Above all else, guard your heart, it is the wellspring of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
Pat and I spent an evening with a group of believers last week. Our conversation covered a wide range of subjects, and although our words towards one another were gracious and warmhearted, the overall tenor of the discourse was decidedly negative as it moved from one gloomy, if not cynical, topic to another. Presidential politics, bureaucratic incompetence, moral decay, and immigration were just some of the things that came up. Although much that was said was no doubt true, the many critical words spoken weighed heavily on my spirit.
As I thought about the conversation afterwards, I recalled a short reflection on critical words I read about ten years ago. Taken from Catherine Marshall’s prayer journal, the piece is entitled simply “A Fasting on Criticalness.” In it she tells how the Lord told her to fast from “criticizing anybody about anything” for one day. Her description of the “fast” is instructive if not humorous.
“For the first half of the day, I simply felt a void, almost as if I had been wiped out as a person. This was especially true at lunch with my husband, Len, my son, Jeff, and my secretary present. Several topics came up (school prayer, abortion, the ERA amendment) about which I had definite opinions. I listened to the others and kept silent. Barbed comments on the tip of my tongue about certain world leaders were suppressed. In our talkative family no one seemed to notice. Bemused, I noticed that my comments were not missed. The federal government, the judicial system, and the institutional church could apparently get along fine without my penetrating observations. But still I didn’t see what this fast on criticism was accomplishing – until mid-afternoon.”
She goes on to describe how the Lord revealed to her the extent of her critical nature and how it had accomplished nothing during her life. To the contrary, it had actually crippled her creativity – in prayer, in relationships, and writing.
After reading this account I tried following her experiment myself one Saturday, expecting it to be a breeze. [Confession – I selected a Saturday because during the week I supervised others at work. Obviously they needed to be criticized!] I had barely started my breakfast when I realized I had already had three critical thoughts – one concerning my neighbor who hadn’t cut his lawn that week (the jerk), one about a political matter being reported on the radio, and another about a family member. Talk about the Holy Spirit hitting me on the head with a two-by-four! There was no doubt that my critical spirit was deeply rooted.
Over the past decade I have from time to time returned to Catherine Marshall’s experiment – sometimes for a day, sometimes as long as a week. As I have practiced abstaining from criticism, I have observed subtle changes in my thought processes. While my habit of being critical of others has not been broken, I have become more aware of the times when I am being critical and am generally more sensitive to negativity. I think this is why I felt unsettled in my spirit when we were with the group last week. I felt no self-righteousness – more a feeling of unsettledness, like losing my equilibrium with nowhere to sit.
For me, fasting from criticalness has been a practical way of guarding my heart. I believe this is what Paul means when he says to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:5). I have found this easier to do when I focus on positive thoughts, such as making charitable judgments when I am tempted to be critical. Again, Paul wisely writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil. 4:8-9)
I have a friend who rarely speaks a critical word about others. Although he has had his share of heartbreak and challenges, they have not defined him or his view towards others. When he talks about his life it is always from the perspective of deep gratitude to God and how fortunate and blessed he has been. He guards his heart by focusing on the kindness that others have shown to him. And he sees his service to others as simply following the direction of the Lord. While he is not blind to the troubles of our world and will speak about them when pressed, they do not command his attention. His focus, hope, and strength is in the Lord. He is like those spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Oh for the strength to guard my heart today.