I have a neighbor I call, Critical-Cathy. If it’s not someone’s yard that isn’t quite right, it’s a trash can left out too long, or too much noise the night before. She greeted me the morning after I had purchased a sporty-looking red Toyota Corolla. “I see you got a new car,” she said with a belittling tone and eyebrows scrunched a little to the left.
“A pre-owned one,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t judge me as extravagant.
“You know, the police pull red cars over more than other one’s. You better be careful.”
I quipped back, “It’s a good thing I don’t go over the speed limit, isn’t it?” Okay, I know I might have stretched the truth a tad bit. But, I felt like responding, “So should I take it back?” But she probably would have said yes, and then what would I have said?
It seems like I run into more critical-Cathys’ now days than in the past. It’s not surprising, everywhere we turn it seems like bad news. The virus continues to lurk without a definitive vaccine. More businesses are closing. The political rhetoric and finger pointing amps up toward the November election. The peaceful and occasionally not so peaceful protests attempt to wake our nation to injustices that have been commonplace for way too long. Meanwhile, people argue as to the best way to bring about positive change. So, it’s not hard to find things to complain about. It’s easy to be critical, to judge others. All you need to do is to look at social media posts and the critical spirit of a nation is in full display. What’s sad is that sometimes its the very people who proudly advertise Jesus as their Savior. They don’t realize their critical spirit can harm their own spiritual well being, not to mention those in their presence. Three dangers of a critical spirit surface in the Prodigal Son story in Luke 15:25-32.
It’s easy to gravitate to a feel-good story of a wayward son who comes to his senses. A bad kid who repents. But this parable is so much more than that. If you’re a believer, this parable is more about the older son than the younger son. And I’m guessing that you, like me, have more in common with the older son than the younger one.
The older brother was the good guy, moral, hard working, thrifty, and obedient. He was the one who seemed to be in right relationship with the father, but actually he was yet to be found. Jesus spoke the parable to the Pharisees, who the older son represented. Luke specifically gives us the reason for the parable in Luke 15:2. The Pharisees were grumbling about who Jesus was spending time with (the lost). “So, (15:3), he told them a parable.” Actually, Jesus told three parables in a row. The lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons. The lost sheep is found, the lost coin is found and the youngest son is found, but Jesus leaves us hanging about the oldest son.
In all three parables, the owners seek after what belongs to them because they each are of great value. In Luke 15:4-7, the owner lost (became separated from) one of his sheep and he looked till he found it. The lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) belongs to the woman who looks everywhere till she finds it. The two sons belong to the father and the parable ends with the Father pleading for the older son to come in. “But he was angry and refused to go in…” (Lk.15:28). Does he come in? Jesus does not give the answer. The hearers (the Pharisees then, you and me now) determine the answer.
The older son was not just critical of his younger brother. He had already judged his brother and dismissed him. But now, the critical spirit bled over into his relationship with his father. The grace extended by his father exposed the judging and critical spirit already present in the older son. A critical spirit is a form of spiritual rebellion. Although a recipient of God’s favor, the older son chooses to dismiss God’s nature of kindness and grace in his interaction with others. He reveals a heart of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. The parable of the older son warns us to 3 dangers of a critical spirit.
- A Critical spirit separates us from our heavenly Father.
This separation is the definition of sin. Missing the mark. Broken fellowship. The state of being separate from. The younger son rebelled by going to a far country rejecting his father’s lifestyle and provisions. The older son rebelled by staying home and inwardly removing himself by assuming the seat of judgment. The youngest came to himself, repented, and returned home accepting his father’s authority and blessing. The older son was in the grip of a self-righteous spirit resulting in a critical spirit. He rebelled against his father’s authority and rejected his father’s choice of blessing. The older son had no room to give or receive the father’s love, grace, and mercy.
- A Critical spirit separates us from the meaningful people around us: family, friends, and our church family.
A critical spirit often manifests itself in anger, complaining, holding grudges, harshly judging groups of people and being unwilling to forgive or give a second chance. Have you experienced times where those attitudes were reflected in you?
Take inventory of what you spend time talking about and listening to. Do your conversations tend to focus more on problems than solutions? Conversations that spiral downward to what’s wrong with that person, or those “people?” More fault-finding than encouraging words? When you finish listening to that television show or social media programming, is your spirit uplifted or depressed? Encouraged, or upset?
The knit pickers, the weed pullers don’t inspire, or encourage others to be better. After a conversation, or, listening to that talk show, or, watching a video online, take your emotional temperature. Are your thoughts positive or negative? Do you feel closer to the Lord, or further away? Resist the urge to be other people’s Holy Spirit.
- A Critical spirit separates us from the truth, which God has revealed in the Gospel, the Good News.
In order to justify our self-righteous views and critical spirit, we can twist the good news of the Gospel into religious legalism without even knowing it. We become more known for what we are against than what we are for.
The good news of the gospel is to be life-giving, grace-oriented, and forgiving. How about your words? Would those you’ve talked to this past week describe your conversations as life-giving and grace-oriented?
The older son’s reaction to the grace given by his father towards the younger son exposed his self-righteous motives for doing all the right things, but for the wrong reasons. The older son’s obedience was based on his expectations of getting something in return for his faithfulness. He viewed it more like a contract rather than a relationship. “I do what I’m supposed to do, and father, you owe me.” The father’s generosity to his younger brother fanned the flames of the older son’s critical spirit.
Christians that fall into a similar state of self-righteousness naturally lose their joy of a relationship with God. Their religious acts now become a duty. They often expect compensation from God for their acts of service. They reduce their relationship with God to externals which naturally result in judging others. Externalism now creates a need to point out the faults of those perceived to be beneath them and to judge who deserves God’s condemnation.
A critical spirit leads to a heart of legalism rather than genuine service and faith. The younger son ends up serving the father from a heart of grace and thankfulness, the older son never comes to that realization. “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad for your brother.” (Luke 15:32). The self-righteous, the critical-spirited, can’t rejoice because their focus is on themselves. No grace for others and sadly, no grace for themselves.
What’s your spirit like in the midst of this global pandemic, social unrest and election year? Have you experienced God’s grace, love and forgiveness? Has He given you more than you deserve? How do we overcome a critical spirit? I’ve found that when I take time to dwell on His goodness and reflect on His grace, it removes any room for a critical spirit (Ephesians 2:4-9).
If you find yourself a little more negative or critical than you know the Lord would want, let me recommend pulling away for a few minutes of solitude. Open up your Bible and read Ephesians 1:3-14. Circle and repeat out loud with a thankful heart everywhere it lists what is true of you because you are “in Him.” Then, thank God for His grace and forgiveness to you and ask him to help you in-turn to be a dispenser of that same grace to others.
So the next time I see my neighbor, Critical-Cathy, I can choose to return her critical spirit with a similar response, or I can choose to smile and be kind, wishing her a great day. Why? Because there is no room for a critical spirit!
Dirke Johnson has a doctorate in Church Leadership and is a professor for the Ministry Degree program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also teaches at Cru’s Institute of Biblical Studies and specializes in Leader Development, creating high performing teams. He has years of experience at ministering in urban cross-cultural and international contexts.