My two year old likes to sing. And when he sings, he sings with all his might. And, you know, he can carry a tune — for a two year old. And because he is two and can barely put sentences together, and because he has not been trained in the academy or raised for operatic genius, I would critique him quite differently than I would a professionally trained singer. The slightest error might be cause for a corrective and stringent critique towards the trained professional. But for my son, the slightest error is only part of a larger reality that he is putting words together and being excessively cute. And so that sort of critique would not exist. Critique might come, but it will come much more indirectly and softly, according to his ability to handle it. Depending upon the experience and training and ability and maturity of the singer, the critique will be more or less stringent. It might even address different things.
The issue in giving critique is to know the one whom you are critiquing. The better we know them and their abilities and their level of training, the better equipped we will be to offer appropriate and gracious criticism. I think we largely fail at this. The reasons for this suggested failure are manifold: perhaps, pride — we cannot stand to fathom that this person might be more gifted than me, so we have to knock them down a notch with our superior knowledge. Perhaps, extreme expectations, which is another way of saying gracelessness. This is the inability to consider room for growth. We tend to think of people in static terms. What they are now, that they will always be. So we are more inclined to criticize harshly, thinking that by our effort they might be transformed. Tangential to this, I think, is the lack of a truly pastoral heart. Again, a failure to understand sanctification and how best to bring others along to full maturity in Christ. Or worst of all, perhaps, a simple lack of love. This idea is underneath the others. Love seeks to edify, to build up. And don’t misunderstand me. Direct and stringent and tight criticism can be edifying and has been necessary and useful in my own life as I have received it from others. I am not calling for the abolition of such critique. It can be done, it must be done in love. But a lot of what I have witnessed on this front is, ultimately, a failure to apply growth-inducing compassion. It requires the hard work of getting on the other person’s level, understanding their foundation, trusting in the inward work of God’s Spirit to transform, and offering edifying critique on those grounds.
An example and a final thought.
Example: My local church has an apprenticeship for men aspiring to the office of pastor, or missionary, or, very wonderfully, the biblically-informed and brave-hearted husband and father. Preaching a handful of short sermons is part of the course. While I am not in the apprenticeship, I sat in on one of the sessions a few months ago. One of the brothers preached for the rest of the men, about twenty-five of us. It was his first attempt at preaching before other human beings, much less a room full of present seminarians and future pastors and missionaries. And when he finished, he was critiqued — critiqued hard. One of the brothers used his knowledge of biblical Greek to criticize one of his points. What’s the problem? Not that this brother desired to help this other brother see things a bit more clearly by means of New Testament Greek. But that a critique was offered by means of New Testament Greek to a brother who had not yet taken New Testament Greek. And a few other such critiques were offered. I have been in both shoes. By God’s grace, I was able to see his discouragement. So afterwards, I went to him and mentioned a few things that he had said that were encouraging to me, that God really used to build me up in the faith. He had studied hard. He had genuine affections for the truth of the text. He had wrestled with it experientially. And he taught it with passion appropriate to the glory of Christ. He even used suitable illustrations (something I envy). And so I made these things known to him in order that he might be encouraged to continue to grow in his craft. Later, he sent me an email thanking me for the encouragement.
A final word: what this means is that while a critique may be true, a true critique may not always be wise. Again, know the person, know their foundation, give room for growth and sanctification, trust the working of God’s grace, seek to build up, and before speaking, consider humility. It is not that they do not need to know the truth at the center of your critique. They do! It is rather the packaging of it. And the packaging of it usually shows the maturity of our own hearts. Do we only seek to be a corrective? Or do we also seek to offer affirmation? Do we hold them accountable for things beyond their current level of knowledge or ability or experience? Or do we package these things with understanding and an encouragement that looks to future growth in what they lack? If we approach criticism in the latter ways described, then our hearts are venting a shepherd’s love. And at the end of the day, it is this shepherd’s love that must serve as a guide to all of our conversation.