When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. MATTHEW 6:3–4 NIV

In general, the soul makes greater progress when it least thinks so…most frequently when it imagines that it is losing. – JOHN OF THE CROSS

Mayor Richard J. Daley was as celebrated in Chicago for his malapropisms as for his ability to get votes from the unlikeliest sources. Whole books have been devoted to chronicling these statements, including this classic from the 1968 riots: “The police are not here to create disorder. The police are here to preserve disorder.”

Every once in a while, one of these statements carried so much truth—even if unintentionally—that one had to stop and contemplate. One such statement was the occasion when Daley said about his opponents, “They have vilified me, they have crucified me, yes, they have even criticized me.” As if to say, “Vilification and crucifixion I can put up with, but criticism—that’s hitting below the belt.” Another time Hizzoner expressed the same sentiment in an unforgettable question: “Anybody can make allegations—but where are the alligators?” Mayor Daley did not like to have alligators.

He’s not the only one.

Why is it we often respond so strongly to criticism? I believe it reveals a serious addiction in many of us. This addiction has nothing to do with chemical dependency or substance abuse. There are no twelve-step groups to help people fight it, nor any Betty Ford treatment centers in which to detoxify.

I refer to what might be called “approval addiction.” Some people live in bondage to what others think of them. The addiction takes many forms. If we find ourselves often getting hurt by what others say about us, by people expressing other than glowing opinions about us, we probably have it. If we habitually compare ourselves with other people, if we find ourselves getting competitive in the most ordinary situations, we probably have it. If we live with a nagging sense that we aren’t important enough or special enough, or we get envious of another’s success, we probably have it. If we keep trying to impress important people, we probably have it. If we are worried that someone might think ill of us should he or she find out we are an approval addict, we probably are.

Like other addicts, we will go to great lengths to get a “fix” when we feel desperate. Yet, like other addicts, we find that no fix lasts forever, so we keep coming back for more.

Henri Nouwen puts this problem in perspective:

At issue here is the question: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?” Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me…. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.

The Alternative: “Living Freely with Our Critics”

The alternative to this addiction—the life you’ve always wanted—is a life of freedom. Lewis Smedes writes,

One of the fine arts of gracious living is the art of living freely with our critics. When we have the grace to be free in the presence of those who judge our lives and evaluate our actions, we have Christian freedom.

This is the kind of freedom the apostle Paul described to some of his critics: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself…. It is the Lord who judges me.”

Paul considered it “a very small thing” in asking the Corinthians to back off. He did not say, “It is nothing.” It still mattered to Paul what they thought of him—but it didn’t matter too much. Criticism could no longer rock his boat. His balance and his sense of well-being rested on acceptance from a higher court: “It is the Lord who judges me.” Paul was not overly concerned about the alligators.

Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Check out the new Bible Study, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. (Like Netflix for Bible lessons.)