A critical spirit is not difficult to recognize. Its fruit is usually evident. Someone with a critical spirit is prone to complaining, seeing the glass as half-empty, ruing unmet expectations, sensing failure (in others more than in oneself), and being judgmental. Critical spirits are no fun to be around; neither are they fun to possess.
As with most sin, having a critical spirit is a perversion of something God made to be good—in this case, a longing for God and His perfection. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end." We live in a fallen world, and we are often impatient to enter into the glorious perfection for which we were originally created. In a sense, it is good that we can see what’s lacking in this world; after all, the world is not as it should be, nor are we as we should be. Recognizing the world’s insufficiency helps us to acknowledge our need of a Savior. But having a critical spirit can blind us to the grace and beauty that God continues to bestow every day. A critical spirit can also be seen as a perversion of discernment. Often, those accused of having a critical spirit make valid points. They just make their points in an unpalatable manner.
Obviously, critical spirits are destructive, tearing down both the recipient and the giver of the criticisms (Galatians 5:14-15). The Bible speaks against such critical judgment. In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." Jesus is not saying that we should not be discerning or that we should ignore the fallen nature of the world. He is also not saying that we must never, under any circumstance, criticize anyone else. In fact, the Bible tells us that we are to judge rightly (John 7:24). However, we are not to criticize with malicious intent or out of pride, hypocrisy, or self-righteousness. We cannot assume that we are impartial or that we can fairly exact our standards on others. Humans have naturally deceitful hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) that allow for blind spots and inappropriate comparisons. Only God can judge with perfect accuracy (Hebrews 4:12; James 4:11-12; 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Isaiah 11:4; Revelation 19:11). And our discernment is only valid when it is informed by a renewed nature in Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-16; John 16:13). Only when we are submitted to Christ and honest with ourselves will our judgment serve to edify rather than destroy.
So how do we overcome a critical spirit? The condition of our heart is crucial. Luke 6:45 says, "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." Critical words spring from a critical heart. And a critical heart generally comes from a misunderstanding of God’s grace—either due to pride or a simple lack of information about God’s character and the meaning of salvation. Only when we understand our depravity apart from God and the depth of His grace will we be able to bestow grace to others (Romans 3:23; 6:23; Colossians 2:13-15; Ephesians 2:1-10). Those who struggle with a critical spirit know that they can never live up to their own standards. They are constantly judging others and themselves and always coming up lacking. But Christ fills this lack! He is perfect and righteous, and He freely grants that righteousness to those who believe in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). The better we understand God’s grace, the more gracious we will be with others (1 Peter 2:1-3). And the more grateful we will be. The giving of thanks is a strong antidote to a critical spirit.
Another important area is our thought lives (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 10:5). Rather than focus on what is missing, we should think about what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). This is not to say that we should ignore falsehood, injustice, ugliness, or imperfection. However, we should not dwell on the negatives. Paul instructed the Ephesians regarding this, "We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ . . . so that [the body] builds itself up in love. . . . 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. . . . Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:15-16, 29, 31-32). Sure, things could be better than they are, but love covers many sins (Proverbs 10:12). Forgiveness is a priority. As the Body of Christ, we speak out of a heart of love in order to build each other up. A critical spirit only serves to tear down (Ephesians 4:1-3; Galatians 6:1-5).
It can also be helpful to remind ourselves that we do not know the thoughts and intentions of others. At times, behavior reflects motivation, but not always. Before making a critical remark (whether aloud or to ourselves), we should pause and consider other possibilities. Is this person truly an uncaring jerk, or is he perhaps going through a difficult situation and in need of grace? The Golden Rule is a very helpful tool.
A critical spirit tears down those around us and robs us of our own ability to enjoy life. When we become overly critical, we miss out on the beauty that God has placed in this world. Small blessings go unnoticed, and we stop being thankful. Overcoming a critical spirit requires gratefulness, a willingness to forgive, an accurate understanding of God’s grace (it’s free!), an intentional refocusing of our thoughts, and a commitment to share the truth in love. Overcoming a critical spirit is a matter of sanctification, and we have the Holy Spirit’s help with that (2 Thessalonians 2:13). As we submit to God, read His Word, and pray for grace, we will find that the critical spirit gives up control to the Holy Spirit of Christ.