Chapter 10 of Pure Gold (1898)
There is no disposition of the soul which more quickly and completely destroys the flavor of holy love than the spirit of criticism. The only persons who are competent to criticize are those who are full of spotless love, and of all persons on earth these are the most tardy to perform that office. A critical spirit may be described by the following features:
1. It deems itself gifted from God with particular genius to detect and correct evil in others. With every step in the advances of grace, there is given to the mind a new degree of light to discriminate finer shades of right and wrong. But unless there is a continual increase of love which keeps fully, abreast, or even runs ahead of this added light, the foolishness and weakness of human nature will turn this power of discrimination into a death-dealing instrument.
There is an inveterate frailty in human nature to assume the throne of God in judging others. Because God gives religious persons the power to discriminate, a great many misinterpret the gift and conclude that they have a special mission to detect defects and to exercise a police authority in correcting others, and hunting down wrong-doers. So much is this true that some eminently religious people think that all the religion on earth would go to wreck if they did not diligently exercise their gift in setting others right. Many such persons, before they die, pass through ordeals of experience which show them the utter foolishness of their self-appointed mission, for a critical spirit is always a proof of a raw experience.
2. The critical spirit hunts for defects in non-essentials.
Like the Pharisees, it puts annis and cumin above the weightier matters of mercy and life. A critical person is disposed to eye you from head to foot, and scan carefully your clothing, your eating, your facial expression, your voice, and gesture. He is on the hunt for something wrong and is bound to find it and sooner than miss his prey, he will convert a newspaper by the roadside into a stately ghost, for he is bent on being scared. If such persons can detect a foible, they seem restless, and as full of nervous vigilance as a cat watching a mouse, until they have pounced upon you and given you their estimate of your piety. Such persons will go out of their way to investigate the sins of others, they love to inquire into the shortcomings of their neighbors, they think it a great stroke of piety to unearth evil.
The most awful thing about it is the satanic delusion that such a horrible spirit is a part of holiness. It is a proof of a weak mind or weak spirituality, to get the attention absorbed upon a collateral or non-essential, and this is always a significant trait of a critical spirit.
3. The spirit of criticism is invariably a legal spirit.
It takes the technical law side of every thing instead of the love side. It magnifies systematic theology above the Bible, it puts doctrinal statement above the very essence of Gods life in the soul. It will spend a great deal more zeal in hunting heresy than it will in secret prayer. It has a strong propensity to pitch into people and things generally. It scans with eagle eye the writings of others, not to get spiritual nourishment, but ferret out any trace of false teaching. It matters not how holy or useful a person may be, if they make any statement by voice or pen which does not fit in with the critics cast iron theology, the offender is at once pounced upon, and his supposed inaccuracies are peddled to the world, while the real worth of the life and service are ignored. It magnifies cooking utensils above food, and farmers implements as greater than the harvest; it spends more time fixing boundary lines than to improving the county; it clings to a definition of religion more than to its experience, and can even stake out the exact limits of the first and second blessing with more fervor than it cleaves to the meek and lowly mind of Jesus.
This severe, critical, legal spirit resembles a very thin, bony man, sparsely clad, shivering in a cold day, spending his strength on how to build furnaces and stoves, instead of warming himself at the fire.
4. The critical spirit puts a wrong construction on the best things.
It imparts its own barrenness of heart to the actions of other people. It thinks there must be a mean motive in every act, and a treachery in every vow, and a thorn in every flower, and hence wherever its eye falls its vision is based with foregone constructions. It is inclined to construe all cheerfulness into levity, and all deep seriousness into moroseness, and true economy into stinginess, and liberality into wastefulness. It seems unable to find the right key to unlock things with, and so breaks the lock to force an entrance. The eye of criticism is always a misfit, and it is always hitting at the wrong object.
5. A critical person must invariably make himself the meter of other persons and things.
And this is just as eminently true in the region of religious experience, as in other departments of life. And so many Christians size up all Gods children by the phenomena in their own case. They judge of the repentance, or consecration, or spiritual experience of other people, just as it tallies in outward technicalities with their own. If a gold ring, or a watch, or loud screaming, or a bright vision, or a ten cent novel, or any other particular phenomenon, happen to figure in their lives, they make such incident the touchstone to other peoples religious experience. They are disposed to criticize any ones experience which either does not fit in with their own, or which seems to fall below it, and especially are they vehement against experiences which go beyond their own. Nothing less than to be completely crushed into humility, and broken into boundless, lowly love, will ever show such persons their narrowness and self-opinionatedness. It is an infallible law of the spiritual life that our severity in judging others marks the lowness of our own spiritual state.
