This is one of the great pains, perhaps the greatest, inside family, church, and community. Eventually we are subject to criticism, our motives and integrity are questioned, and we have to live with the bitterness of those judgements, a bitterness that can rob our lives of joy and us of any self-confidence. The real pain though is not when these negative judgements come from outside, when the big world out there questions our integrity, but precisely when it comes from inside, from persons with whom we are meant to share family and faith.
Experiencing hated, bitterness, and being accused of hypocrisy are not an easy thing to cope with. How do we not question our own essential goodness in the face of criticism and judgement? How do we not put our own truth up for grabs when it’s bitterly questioned? And how do we sustain ourselves in community and resist the urge to walk away in the face of criticism?
I’ve often wondered how Jesus coped with this because certainly he had to face it. He moved around Palestine preaching love, joy, community, and vulnerability, even as people called him a blasphemer (the ultimate accusation of egoism) and hated him enough to kill him. How did he stay joyful in the face of this anger? How did he let himself be vulnerable when others were attacking him? How did he continue to be self-confident in his mission when he was accused of being hypocritical and self-deluded? How did he handle this?
By always taking his real identity from God and not from himself or from the opinions others had of him.
As Jesus moved about doing his mission, he met every kind of reaction: Sometimes the crowds loved him and tried to make him king, other times the same people hollered for his head, “Crucify him!”. He was both loved and hated and always there were some who stood, sincerely no doubt, in bitter opposition and accused him of being the ultimate egoist and blasphemer.
What’s important to notice is that Jesus never took his identity from these reactions, good or bad, feeling confident when the crowds supported him and feeling insecure when he faced opposition. He took his truth and identity from elsewhere. Where?
“I do the will of my father.” His identity, his truth, his courage to act, and his joy were all rooted in something beyond the affirmations or criticisms of the moment, beyond public opinion, beyond the judgement of those who hated him.
Looking at Jesus, we see that, in the face of criticism and hatred, his key questions weren’t: “Can I live with this criticism? Do I let another’s negative judgement intimidate me from the truth and mission I feel called to? Do I let someone’s hatred of me destroy my energy and joy?”
Looking at Jesus, we see that the key questions are: “Can I live with myself? Can I be centred and patient enough to let God, history, and truth be my judge? Can I be sensitive to how I’m seen and judged by others, even as I take my identity from a reality deeper than public opinion and the view of those who dislike me? Can I, by casting my eyes more towards heaven, continue to sustain myself in energy and joy, even in the face of bitterness and hatred?”
Jesus shows us the way here, albeit it’s far, far from an easy one. This gate too is narrow. It’s not easy to not be intimidated from doing what we are called to do because we experience opposition. There will always be opposition. Not just because darkness perennially resists light, but because it’s impossible to live for any length of time inside of any kind of closeness, family or community, without irritating and hurting each other. We have different personalities, different histories, different perspectives, and we all arrive on the scene carrying wounds from elsewhere. Community isn’t automatic and it isn’t easy, but we must not let our truth and our joy die in the face of opposition.
Though a caution needs to be added: There is always a danger of self-delusion when we discern our truth. In the face of criticism, opposition, and hatred, we should always seek spiritual direction, from the wise and from the good. Wisdom and goodness are the great principles of discernment. Hence, go to those within the community who are wise and go to those within the community who are good. Ask them how they see you and how they see those particular actions of yours that are so upsetting to your critics.
And know and accept that always there will be criticism, anger, and sometimes even hatred. Jesus experienced this and, in the end, it killed him. He warned that, for us, it will be no different. Hell will always try to blackmail heaven, but that’s to be resisted.