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Criticism: Constructive or Constrictive?

Numbers 12:1-2 - "Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married; 2and they said, 'Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?' And the Lord heard it."

Read Numbers 12.

Criticism of others is a sin! It is a sin we find easy to excuse in ourselves if we label it "constructive criticism". But our so-called "constructive criticism" is very often "constrictive criticism". Rather than encouraging and helping our friends, we stifle their personalities and stunt their growth as persons by our "constrictive" comments. Critical comments can be destructive and damaging in the lives of other people. And we who engage in the deadly practice of habitually criticizing others are guilty of a deep-rooted sin, the sin of pride. For this reason, the Bible teaches that criticism of others is very wrong, and leads to serious consequences.

In Numbers 12 we read of Moses being criticized by his brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam. Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses on two grounds: his marriage (v1) and his ministry (v2). Moses had married a woman of another race, and Miriam and Aaron criticized his choice of a wife. We don't know exactly whether the Cushite woman was from Africa or Asia. (The King James translation of "Ethiopia" is possibly misleading at this point.) Furthermore, we don't know whether this Cushite woman was the Zipporah from Midian whom Moses had married earlier (Exodus 2:16-21), or a second wife that Moses had married after the death of Zipporah. But in any case, Miriam and Aaron had no basis for their criticism of Moses' choice of a wife.

Although interracial marriage is not the subject of this paper, it is worth noting from this Scripture that the Bible does not condemn interracial marriages. The Bible does, however, encourage believers to "count the cost" before making any major decision. Unfortunately, children of an interracial marriage still face some tough problems in our racially conscious culture. It is only fair that potential parents "count the cost" of these problems in the lives of their future children before entering into an interracial marriage.

Miriam and Aaron also criticized Moses because of his position as God's leading spokesman. This was the ministry that God had given his servant Moses. But Miriam and Aaron were jealous of Moses because they felt he had an unfair monopoly on revelations from the Lord. Remember that Miriam and Aaron were not "nobodies" in the covenant community. They had been given important roles to play. God made Miriam a prophetess (Exodus 15:20) and Aaron the high priest. Although they had significant positions, they were still jealous of Moses and his "higher" position.

Miriam's and Aaron's criticism of Moses' marriage and ministry was typical of all personal criticism. We either criticize something about the personhimself or something about his position. Derogatory comments about someone else's looks or mannerisms or abilities or choices are criticism of the person as an individual. How often we make fun of a person's large nose or eating habits or athletic inabilities or choices of clothes. Are we any better than Miriam and Aaron who criticized Moses' choice of a mate?

Sometimes our poisonous comments have to do with another's achievements or responsibilities or authority. This kind of critical remark is basically criticism of the person's position. Is any one of us innocent of belittling a fellow-student's efforts as floor leader (or R.A.), or pointing up our boss's "inadequacies", or knocking our spiritual leaders for their way of getting things done? Is this any different than the conduct of Miriam and Aaron when they criticized the leadership ministry of Moses?

Why were Miriam and Aaron critical of Moses? The basic problem was pride. Remember that Aaron was the older brother of Moses. During the confrontation with Pharaoh in Egypt, Aaron had a more "up-front" role as the spokesman for Moses. Now, however, older brother Aaron had been put in what he probably considered a back-seat position. Aaron's hurt ego manifested itself in criticism. Miriam's role as prophetess probably gave rise to a desire to be more in the limelight. If God was speaking to the people through her prophecies, why shouldn't she have more of a leadership role? Most likely Miriam's pride was further pricked when the ability to prophesy was also given to the 70 elders of Numbers 11:24-30. And maybe there was even some jealousy between Miriam and Moses' wife as to who was the "First Lady of the Camp"! In any case, Miriam's proud spirit was hurt, and the result was criticism of Moses.

Criticism of others is always the bad fall-out of unchecked and uncontrolled pride. When our pride is pricked, it isn't long before we're guilty of personal criticism. You see, criticism of others is like the leaves of the tree of pride. Think of the roots and the trunk of the tree as the basic sin of pride. Now when the sin of pride is not being controlled in our lives, it branches out into all kinds of other evils. Some of the branches of the tree of pride are jealousy, contempt, refusal to submit to authority, ego trips, arrogance, etc. These branches (and many others) are always behind the leaves of criticism. When a leaf of personal criticism is in our mouths it is certain that the root of pride is in our hearts. The Holy Spirit, by the way, is the great Controller of our pride when we permit Him.

The seriousness of the sin of criticism becomes shockingly clear when we observe the Lord's reaction to the criticism of Miriam and Aaron. The Lord not only heard the criticism (a fact we tend to overlook when we criticize others!), but He disciplined Miriam and Aaron for their sin. "The anger of the Lord burned against them" (v9)--this leaves no doubt that the Lord does not take a lenient "everybody does it" view of criticism. The fact that Miriam became a leper further emphasizes the gravity of this sin.

You may wonder, "Why didn't Aaron get leprosy too?" The answer is definitely not that God has male chauvinist tendencies, as some critics distortedly teach! The answer is contained in the first verse, but it is not detected in our English translations. The verb "spoke" in verse 1 is in the feminine singular form in the Hebrew text. This would indicate that Miriam probably initiated and led in the criticism.

The type of discipline that God used cut through the leaves and branches to the root problem of pride. It is pretty difficult to be proud as a leper! God's discipline of us will always deal with our basic problems--not just the surface symptoms. We can be sure that we will eat "humble pie" in some way if we "mouth off" in criticism. Is it possible that some recent humbling experience in your life was allowed by God in order to stem the tide of personal criticism flowing out of your mouth?

The sin of criticizing others invariably affects quite a number of people detrimentally. It's often been said that you can't sin in a vacuum. Notice that the Lord departed (v9). Think of it! The presence of the Lord departed from Israel because of personal criticism! Is it possible that you are not experiencing much of the living presence of the Lord within your Christian fellowship because of too much criticism of one another--maybe yourcritical comments? Notice also that the whole camp of Israel could not move forward until the sin of criticism was judged (vs15-16). Is it possible that my criticism of others is hindering the spiritual progress of my brothers and sisters in Christ?

How should we deal with our tendency to criticize others, once we recognize and confess this sin? God has incorporated the answer right here in Numbers 12. Just knowing the seriousness of this sin should help us put a seal on our lips and be afraid to criticize others (v8). Furthermore, we should be like Moses and not retaliate. So often our criticism of others is "return fire"!

Notice that Moses did not take verbal revenge--even though it would have been easy for him to have done so from his position of authority. He followed the Scriptural principle of "never take your own revenge" (Romans 12:19). No wonder verse 3 mentions Moses' humility! Like Moses, we should pray for others--even those who criticize us (v13). It's amazing how our criticism of another person tapers off as we begin to pray specifically and sincerely for that person.

It should be mentioned in conclusion that there is a place for legitimate, helpful and constructive criticism in our relationships with other people. However, to be sure that our comments are not constrictive criticism, we should follow two Scriptural principles. The first is the principle of "private confrontation", found in Matthew 18:15. Let us make our constructive comments directly to the person--not behind his back. And let us do it in private--not in front of others.

The second principle is the "log before splinter" principle found in Matthew 7:3-5. Let us make sure that the "telephone pole is out of our own eye" before we try to remove from the eyes of others! If we follow these Scriptural principles, our comments to others can be truly helpful and constructive--not constrictive!

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