We all wrestle with harsh criticism from time to time. That criticism can come from others or even from our own selves, but how do we handle criticism thrown our way? In this sermon we explore what Paul says is the secret to being set free from the effects of criticism, but the answer isn’t what we expect.

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    I'd like to begin by asking you a question. What is the most critical thing that someone ever said about you, and how did it make you feel? Perhaps they said it directly to your face, or worse, behind your back. What's the most critical thing someone ever said? Has someone ever tried to tear you down with their words? Maybe they criticize your decisions, your actions or your abilities? Perhaps they just don't like you for some reason, and so they took a shot at your personality or your character. What is that worst thing? What are the words that you continue to replay in your mind that make you feel so small and insignificant? Or perhaps you are your own worst critic, so what's the most critical thing you've ever thought about yourself? Are you one of those people who often says to themselves, “You'll never do enough. You'll never get it right. You'll never amount to anything.” 

    What I'm trying to get you to think about is how you handle harsh criticism in your life, whether it's the criticism of others or self criticism. And here's why. We're engaged in a series in which we're taking a close look at the opening four chapters of the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Corinth. This is a church that is deeply troubled. It is tottering on the brink of collapse. What's different about this church, compared to many of the others in the New Testament, is that the primary threat facing the church in Corinth is not necessarily external opposition, but rather internal division. The church is in danger of crumbling from within. The Apostle Paul first founded this church around the year 50 AD, and he spent 18 months in Corinth before moving on to the city of Ephesus. There he met a colleague named Apollos who also came to Corinth to help build on the foundation that Paul had laid. He nurtured and he developed the church in Corinth, but then he returned to Ephesus. After he left, other leaders slipped in, who criticized both Paul and Apollos. They suggested that Paul was nothing to look at or to listen to. They regarded Paul as a terrible public speaker compared to the gift of fine oratory that they possessed. They suggested that Paul was a weak stick. He might have gotten the church in Corinth started on the right path, but his message was too basic, too elementary. It was child's play. It was baby stuff. Whereas they claimed to be able to help the Christians in Corinth rise to new heights in their spirituality. If Paul was an apostle, they called themselves super apostles. 

    The interesting thing is that Paul never suggests that these leaders who followed him and Apollos were not Christians. That's not the issue. There's no question that they possessed a sincere and devout faith. The problem is that they were misguided, and as a result, their ministry proved to be not only divisive, but destructive. Their ministry was destructive because whether they intended this or not, they were creating these little cliques within the community with themselves at the center. They had their own agenda. They were trying to push the church in a different direction than the one that Paul had intended. I wish I could say that a critical spirit and a judgmental attitude are no longer a problem in today's church. It might have been a problem in Paul's day, but not our own. We all know, that would be a lie. So the question is, how do we handle harsh criticism in our lives? Paul's answer to that question will surprise you. It is not at all what you would expect. You're not going to hear this anywhere else. What is the key to handling criticism in your life? Paul's answer is Judgment Day. God's answer to how to handle criticism in your life is Judgment Day—God's judgment.

    I'd like us to take a close look at what Paul has to say on this theme, and we'll consider two questions. First, what is Judgment Day? Second, why do we need it? If you'd like, let me encourage you to open up a Bible to 1 Corinthians 4. I'll be reading v.1-5,

    1This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 3But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

    This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.

    What is Judgement Day?

    What is Judgment Day? Every week, churches around the world have Christians who recite the words from one of our creeds as we did moments ago. We stated that Jesus will "come again in glory, to judge the living in the dead." Paul will later say in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that one day Jesus will return personally, physically and visibly. Every person who has ever lived, will be held to account for how they have lived their lives. 

