“In their hatred of our souls, the demons sometimes prompt others to pay us empty compliments, and thus cause us to grow slack because we are praised. If as a result we give way to conceit and self-esteem, our enemies have no difficulty in taking us prisoner.” St. John of Karpathos, Texts for the Monks in India, #10
“Accept scornful criticism rather than words of praise; for a flatterer ‘is no different from one who curses’ (Prov. 27:14).” #11
We are created to crave love, for God is love, and we are created to desire Him. We warp this holy pursuit, however, into the pursuit of the love and approval of man. There is love that is good and holy, an ordered reflection of God’s love for us, love that can teach us about the mysterious identity of our Lord. And there is disordered love, which we make an end out of in itself, and use to feel better about ourselves.
We – or at least I –crave the approval of others. I like to be liked. Subconsciously, I think, ‘if they like me, I must be at least as good as them.’ I tend to see myself through the eyes of others, instead of the eyes of Christ, who sees us all as beloved sinners.
I have been aware of this tendency in myself for years, and have not yet broken free of it. When I am praised, it warms that part of my soul that craves the approval of others. Praise is not evil, but I know, for me, that it is a temptation. It can be an invitation to settle for something less than the Lord, to allow the acceptance of others to be the blanket I curl up under at night, instead of resting in the Lord, who John reminds us, “is our rest” (#53).
Because of this, I see how scorn and criticism can be a blessing. That is almost hard to write, because I have actively avoided them and the pain they can cause. I know, though, that I can choose to hear scorn and criticism as ‘do not look for your worth in me. Do not fix your eyes on me. You’ll not find what you are looking for here.’ As praise is an invitation, scorn is a rejection: you cannot rest here. And I can use it to point me to my true rest: our Lord, Jesus Christ.
A theme of my faith over the past few years has been to see it in terms of vision: where do I fix my gaze? There are a million things in this world to focus on; and only one which is true. In my interior life, in my spiritual pursuit, do I allow all of the other things – even my blessings, like my house, my husband, my son – to point me to God and to teach me about Him? Or do I allow them to be my focus, filling my vision? Do I make gods of them by resting my soul there instead of in Christ? Do I settle for less, or do I look for the truth and the light?
And so I praise God for that which breaks my gaze and turns my eyes towards Him, even when it tastes as bitter as scorn and is as uncomfortable as criticism.