Overcoming Criticism

These days we are all aware of the need to keep our heart healthy. Many foods are even advertised as being “heart healthy”.  The heart is perhaps the most important organ as it pumps life-giving blood throughout the body. We know that eating certain foods have a bad effect on our heart because arteries become clogged and blood flow is restricted. Clogged arteries put a barrier in the way of blood and our health suffers. This situation is one we want to avoid. Interestingly, a similar problem can affect our spiritual health.

The life of Jesus is like the blood that should flow freely throughout our existence, bringing us nourishment and strength. In particular, when the life of Christ is alive in us, we should be filled with joy.  On this third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday, we are reminded that the coming of Jesus brings joy. We light a pink candle on the Advent Wreath and can wear rose-colored vestments in order to recall an important message:  Jesus, the one who brings joy is coming soon! Recently, Pope Francis wrote a document called “The Joy of the Gospel”. There he explains the effect that Jesus should have on our lives. In the opening lines he writes:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. (EVANGELII GAUDIUM, 1)
In our bodies, when our heart is working well and blood is pumped freely, our health is good.  Likewise, when the life of Jesus flows freely in our lives we are spiritually healthy; in particular we should be filled with joy.

During this Advent season, we have been challenged to remove any obstacles that prevent the life of Christ from flowing freely in our heart. We have tried to remove any barriers that stop Jesus from coming into our life. With a physical heart, when we eat unhealthy food, our arteries become clogged, blood-flow is restricted and our health is damaged. Likewise, certain behaviors cause barriers in our spiritual life and prevent the life of Christ from fully entering our life. This has a negative effect on our spiritual health. In the end it decreases our joy. Advent is a time to ask ourselves an important question: what behaviors in my life have become barriers which prevent Jesus from fully entering my heart? More than this, we have been challenged to change these behaviors.  Last week we met the figure of John the Baptist and heard his message to repent because Jesus is coming soon. In the Gospel of today, Jesus praises the person of John the Baptist and stresses the importance of his message. Returning to our heart analogy, repentance is about identifying ways in which our arteries have become blocked and trying to remove these blockages so that blood can travel freely once more. During Advent we are challenged to repent and remove any obstacles that stop Jesus and His joy from fully entering our life.

In the second reading from the Letter of James, we were warned against a certain behavior that greatly damages our spiritual health: criticism and complaining.  When we tear down other people, we put up a barrier that stops Jesus from fully entering our life.  Criticizing and complaining damages a community, whether it be our family, our work community or our parish. On top of this, such behavior harms us because it makes us preoccupied with what is bad or going wrong. When we get stuck in this habit, we lose sight of all the good things in our life. In the end, we prevent Jesus from filling us with joy.  Unfortunately, criticizing is all too easy. As the following story illustrates, we can always find something to complain about.  
A father and his son took a donkey to the market. At first, the man sat on the donkey, and the boy walked. People along the way said, “What a terrible thing, a big strong fellow sitting on the donkey’s back, while the youngster has to walk.” So the father dismounted, and the son took his place. Soon onlookers remarked, “How terrible, this man walking, and the little boy sitting.” At that, they both got on the donkey’s back—only to hear others say, “How cruel, two people sitting on one donkey.” Off they came. But other bystanders commented. “How crazy, the donkey has nothing on his back and two people are walking.” Finally, they were both carrying the donkey. They never did make it to market.”
We need to be on guard against criticizing and complaining. Such behavior tears apart community and acts as a barrier preventing Jesus from fully entering our life.

There are practical ways that we can repent of this behavior. Just because criticism and complaining is sadly commonplace does not mean that we should just give up trying to better ourselves in this area.  I would like to offer two practical suggestions.
  1.  Be aware of what you are doing. Once we realize that we tend to criticize and complain we should stop and think, “why am I behaving like this?” Be aware that criticizing and complaining is often an attempt to tear others down in order to make ourselves feel better. Our criticisms often say more about ourselves and our own insecurities than it does about other.
  2.  Actively search out the good in others. It is all too easy notice what others have done wrong. Challenge yourself to search for the good in others and recognize this. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that for everything negative we say about someone we should say two positive comments. This means that is we cannot find something good to say, we should not say anything at all.  

The habit of criticizing and complaining can be overcome. Since this behavior damages our community and prevents the joy of Christ from fully entering our life it is well worth the effort.

Christmas is just 10 days away. We all want to take steps to welcome Christ as fully as possible into our lives. Just as blood gives life to the body, Jesus alone is the one who gives nourishment and joy to our life. Let us try to remove obstacles that prevent the life of Christ from flowing freely in our hearts, in particular the habit of being critical and complaining.   Today ask yourselves if there is perhaps one particular area in which you criticize and complain a lot: family, work, or parish community. This is a clogged artery and is bad for your spiritual health. Try to unclog this artery by actively searching for the good in others rather than being content to simply complain and criticize.  Our personal joy and the joy of our community depend upon it.