    Most of you know that my first job out of college was in finance. I worked at a financial services firm. I loved the job. I very well could have seen myself continuing in it as a career, but I felt that God was calling me into ministry. One of the funniest days at the office was when I told my two bosses that I was going to be leaving, not to go work for a or a private equity firm, but to enroll in seminary in order to become a minister. One of my bosses was very confused by this. He assumed that I was a smart guy who knew what I was doing. I could tell he had this puzzled look on his face—the wheels were turning. Eventually, he just blurted out, “Can you make money doing that?” I had to explain, that's not really the point. Then a conversation ensued between my two bosses. One of them was a nominal Catholic. The other had been raised Protestant, but would no longer identify himself as any kind of Christian. The person from the Catholic background said to the other, “I'm worried about you because you don't believe. Jason going to seminary has really gotten me thinking about eternal things. I'm worried about you.” To which he responded by saying, “You've got nothing to worry about. If there is a God, I'm sure I'll be fine because I'm a good person. Besides, look at you. You're not exactly the paragon of virtue.” Then he responded by saying, “That might be true, but I go to church on occasion, and sometimes I even put a little money in the plate. What about you? I'm really worried about you.” This whole conversation takes place right in front of me, and I'm not even participating. I'm just an onlooker as my two bosses discuss among themselves their eternal destiny. 

    What that conversation showed me is how people typically think about judgment. Most people assume that if there is a God, he will accept us as long as our good deeds outweigh the bad. Therefore our task in life is to manage the moral ledger. We have to make sure that the good deeds always outweigh the bad. Therefore if you are good enough, if you are kind enough, or if you are generous enough, God will accept you. Or short of that, if you make a mistake, or screw up in life, if you're sincere enough, or if you're contrite enough, or if you're remorseful enough, then you'll be okay. But what would ever be enough? That line of thinking reveals that you have not come to grips deeply enough with the gravity of the problem. What would ever be enough? It's not merely a matter of managing the moral ledger, because look at the kind of judgment God will bring to bear upon this world. Paul says in v.5, “Who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” In a similar way, the author of Hebrews 4:13 says, “No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Jesus himself said in Matthew 12:36, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Can you imagine? We will give an account for every careless word, thoughtless word, we speak. This is a terrifying prospect. Imagine standing in the dock and having to defend everything that you've ever done, everything you've ever thought, everything that you've ever said. That's not even half of it because Matthew 25 tells us that we will be held responsible not only for our sins of commission—the things that we actively do—but also our sins of omission—the things that we fail to do, or perhaps never even thought of doing. If that is the kind of judgment that God brings to bear upon this world, who could ever bear the scrutiny? Who could ever bear that kind of scrutiny? Not one of us, which is why we need grace. We need God to relate to us on the basis of grace—not merit—because if it's based on our merit, our record, none of us will stand. But God's grace transforms his judgment from something that we fear into something that we cherish, and I want to show you why. 

    When you place your trust in Jesus, rather than within yourself, for your standing before God, God justifies you. This is one of the most important theological concepts you can ever come to grips with. When you put your trust in Jesus rather than yourself before God, God justifies you. What does that mean? To justify is the opposite of to condemn. To condemn means to declare guilty. To justify means to declare not guilty, innocent, righteous. But that only begs the question, how can God declare us to be not guilty when we know in ourselves that we are guilty? We're guilty of the things that we've thought, and said, and done, as well as those things that we failed to do but should have. How can God justify us? This brings us to the very heart of the gospel, and this is what separates Christianity from every other religion, every other philosophy. A Christian is someone who undergoes a transfer of trust. You no longer trust in yourself, you put your trust in Jesus. A Christian, therefore, is someone who says, “God will accept me, not because of who I am, or what I've done, but solely on the basis of who Jesus is, and what he has done for me.” When you put your trust in Jesus, there and then, God declares you not guilty. He justifies you, which means that the verdict of the Last Day—the day of judgment—breaks into the present. The sentence has already been passed down. You already know what it is, and it is now operative in your life. God declares you not guilty in his sight, which means there is not now, nor will there ever be, any condemnation for those who are united to Jesus by faith; and therefore, you can have absolute assurance that God will accept you despite all your faults and failures. 

