The Flammable Tongue of a Critical Spirit

This article is by and published by BCC


On September 2, 1666, a small fire broke out in the shop of a London baker in the dead of night. Just days later, 13,200 homes were completely gone. What shocked everyone most was the tremendous speed at which the fire spread. How potent then when James compares our tongues to a flame, describing the deadly potential we wield in our very mouths: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness…It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:5-9). One frequent way we use our tongues to set a fire is criticism. The tongue of a critical spirit is a deadly flame, seeking only its own importance, caring only about being right. Sadly, it is much easier for us to feel criticized than to know when we are being sinfully critical toward someone else. We can easily point to criticism when we feel it, but why can’t we identify it when we speak from a critical spirit?

The Motive of a Critical Spirit

A critical spirit can masquerade as being loving, making it difficult to diagnose. One thing a critical person often says is, “I was just trying to help!” We have to instead go to the heart of a critical person and examine their motive. Here are two helpful categories for distinguishing sinful criticism and love.

First, a critical spirit speaks because they want to be right. A sermon can be improved with more illustrations. A young mom can improve her parenting by spanking more. An employee can improve his productivity by spending less time texting. Most likely, these things are true. When criticism rears its head, your heart craves to be justified, proven right, at the expense of the person in front of you. Is your goal to validate your position or care for your neighbor?

Second, a critical spirit demands to be heard. They want to speak their mind, not so much to help their brother or sister but to have the enjoyment of communicating their thoughts. Proverbs tells us that one who has true wisdom and knowledge “ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Prov. 15:28). You may have wisdom to share, but if you speak without pondering, you may actually be pouring out evil. You must pause to consider how your words might be taken and whether they really need to be said. Too often, we charge on in blissful affirmation of our own superiority, leaving a trail of wounded and discouraged hearts behind us.

The Cure for a Critical Spirit

If the motive beneath a critical spirit is a desire to be right or heard, what is the cure? We need to come back to Jesus’ simple and profound words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…love your neighbor as yourself…On these two commands depend the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40). If the motive of our hearts is loving God and loving our neighbors, we need to hold our tongues until the right moment, if we speak at all. When we seek to love our neighbor, his interest rises above our own—so sometimes we must deny ourselves the simple pleasure of sharing our opinion.

Because I want to love God and my neighbor, I will wait to give advice until I’m asked, unless my neighbor is in spiritual or physical danger. Because Christ humbled Himself, I will humble myself and consider that in that moment with my neighbor, criticism will only be harmful and discouraging to their souls. Paul writes to the Colossian church that their speech must be “full of grace and seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Salt is a purifying, preserving element. As believers, we must be ready to offer salt, and yet Paul doesn’t say “full of salt and sprinkled with grace.” On the contrary, salt is given in small measures and grace in abundance.

Remember the fire of London? Historians confirm that a lack of knowledge about building materials (how flammable pitch was) contributed to the fire’s voracity and power. Because the Londoners didn’t realize the truth of their surroundings, that they were living in a tinderbox, they were susceptible to causing great damage to themselves and their community. In the same way, when we speak heedlessly, unconcerned with the heart and circumstances of the person across from us, we too risk starting a fire of discouragement.

When should you speak? As a helpful checkpoint, Paul encourages, “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.” Follow this line of questioning – will these words build this person up? Are these words fit for the occasion we are currently in? Will they give grace to all who are hearing them? Answering these questions requires both a heart that has taken time to know your neighbor thoroughly as well as a heart that seeks to love God by prioritizing His people. Consider James’ words, “Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:9). As we continue to battle sin in our hearts, taking time to be slow in response ensures that we are first checking the allegiances of our hearts.

Do I Have a Critical Spirit?

How do you know if you have a critical spirit? Here are some questions to ask honestly of yourself:

  • When I’m engaging in conversation with someone, how much of the time am I offering “advice” or comments versus asking thoughtful questions?
  • How often do I ask the question of someone else, “How can I be helpful to you?” rather than assuming I know.
  • How often are my comments given because they were asked for or because I simply inserted them?
  • How often do I allow people to ask my opinions rather than rushing ahead with unasked for advice?
  • How often do I interrupt others in conversation?
  • What would happen if my opinion wasn’t heard? How would I feel?

A mentor once told me, “People need encouragement more than they need criticism.” Think of the people in your life: your pastors who are striving to shepherd you well, your employees who are working to provide a livelihood, your daughter-in-law who is just trying to keep her head above water with the responsibilities of life. Every Christian is walking a path of suffering, leading to sanctification. Though all believers are held by God, we also have the distinct command to offer His grace and love through our speech and deeds toward one another. We cannot love them nearly enough, but we can strive to love them as Christ does. Let’s not waste time setting fires ablaze by bruising the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Who are the people in your life that you are quick to criticize, either openly or behind their back?
  2. What are some practical ways you can apply 1 Thessalonians 5:11 to these people: “Encourage one another and build each other up”?

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