Let us notice some of the effects of the critical spirit:
First, it blinds the eye to the beauty of God, both as to his attributes and as to his image in others. A life of holiness that does not have in it a perception of the beauty of God, a sweet heavenly vision that puts a gentle spell upon our faculties, which secretly entices us to love God more and to love all His creatures, and to love his manifold image as pictured forth in his saints, is unscriptural and pitched on a wrong key. A real holy heart is forever finding God, in his Word, in secret prayer, in the poetry of creation, in the interblendings of providence, and also in the lives of his children. It is a notable fact that when religious people are suddenly flooded with the Holy Spirit, they will affirm that everybody looks beautiful to them.
I have often heard persons in a testimony meeting, under the fullness of love, rapturously exclaim, How beautiful all you people seem to me. Such experiences are only faint touches of what Heaven will be, where every single soul will be so enraptured with divine love that every creature he gazes upon will be an object of transcendent beauty, and a separate mirror reflecting in some unique luster the perfection of God. In the same proportion that this spotless love leaks out of the heart, will the soul see the deformity of its fellows, and not see its own defects. Just as we pity the few deformed minds that can see nothing fascinating in little children, so that professed saint is to be pitied who can see no beauty of God shining in his children.
But nothing so utterly blots out this heavenly attractiveness from Gods people as the spirit of criticism. While no enlightened believer will be ignorant of the natural infirmities of all Gods children while living in the flesh, yet if we fail to see in them the attractions of the Christ-life, it proves our lack of the very essence of that life in us, which is gentle love.
Criticism disfigures other people in our eyes, it imputes an ugliness to them, and then scourges them for the very ugliness which jaundice eyes have given them.
Again, the critical spirit eats out, like a burning acid, the very sweetness of spiritual life. There is a mysterious quality of heart-gentleness and mental and soul-sweetness in a truly crucified believer, which cannot be defined. It is a thousand times beyond mere sanctification orthodoxy, it is far more than outward correctness of life, it is fathoms deeper down than the exact proprieties of behavior, it is more than a profession, and infinitely more mighty than holiness preaching or correct doctrine.
It is the breath of Jesus in the heart, the vapor from the river of life, the perfume of the rose of Sharon, the elixir of prayer, the marrow in the bone of truth, which is far more in the sight of God than all the outward hulls of religious form and teaching which only serve as the alabaster box to this divine spikenard of heavenly love.
But one hour of critical thinking, or one severe utterance in a critical spirit, will strike through this inward purity and sweetness like the touch of gall. And because the spirit of criticism is so universal among Christians, is the reason why it is so rare to find a real saintly soul who is charged with divine sweetness of spirit.
In the next place a critical spirit chokes up the channel in us, and thereby prevents the flow of the Holy Spirit through us upon other souls. God designs every believer to be a channel of his life, and he will pour a stream of his attributes and graces through us according to our capacity to transmit the blessed tide. And our capacity for such transmission will be in proportion to our purity, our spiritual dimensions and in proportion to that nameless quality of divine tenderness which is in us. There are persons who rank as perfectly orthodox and very correct both in their outward life and teachings, yet through whom there seems to flow no celestial current.
In addition to this, persons may be free from all sin, technically so called, and yet they may not be pipes for conveying a large stream of divine life to others. They lack volume. There is an interior choking somewhere, and if all their heart nature were thoroughly explored, it would be found there was a lack of kindness, a smallness of charity, a severity of spirit, a precipitancy of judgment, a subtle spiritual dictatorialness, a premature decision about things and persons, a something in the delicate machinery of their inward dispositions, which strangled the arteries of the spirit, and prevented the full, sweet flow of God through them.
Lastly, the critical spirit invariably poisons other persons. It is satanically contagious. Other persons feel our spirit far more swiftly and accurately than they do our words or our deliberate actions. The soul is larger than the body and our spirits are larger than our souls. Wherever we move we carry an unpronounced and indefinable spirit with us. The dominant inward dispositions of the inner being are infallibly transmitted through the body, the gestures, the tones, and even the very nervous organism of the eyes and face. A critical spirit can be felt by others in spite of all effort to conceal it. Our only safety against this malady is to live in the very heart of Jesus.