably, it's all of the above.

Criticism stings, especially for those of us who are tenderhearted and who pour out ourselves for families and friends. It is excruciating to have the earnest endeavors of our hearts be met with contempt. There is no denying that it hurts. There is also no denying that it happens. When we engage in the messiness of relationships, we lay ourselves vulnerable to being condemned by both the people close to us and the people who judge us from afar.

Upon first receiving criticism, we have to first weigh it, sift it, and thoughtfully consider it. Is there a grain of truth there? Is there something for which we should apologize, something we need to amend? Then, we pray for the grace and strength to make things right.

Sometimes, though, criticism comes from a place of the critic's sin. Their insecurities, their immaturity, their own self-doubt rush at us in a barrage of ugliness or impenetrable silence. From their own place of pain, they hurt us.

The response? St. Paul tells us, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," (Rom 8:1). To test a criticism, hold it up to that light. If Jesus doesn't condemn us, we aren't condemned. Set free by Christ, we have to live apart from the bondage of other people's opinions and even their hurtful accusations.

The reality is that we are responsible for our own self-images. Women tend to see themselves in the reflections of how they perceive others see them. That is one distorted image. When we allow the unhealthy evaluation of other people to shape our own view of ourselves, the understanding of our very core is warped. With time and practice, we can let go of the grip that criticism has on us and, instead, practice receiving God's unconditional love. If we are walking in biblical truth and living lives open to His real grace, it is the voice of the Father heard above the crowd that brings peace to our souls.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

@elizabethfoss