Toward the end of the first volume of his autobiography, Charles Spurgeon relays a somewhat amusing yet instructive anecdote of a time when he would regularly receive comments on his sermons from an anonymous critic.
While preaching at the Exeter Music Hall, the “unknown censor” would send Spurgeon “a weekly list of [his] mispronunciations and other slips of speech” (533). Amazingly, Spurgeon’s only complaint was that this person did not leave their name, for had they done so, he would have thanked the critic for their many useful comments. Spurgeon did not chafe at this self-appointed sermon assessor or even the person’s occasional inaccuracies. Rather, Spurgeon recognized their attempt to help the young preacher improve his public ministry.
With genial temper, and an evident desire to benefit me, he marked down most relentlessly everything which he supposed me to have said incorrectly. Concerning some of his criticisms, he was himself in error, but, for the most part, he was right, and his remarks enabled me to perceive many mistakes, and to avoid them in the future. I looked for his weekly memoranda with much interest, and I trust I am all the better for them.
On one occasion, Spurgeon’s critic even offered a rather comical assessment of Spurgeon’s word choice (perhaps without intending to be funny).
If I repeated a sentence which I had used two or three Sundays before, he would write, “See the same expression in such-and-such a sermon,” mentioning the number and page. He remarked, on one occasion, that I too often quoted the line, “Nothing in my hand I bring”—and he added, “we are sufficiently informed of the vacuity of your hand.”
What was Spurgeon’s overall attitude toward this person’s comments? His final takeaway is full of life- and ministry-saving instruction.
Possibly, some young men might have been discouraged, if not irritated, by such severe criticism; but they would have been very foolish, for, in resenting such correction, they would have been throwing away a valuable aid to progress.
Spurgeon, like the wise man in Proverbs, used the criticism for his benefit (Proverbs 9:8); he saw the reproof as God’s gift that would enable him to improve his preaching. We do ourselves and our people no favor when we allow anger and frustration to cloud our response to criticism, even if that criticism is given inappropriately (like through anonymous correspondence) or when it is clothed in a few (or many) inaccuracies. We guard our heart from bitterness and prepare ourselves for growth when we take Spurgeon’s approach to criticism.