(This series of writings was prompted by listening to an excellent sermon from Dr. John MacArthur entitled “Thanks, No Matter What” on 1 Thessalonians 5:18. The sermon was from 1995, I believe.)
“in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thess. 5:18
One of the ironic features of American Christianity is that despite living in the most affluent society in the history of the world, there is a general lack of thankfulness even among believers in America. I find this glaring flaw present in my own life, as well, and am very convicted by it. Living in great abundance and with every need supplied, there is little evidence of thanks in the prayers and the conversations of even committed, genuine believers. Listen to the prayers of American Christians and you may hear some token thanks given for general things, but sincere and heart-felt thanks for the amazing spiritual and material blessings that the Lord has showered on them is usually absent. Again, I know that I am guilty of this and so I may be projecting this on others, but I don’t think so. I think it may be a trait of fallen humanity that the more that we have materially, the less thankful we are. So I have made a commitment to be more thankful and to have vital, deep thanksgiving become a regular part of my prayers and my conversations.
To help me in this endeavor, I am in the process of writing a series of blogs about what I call “the enemies of thankfulness,” prompted by John MacArthur’s excellent teaching on 1 Thessalonians 5:18 about the Christian’s responsibility to be thankful at all times and in all circumstances. And why is not easy for the Christian to be thankful? One reason is that there are enemies to our thankfulness that we need to combat as we grow in our sanctification. So far in this series I have talked about the enemies of DOUBT, SELFISHNESS and WORLDLINESS. This blog will address the enemy of thankfulness known as “A CRITICAL SPIRIT.”
As we embark on this topic of a critical spirit, I am tempted to write a lot about this enemy, because this is the sinful pattern in my own life that most smothers my thankfulness. Of the five enemies of thankfulness that we will discuss, this is the problem that most points at me. But before I confess too much and reveal my own weaknesses, I need to define what I mean by a critical spirit. Then the behaviors of a critical person need to be identified. Next we need to see why this chokes the life out of thankfulness, and finally we need to take some action to overcome this problem.
So what is a critical spirit, exactly? A critical spirit is the tendency to have a critical response to every event in your life. The default is to say, “Yeah, but . . .” Nothing is ever good enough, but always falls short of your too-high standards. The first place your mind goes in any evaluation is to what is wrong with the situation. You identify all the things that were less than perfect and have a hard time ever getting to what was good about a performance. The one with the critical spirit is an analyzer who inspects everything to find out what is wrong with it. We see this in the children of Israel as they came out of Egypt. Gripped by a critical spirit, they liked the food in Egypt better than the manna that the Lord had given them out of heaven. The Lord satisfied them with the heavenly manna, but then they wanted quail instead. They complained about the leadership and they complained about the direction in which they were going. They were critical of everything. This is the critical spirit.
Perhaps giving some of my own personal challenges will help those with a critical spirit identify themselves so they can confess their sin to the Lord and get the Holy Spirit to help them change. My personality is that of an “ANALYZER.” This means that I automatically seek out problems by examining data or situations. I seek problems and feel a sense of victory when I have found one. “Look! Here is the problem!” So my personality orients me to feel good when I have found the flaws and the problems. Now this can be good in some contexts, but the challenge is that this orientation carries over into all areas of my life. I criticize my wife and my children because their performance is not perfect. I ‘helpfully’ tell Lisa, “O, sweetheart, here is your problem!” Rarely is my wife excited by my discovery of her flaws. And that leads to another related tendency, which is that of being a perfectionist. Everyone must live up to my expectations and all people are subject to my judgment. Can you see how arrogant and how irritating this would be? Not only that, but this critical spirit and this constant judging over time will make a person hard and cynical, since they are always disappointed by other people’s ‘failures.’ Well, this critical spirit is a sinful behavior and needs to be identified and rooted out. My desire for righteousness must drive me to change and the Holy Spirit will give me the ability to change, but I first must recognize my need to change. Is a critical spirit choking out your thankfulness?
For the one with a critical spirit, thankfulness is smothered because nothing is deemed worthy of thanksgiving. The critic sees every good gift from God as coming with flaws that need to be fixed. Why be thankful if everything is flawed and is in need of fixing? Since the critical person starts by expecting perfection and then sees all the flaws, there is no room for thankfulness.
How can this critical spirit be defeated? The first step has already been mentioned, and that is acknowledging this as a sinful behavior pattern. Not only does being critical make us unthankful, but it also causes us to view our fellow human beings with disdain and contempt. An attitude where I am the judge and everyone (including God?) has to live up to my expectations will ruin your relationships with others and will make it difficult to love those whom you are called to love. So first, acknowledge that being critical is sinful behavior. Next, change your expectations AND your perspective. Instead of viewing everything that is not perfect (according to your standards) as a failure, view everything that is done with genuine effort and that shows progress as a success. View everything that is above a zero as a success instead of seeing everything that is not perfect as a failure. Third, thank God for everything that He gives and spend time seeing all the amazing ways that God is involved in blessing every one of your days. Realize that all that God does is perfect and all His gifts are good and perfect. he does not give us what we deserve, but gives us out of His abundant goodness and limitless grace. Finally, let your expectations of others remain low and spend time encouraging others rather than criticizing and judging others, and let your expectations of what God will do remain high and pray that he will hear your voice. Praise others for what they can accomplish and praise God for what He does give. Refuse to criticize and instead practice praise and thanksgiving. (RMB 5/22/15)