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We are servants of Christ, not his masters. We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets, not security guards posted to protect them. — It matters very little to me what you think of me, even less where I rank in popular opinion. I don’t even rank myself. Comparison in these matters is pointless. I’m not aware of anything that would disqualify me from being a good guide for you, but that doesn’t mean much. The Master makes the judgment. (I Corinthians 4: 1-4) The Message

Paul must have felt a little criticized. It was probably something he said–or more likely, something he wrote. Maybe, like me, he suggested that we need to find ways to love our neighbors–even those who need to make dramatically different life choices than we make. Of course, it’s possible he questioned narrow, extreme, rigid fundamentalism in religious practices–like–suggesting the “c” word–“circumcision” wasn’t enough for a quality relationship with God. In fact, he wrote to the Galatians:

I am emphatic about this. The moment any one of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-making system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered. I repeat my warning: The person who accepts the ways of circumcision trades all the advantages of the free life in Christ for the obligations of the slave life of the law.

I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love. (Galatians 5: 2-6 ­ The Message)

In Lew Smedes delightful little book How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong? Chapter 4 deals with “The Gift of Freedom”–titled “All the World’s a Critic and You’re tired of Reading the Reviews.” He talks about needing to deal with three different sources of criticism: Our neighbor–i.e. where it comes from outside us–external criticism; the second comes from our self–that remarkable transforming power to stand outside ourselves and perceive what goes on; the third source of criticism comes from God, whom Smedes identifies as “our toughest critic.”

Smedes translates that quote from I Corinthians 4 (above) to examine external criticism. I embrace his interpretation of Paul’s language. He says:

“Freely translated, it comes to this: You will evaluate my conduct, and you will make an assessment of me, I know, and when you do I will listen to you. I know that you will size up my work; when you do, I will consider what you say. I know that you judge me because you care about me; so I will care about what you say. What you say and what you think about me matter to me. But I want you to know that after I have wrestled with my own conscience, and after I have made my decisions, your judgment will not matter much. It matters some, but not much. I will not let your appraisal tell me how to feel about what I am and what I do. I will not rest my case with you.”

Smedes goes on to say:

“When it comes to my deepest self, my own way of life, I have to put your criticism on the back burner and live my own life before the Lord. I will not be intimidated. I will not be condemned. I will not be damned by other people’s judgments. I will be free.”

I suppose there are many who go through life trying to please people around them. We all resonate to charismatic, popular figures. It seems to me, however, that developing our own belief system based on a firm study, awareness, and presence of God within us is the best indicator of spiritual maturity.

I know that individuals do develop their own belief system–even when they accept denominational doctrines. I also know that their point of view might even be closer to an accurate perception of God than mine. That’s why I listen to them. But when my beliefs reflect my conception of God’s will for my life, I seek to reflect a caring attitude toward those critics; to avoid labeling them in ways some might perceive as negative; to communicate as fully as possible the rationale for my belief; and then, to journey on, uninfluenced.

I do not judge even myself. As I stand outside my self and view me, the “everywhere” God of the 139th Psalm does the judging for me because I believe he’s there, and because I believe he loves me. Can I do any better?

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