We have recently begun a study through Ezra and Nehemiah at Grace on Wednesday nights. So far, it has been awesome - I'm enjoying this study even more than the Sunday morning series through Hebrews, which is saying a lot.
Last Wednesday, Brother Billy covered Ezra 4:1-24. In the application part of his sermon, he asked this question: "What affect does my 'constructive criticism' have on the people to whom I am giving it? Am I helping, or am I only discouraging?"
But how can I know if my words are helping or discouraging? How can I know the effect of my words on the people to whom they are spoken?
How about body language - does the person's countenance drop? Is my input received with downcast eyes, or silence, or drooping shoulders, or a sigh? Do I find the person avoids being alone in a room with me, because they are afraid I may offer yet more criticism? When I see the person later and greet them, do they respond curtly and rush to terminate the interaction? Do they avoid eye contact?
The kids and I were talking about all of this after the Wednesday night message, and we concluded that while it is necessary to sometimes offer criticism, we (whoever is offering the criticism) have a responsibility to know the person to whom the criticism is directed, and to know how to communicate that criticism in a way that they can receive it in a way that is positive and constructive - we must endeavor to communicate in the other person's language, so to speak.
If we haven't taken the time to know the person - to invest effort in knowing how they think and feel, their personal history, their current struggles, etc. - then we probably don't need to be offering any "constructive criticism" in the first place.
Our ladies' group at Grace is currently doing a study of Proverbs, and this month's topic is wise speech - speaking words that are thoughtful, timely and true. Concerning the business of offering correction (or, as Brother Billy put it, constructive criticism), the writer of our study guide makes some very important points.
A word of correction is more likely to be received if the giver and receiver have an established relationship of trust. Am I open and honest about my own sin with the other person? If I'm not, why do I feel entitled to address their sin? If I am reluctant to confess my own sin, then I don't need to be quick to confess the sin of someone else.
A word of correction is more likely to be received if the giver has sought permission to present it. Asking permission to share an observation with the other person puts you in a place of humility. It indicates that your desire is to serve the other person, not to nail them or to strong-arm your agenda. Your intention is not to run over your brother, cramming your "insight" or correction down his throat.
A word of correction is more likely to be received if it has been asked for. Okay, I know what you're thinking: who on earth is going to step forward and ask you to correct them or offer constructive criticism?! Well, I'll tell you who - the same person that you approached earlier and asked to give you correction or criticism, if you received their input graciously and appreciatively, that is, instead of with defensiveness or anger. As the author of our study puts it, "This [asking others to speak to your own weaknesses] is the best open door [for constructive criticism] of all." Before you approach your brother or sister in Christ to tell them what you think they need to correct in their own lives, first go to them and ask them to share with you the areas they see in your own life that need attention.
I know some crusty types who would read the above exhortations from Anthony Selvaggio (the author of our Proverbs study) and respond, "That's stupid! People just need to toughen up. Get thicker skin! If they can't handle my criticism, if my words hurt or offend them, then that's their problem!" These are the same people who are totally unreceptive to being criticized themselves. Their intent is not to help the other person, and they don't care if they discourage the other person with their comments - their goal is simply to intimidate others into doing things their way. They are not motivated by love of others, but by love of self. (If that describes you, then I strongly encourage you to do some serious repenting before you approach your brother or sister in Christ.)
Last Wednesday's sermon, and this month's study in Proverbs, have challenged me. They have pricked my heart. I don't know if anything I have spoken recently to a brother or sister in Christ has caused discouragement instead of being helpful.
I do know that I have been lax about the business of knowing my brothers and sisters intimately. What are their current struggles or burdens? What past hurts might be influencing how they receive criticism?
I know that I have not been very transparent with my church family about my own sin. Instead, I tend to be secretive, protective, defensive.
I know that I am prone to run my mouth without even pausing to consider if the person next to me really wants my input. I arrogantly assume that, because I'm an adult and my opinion is as important as the next guy's, then I can say whatever I want, to whomever I want. Ask permission?! What a novel idea!
I know that I have rarely asked another person to tell me about weakness or sin that they see in my own life. Maybe - maybe - a dozen times? Not much, for someone who is 50+ years old. If I am too proud to solicit the constructive criticism of those around me, then I am too proud to offer my own criticism of them. Ouch.
So, following Brother Billy's example of trying to draw practical application from Wednesday's sermon and Saturday's women's study and today's lesson/blog post/whatever you call this:
I earnestly desire to know my sisters and brothers better. How can I do that? This sounds like it will take a commitment of time and effort. I am going to try (Jesus, help me!) to sit down one-on-one, face-to-face with a member of my church family this week, outside of church, and take time to get to know that person better. I have made a phone call and set a date - it's on the calendar. Honestly, I am super excited about this new resolution!
I am going to endeavor to be more transparent about my own sin and struggles with my church family. This resolution is not so exciting. This is actually a little scary. (Jesus, HELP ME.)
If the occasion arises that I feel I need to offer constructive criticism to another person, I am going to try to pause and ask permission first. And then, hopefully, I'm going to respect the other person's response - if they say, "No," I probably don't need to press my case.
And finally, I am going to ask a couple of mature Christian friends to share their observations of my own life. What weaknesses or blind spots do they see? What things do I need to work on changing or improving? What constructive criticism do they have for me?
I have to admit: I am a bit nervous on the front end of these resolutions. But what else can I do? If I love Christ, and if I truly love his bride, I need to make some changes.
Jesus, help me!
3 weeks ago