Many years ago, shortly after I had begun making a nuisance of myself to the somnolent liberalism of our little town, my wife and I crossed a threshold in how we learned to deal with public criticism. I had begun writing a weekly column for our newspaper, and the column addressed various cultural and political issues, written by me, a local evangelical pastor. For you kids who don’t know what a newspaper is, it is like a blog on paper that is all about stuff that happened the day before yesterday.
At any rate, after one of my early columns had curtsied and left the stage, an indignant letter to the editor appeared, written by, as I recall, a gent named Terry Lawhead. It ran thus, and after all these years I believe I can still quote it verbatim. “Editor, Doug Wilson is a complete idiot. Terry Lawhead, Moscow.” My dear wife read this penetrating analysis before I got home, and of course this kind of thing was a complete novelty . . . our very first encounter with liberal tolerance. She said reading that was like getting punched in the stomach. When I got home, we talked it through and adopted the official demeanor toward hostile criticism that we have sought to maintain in our home ever since that time. I suggested that Nancy reply with her own letter to the editor. It should run, “Editor, Terry Lawhead doesn’t know the half of it. Nancy Wilson, Moscow.” She thought that might come across a tad disrespectful, but she did clip out Terry’s letter for a place of honor on our fridge.
But this does create another problem. Does not a breezy and cavalier dismissal of criticism like this create a macho mentality that considers itself above correction no matter what? And who wants to be that guy? We all need correction, and we all should be open to the kind that would help us — even if it is from people who don’t know us, or even from people who are hostile.
The key here, for anybody in the midst of the fray, is to have family and friends who have open access to you, and who have the liberty to say that a particular criticism strikes them as valid, or to offer criticisms of their own. It might be an editor, it could be a friend, it might be your elders, it could be your wife or kids — or if you are a blessed writer, it could be all of them.
If you are blessed with this kind of vertebrate companionship, you know that their views are not being driven by the fear of man — what a death trap that is! They will tell you when they believe you should grant a particular point, and you can trust them. You know how open to correction they are in face-to-face life, and they know how open to it you are. You know their commitment to principle, and they know yours. If a critic is right, they will tell you, and you should say so. If he isn’t, be deaf to expediency.
I say expediency because demanding corrections and apologies is one of the central polemical tactics in use in our day. And if you retract or apologize for the wrong reasons, they’ve got you and they know they’ve got you — and they work it. But the funny thing is that if you apologize or retract out of principle, before God, nobody notices that you’ve done it. You may have issued corrections twenty times, but you are still the guy “who never admits he’s wrong.” You are actually the guy who never admits he is wrong in a way that can be used as a lever on you, and that makes them a tad peevish.
But depending on friends can be dangerous, because you need friends with backbone, which is not something that all friends necessarily come with. If one of your friends is skittish about a delicate donor base, you need to know that. If your wife cares too much about societal respectability and acceptance, you need to know that. You can’t fight effectively alone, but you need the right kind of companions around you. Robin Hood needed his merry men. That, and lots of trees, like we have in Idaho.
James tells us that the wisdom from above is “easily entreated.” To be of any use in the culture wars, you must known to be that kind of man by those in a position to know. A man who has never sought forgiveness or accepted correction from his wife, kids, friends, etc. is not being a man of integrity when he refuses to back down in a public dispute. Such a refusal would just be the flag on top of his own personal mountain of arrogance.
And for those not in a position to know . . . why would it matter what they say? If a man is open to true criticism, it doesn’t matter that a world full of falsehood refuses to believe it. These are the times when the disdain may be cordially returned.
If hostile critics at a distance miss the mark, then great. I think it was Winston Churchill who said there is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at without result. If hostile critics at a distance hit the mark, your response should be along the lines of “son of gun, look at that. I stand corrected. Jefferson Davis did not in fact begin his career in politics as a hurdy gurdy man on the streets of Richmond.”
This is why I have said before that public engagement in a world as screwed up as ours requires, in addition to basic competence with facts and words, a thick skin and a tender heart. Look. If you stick your head through the hole in the canvas at the county fair, you have no right to be shocked and dismayed when people throw wet sponges at it. Fortunately, given the state of criticism these days, lots of people miss — especially the feminists, who usually throw like a girl.
Now, see, there’s an example of me doing something that some in these troublous times describe as “hurtful.” And if there were to be an immediate chorus of voices demanding that I apologize for it, and I refused, would this mean that I am not open to correction? Not at all. It does mean, however, that I am not all that open to correction for having a sense of humor.
That reminds me . . .
Q. How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. That’s not funny!
The great biblical principle applies in these lesser things, and not just in matters of the gospel. If God approves, who is he that condemns? If God is unhappy with it, then what does it matter if the whole world approves?
But how can we know if God approves? Well . . . He wrote a book. Moreover, He has given you to the opportunity to live with stalwart companions who are steeped in that book, just as you are. In that environment, trust the Spirit to work — He is the only one who works correction without accusation.