    But just because the verdict is already in and the sentence has already been passed, doesn't mean that you can skip the trial. We still have to appear in court. That's what Paul is telling us here. We will still have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and God will evaluate us for what we have done with what we have been given. That's why Paul will say in v.5, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes…each one will receive his commendation from God.” If that's true, that if we will still appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and he will evaluate what we have done with the time that we have been given, it gives this life meaning. Everything we do now matters. What Paul says about himself and Apollos applies to all Christians. In v.1, he says that we are servants of Jesus Christ. We are stewards of the mysteries of God. That word “steward” means household manager. It refers to someone who managed a large estate, and Paul is saying that's true of all Christians. Everything we are, everything we have belongs to another. It's not ours. It's his. Who are we? We are merely managers. The test of a good steward, a good manager, is whether or not they have been faithful with the treasures that have been entrusted to them. That's why Paul will say in v.2, “It is required as stewards that they be found faithful.” On Judgement Day, we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and if we are united to Jesus, then we already know what the verdict will be. It has already been passed down—not guilty. Yet, we will still have to give an account of our stewardship. For that reason, the most beautiful, the most precious words that we could ever hear Jesus say to us will be: Well done. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” That's the commendation, the praise, that we will receive from him. That is what motivates us now to do everything we can with the time that we've been given in service to Jesus. That's what Judgment Day is.

    Why Do We Need It?

    Why do we need it? Ironically enough, the judgment of God is what sets us free. It's not at all what you would think, but the judgment of God, here and now, is what sets us free. Rather than being terrified of the thought that God will judge us, we should delight in it. We should cherish it. We should want it. We should invite it. We should say, “God judge me! Judge me because you're the only one who can set me free.” Judgment turns out to be the rather surprising way in which we handle criticism in our life. Why is that? I would suggest that all of us, whether we realize it or not, are looking to some verdict from outside of ourselves. We're all looking for some verdict coming from outside of us that tells us who we are, where we stand, why we matter. 

    Let me give you an example from literature. Quentin is the main protagonist in Arthur Miller's play “After the Fall.” This is a character who doesn't believe in God. He believes that there is no ultimate judge of the universe. The bench is empty. But when he comes to that belief, the belief that the bench is empty, it’s actually what causes his despair. It leads to despair. This is how he describes it. He says, 

    “You know, more and more I think that for many years I looked at life like a case at law, a series of proofs. When you are young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful or whatever. But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That I was moving on an upward path toward some elevation, where—God knows what—I would be justified, or even condemned—a verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day—and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was this endless argument with oneself—this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. Which, of course, is another way of saying—despair.”

    We're all looking for some verdict outside of ourselves to tell us that we matter, that our life counts for something, that we’ll be significant and secure. If there is no God, if the bench is empty, then we just engage in this pointless litigation with ourselves trying to justify our existence. The point is that Quentin was wrong, there is a judge. The fact that he judges our life is what gives our existence meaning. That's how we know who we are, where we stand, and that we matter. We should want God to be our judge because that is what sets us free. That's what Paul came to understand. Paul was subjected to serious criticism. After all the energy and time and effort that he had poured into building this church in Corinth, he now becomes the object of scorn. But look at how he responds to the criticism. In v.3-5, he says, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself...It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes.”

    You see what Paul's saying? He says, if I know that the Lord is my judge, if he is the one who justifies me, who declares me not guilty, if he is the one who accepts me despite all my faults and failures, then that's the only opinion, that's the only verdict that matters. It doesn't matter what you think. It doesn't even matter what I think about myself. All that matters is what God thinks. It's the Lord who judges me. That's exactly what Erika sang for us moments ago: The only thing that matters now is everything you [God] think of me. When we realize that, that transforms the way in which we relate to others, the way in which we relate to ourselves, and the way in which we relate to God. 

    How We Relate To Others

    First of all, the fact that God justifies us, despite our sin, transforms the way in which we relate to others. Paul says, "With me is a very small thing, that I should be judged by you or by any human court." The fact is, unless you know deep down inside, at the core of your being, that God accepts you, regardless of who you are, or what you have done, then you'll never be able to handle criticism. You'll never be able to handle it. It will not only hurt you, it will destroy you. That's why you're so touchy. That's why you're so sensitive, so defensive. Any criticism sets you off. You need the approval of other people to feel significant and secure, to know that you're valuable, and that your life means something. That's why you become such an approval junkie. You need the approval of other people. You constantly need other people to stroke your ego in order to lift you up. But if you know that in Jesus Christ you have already received the only verdict that matters, from the one whose opinion matters most, that's what gives you poise. You can receive criticism, without being destroyed by it, and you can offer healthy, constructive criticism without trying to crush the other person. You don't need to knock other people down in order to lift yourself up because your ego is so fragile. You don't need to attack people when they criticize you. No, instead, the criticism just bounces off because the opinion of the one who matters most is already lodged deep within your heart. That's what sets you free. 

