From the Archbishop

The gift of seeing criticism as divine blessing


By Archbishop Philip Freier

November 8 2015In a world where certainty of opinions is valued more than the capacity to admit error, an ancient story in 2 Samuel 16 is a good point of focus for our own reflections on power. The story is a simple one and is an incident that occurs on David’s flight from Jerusalem to the region across the Jordan river. Before his party reaches the Jordan they are confronted by a man named Shimei, a distant relative of David. Shimei denounces David as a ‘man of blood’ and hurls curses and abuse across a small valley as David passes. This phrase, ‘man of blood’, carries the sense that David has ‘blood on his hands’ and is guilty of the death of innocent people. Naturally enough the more adventurous and indignant in David’s band want to cross the valley and kill Shimei for insulting their leader.

This is all natural enough and is part of the drama of human interactions which is re-enacted, even if not to the point of such a drastic intention, by countless people across the world each day. Our capacity to pull together with the people to whom we owe loyalty at times of threat is all too obvious in many situations of life. So too is our capacity to strike out against criticism. What is remarkable in the 2 Samuel story is David’s restraint. He holds back Abishai who is determined to strike down Shimei and recognises that God is speaking a truth to him through these unwelcome words. ‘Let him alone and let him curse’, David says, ‘for the LORD has bidden him’.

David even hopes that these words of humiliation will eventually be in God’s timing an occasion for blessing: ‘It may be that the LORD will look on my distress, and the LORD will repay me with good for this cursing of me today.’ It is not hard to see David’s response to this situation as a precursor of St Paul’s teaching in Romans 5.3-5 about the journey from suffering through to hope that is possible for those who know God’s love. David recognises the moral weakness of his position even though he is in the physically stronger position over Shimei even to the point of unleashing Abishai’s fury on him. David’s recognition and restraint takes real character, to do this and that character is certainly built on the foundation of knowing God and the divine love.

There is much that our world could learn from this story. Certainly there is much that we can learn personally about the ‘gift’ that criticism can be in shaping the development of our character and being part of our own journey to hope through the struggles of life. It also carries a message for the Church to be able to learn from those who criticise, even if it is painful or even unfair. As David found there is truth in the words of others, and it is how we receive them and the attitude with which we reflect on them that makes the difference.