The acid we used in chemistry class burned everything it touched. It ate a hole in a block of wood, etched deep scars in a metal basin, and left a plastic tabletop permanently marred. We donned goggles and gloves and used special beakers designed to hold the caustic liquid, but we were still hesitant and afraid. Our teacher’s warnings put a healthy fear of injury in our minds. Many opted out of the experiment, and the rest of us performed the necessary steps as quickly and carefully as possible, relieved when we could rid ourselves of the poisonous fluid.
Now that I’ve stepped out of the classroom and into the laboratory of life, I’ve discovered a parallel to the caustic substance we experimented with in chemistry class: counselors call it a critical spirit. It doesn’t come with a warning label, but its characteristics are similarly destructive.
Critical words eat holes in tender souls.
Critical minds etch deep scars in families, marriages, and friendships.
Critical hearts mar the shine and beauty of faith, hope, and love.
A critical spirit threatens to steal the joy from everything that isn’t perfect and everyone who falls short of its expectations. It’s a ravenous beast that devours many an honest effort, loving gesture, or kind deed with nary a backward glance.
As it poisons every relationship it touches, the pressure of a critical spirit’s impossible standard is too heavy to bear. Those in relationship with one who possesses a critical spirit are always trying and always falling short. Sometimes they stop trying altogether.
Turning from a critical spirit begins with examining the poisonous roots supporting the critical spirit tree.
Three Poisonous Roots of the Critical Spirit Tree
A critical spirit builds itself up by tearing others down. Pointing out others’ failures, errors, and flaws, can make one feel smug, smart, and superior.
Instead of being grateful for every gift, action, or kind word, the critical spirit weighs everything against a standard of unattainable perfection and gripes and grumbles when the bearer falls short. It complains about what it doesn’t have instead of appreciating that which it does.
A critical spirit resides in people who expect and demand to be served. They believe their needs should be met first, their wants attended to quickly, and their preferences honored above others’.
Thankfully, there is a cure for a critical spirit, although it’s often a slow and painful process. The habits of tearing people down instead of building up, criticizing instead of commending, and griping instead of gratitude are hard to change, but not impossible. Luke 1:37 assures us that nothing is impossible with God.
Four Steps to Cure a Critical Spirit
If you or someone you love struggles with a critical spirit, here are four steps to banish this destructive enemy:
1. Believe you are valuable and loved.
When we fully grasp that God’s love isn’t dependent on our ability to earn His favor, we can stop measuring ourselves against everyone around us and find our value and worth in Christ. Acknowledging that we are all works in progress gives us room to extend grace to ourselves and to others when we fall short of some imagined standard.
2. Acknowledge that a critical spirit is sinful.
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Seeing our destructive attitude through God’s eyes allows us to apply the principle of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Once we’ve confessed and forsaken our critical spirit, we can claim God’s victory over it.
3. Be thankful.
Every time you’re tempted to grumble, turn your grumbling into gratitude. There is always something to be thankful for in every situation, but we have to train ourselves to look for it. As gratitude becomes a more frequent visitor in our hearts and minds, negative emotions find no place to rest. Eventually, gratitude moves in permanently, and grumbling stomps off in search of a new place to live.
4. Seek to serve.
An unselfish heart thinks of others ahead of itself. It gives instead of takes. It serves instead of demanding service. Philippians 2:4 gives us a healthy balance: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
The opposite of a critical spirit is a gracious spirit. People who possess a gracious spirit have a deep understanding of God’s mercy and goodness. They’re quick to recognize their own need for mercy and are willing to extend that same mercy to others because they’re thankful for how God has dealt with them. They’re also well aware that the way they treat others will, in large part, determine how God will deal with them.
James 2:12–13 warns us, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Just as I took precautions to protect myself from the acid in my tenth grade chemistry class, I also want to protect myself and others from the destructive power of a harsh and critical spirit. By believing I am valuable and loved, recognizing a critical spirit as sin, replacing grumbling with gratitude, and serving others, I can become someone who splashes the oil of grace on everyone I encounter. That’s the kind of person I want to be.
How about you?