    How We Relate To Ourselves

    Perhaps you're one of those people who not only suffers from criticism from other people, but criticism from yourself. You are your own worst critic, and you can't seem to silence that inner voice of self-reproach that goes on and on within your own mind. If that's you, I can relate because that's something with which I struggle. One of my first jobs out of seminary, when I first became a minister, was as a campus minister at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago. I served there for six years before coming to New York to serve here at Central. One of my primary tasks then as a campus minister was to deliver a talk, to give a lecture, a little sermon, to the students on a weekly basis at our large group meeting. One of my primary responsibilities was to give this talk and I began to wrestle with something that I imagine most New Yorkers can identify with—that was perfectionism. I am a little bit of a perfectionist. My perfectionism evidenced itself most clearly, within my desire to be a good public speaker. Because this was one of the most important things I had to do on campus every week, I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I could do it, that I was good at it, and that's what made me feel valuable and confident. 

    A friend once asked me, “What does it feel like if your identity is all wrapped up in your performance as a public speaker? What does it feel like on a good day versus a bad day?” I remember saying, “On a good day, if my words come out right, if it seems to have an impact, and I received some positive feedback, then I feel like a million bucks. I feel like a million bucks. But if I stumbled over my words, or forget what I was going to say, or the message falls flat, and no one seems to care, then how do I feel? I hate myself.” I remember feeling that way. I hated myself. You might think that this is probably just the natural anxiety associated with learning a new skill. But I would say no, this went much deeper. I wasn't able to sleep the night before I was supposed to speak, and then I couldn't sleep the night after because everything I had done was still playing in my mind, which meant that I was rather exhausted. At first my wife, Ashley, tried to encourage me. She would say, “You're great. Every message you deliver is good. You've got to stop being so hard on yourself.” But no matter what Ashley said to me, it didn't help because I just discounted everything she said. She's my wife. She has to be nice to me. She's just being kind. Then Ashley realized she had to take a different approach. She tried two things, both of which were successful. The first thing she said to me was, “I love you. I'm always here for you. I'm happy to talk with you about whatever problems you're dealing with, but I have to say it's a little exasperating talking to you about the one same issue over and over again, and you don't seem to be making any progress. You've got to get some friends.” She even picked one out for me. She said, “You should get together with Alec (someone we knew from church) and tell him what you're dealing with.” So I did. I got together with Alec. I opened up, and we became fast friends—lifelong friends. He was a great source of encouragement and help to me in order to work through this struggle with perfectionism. It's telling that his wife, Keri, came all the way from Chicago this weekend, just to spend time with Ashley. Number one, Ashley said, “You got to get a friend.” Then she also took a tougher approach. She said, ”You know what your problem is, Jason? You don't believe the gospel. Your fundamental problem is, you don't believe the gospel.” Now, she wasn't saying I wasn't a Christian, but what she was saying is you are not applying the gospel to this particular issue in your own life. Here's the irony. Every week, what are you saying in your messages? You're telling the college students that God accepts us not because of who we are or what we've done, but on the basis of who Jesus is and what he's done for us. God showers his love upon us by grace. But you don't believe it. You're not living out that truth. You're telling it to other people, but you're not applying it to yourself. You've got to start believing the gospel. You have to believe that no matter how well you speak, or how poorly, your identity in Christ is fixed. It doesn't fluctuate or change based on what other people think of you. That's when things actually started to click. I realized she's right. That's the problem, so I began to work my way out of this perfectionism by applying the gospel to my own heart. The gospel of justification by free grace. 

    I can say, as a result of God's work in my life, you don't have to tell me if I did a good job today. God has freed me from this desperate need for the approval of other people. Around that time, 1 Corinthians 4, became so important to me because this is what Paul's talking about. Paul says, “it is a very small thing for me to be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.” I don't even have to judge myself. He says, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” Do you hear what he's saying? This is really important. Most people would probably say, as long as your conscience is clear, if there's nothing on your conscience, then you're standing before God is settled. You don't have anything to worry about. But Paul says, no, that's not how it works. That's not how the gospel works. Just because there's nothing weighing on your conscience doesn't mean that you're thereby acquitted, and declared not guilty in God's eyes. Why? Because God could know something about you that you don't even know. Who of us can plumb the depths of our own hearts? Just because nothing is on our conscience doesn't mean that we're in the clear with God. Paul's pointing us to the only grounds for justification. The only grounds for justification is Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Knowing that Jesus lived the life, that you should have lived and died the death that you deserve to die in your place as your substitute is what enables God to accept and embrace you, despite all your faults and failures, and to declare you not guilty in his sight. It is the Lord who judges me, so it doesn't matter what others think, it doesn't even matter what I think about myself. All that matters is what God thinks of me. All that matters is his opinion. His verdict. If you, like me, struggle with the ability to accept oneself, then perhaps knowing that God accepts you in Christ can enable you to begin to accept yourself as he does. 

    How We Relate To God

    Finally, God's judgment not only changes the way we relate to others or to ourselves, but also to God. I want to ask you this question. If you could picture the expression on God's face when he looks at you, what do you see? Do you imagine God as an angry judge, who is frowning at you, scowling at you, who's growing tired of you because you keep screwing up? You never seem to get it right. You're constantly trying his patience. What Paul wants us to see here is, God's not frowning. He's not scowling at us. He's not an angry judge. In fact, it's a really good thing that he is our judge because when God judges us, he justifies us, and that's what frees us. God not only justifies us, he not only gives us this new standing before his eyes, but the moment we put our faith in Jesus, he also adopts us into his family. We become his beloved sons and daughters, which means that he loves you in the same way that he loves his perfect son, Jesus. He loves you the same way, and to the same degree, that he loves Jesus. We need to hear that over and over again, because we're so prone to forget it.

    We tend to think that our initial forgiveness by God is based on what Jesus has done for us on the cross, but then our ongoing acceptance before God is based on our performance. We have to make sure we don't screw up and we have to do all the right things. We have to make sure that our good deeds outweigh the bad, but no, that fundamentally undermines the gospel itself. The gospel tells us that both our initial forgiveness and our ongoing acceptance are solely based on the finished work of Jesus, not our poor choices. That's what sets us free. No matter what you do, or fail to do, your standing before God is fixed. It does not fluctuate or change. Of course, like any child, we can grieve the heart of our Heavenly Father, but we never lose our place in the family. My kids do stupid stuff all the time, but it doesn't change the way in which I feel about them. So it is in our relationship with God, we can grieve the heart of our Heavenly Father, but nothing takes that position away. You are as accepted now as you will ever be.

    That's what changes everything. That is what we celebrate here at this table. Jesus lived the life we should have lived. He died the death that we deserve to die. He died in your place as your substitute on the cross, and therefore the cross proves God's love for you. If you're united to Jesus in faith, there's nothing that you could ever do to make God love you more. There's nothing that you could ever do to make him love you less. His love for you is perfect, and it is infinite. When you realize that, then that's what transforms God's judgment from being something that we might fear to becoming something that we cherish. Because when God judges you, he justifies you, and that's what sets us free. When we see that, then we should want it. We should invite it. We should say, “God bring it on! Judge Me!” It is the Lord who judges me in order to set me free. 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, we recognize that all of us wrestle with harsh criticism—criticism either from others or even from our own selves. Help us to discover this surprising key to handling criticism. It doesn't matter what others think, it doesn't even matter what we think about ourselves. All that matters is what you think of us. As our good, gracious judge, you justify us in Christ in order to free us. Help us to embrace those truths and live them out in every aspect of our lives. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.