On Constructive Criticism and Our Need to be Liked
A few years ago, my friend Gabe Lyons and Dave Kinnamon wrote unChristian, a sobering commentary on Christianity’s decline in the West due to departure from the biblical vision to engage a secular world with grace and love. Similarly, Philip Yancey once said in an interview,
When I ask people, “What is a Christian?” they don’t usually respond with words like love, compassion, grace; usually they describe a person who’s anti-something. Jesus was not primarily known for what he was against. He was known for serving people who had needs, feeding people who were hungry, and giving water to the thirsty. If we [Christians] were known primarily for that, then we could cut through so many divisions… Christians often have a bad reputation. People think of Christians as uptight and judgmental. Odd, I thought, that [our version of Christianity] has come to convey the opposite of God’s intent, as it’s lived out through us.
Somehow, in a sincere effort to “speak the truth,” we can lose our way. How easy it is to forget that truth, in order to be true in the truest sense, must be spoken in love.
Affirmation or Critique: What Did Jesus Do?
Jesus affirmed some and critiqued others. But what might surprise us is who Jesus affirmed and who He critiqued.
Consider Peter. Even though Peter was hot-headed, fell asleep when Jesus asked him to pray, and betrayed Jesus at His darkest hour, Jesus called Him “the Rock” because Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah was the rock on which He would build His church.
Jesus reached out the morally compromised Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). He invited a crook to be one of His disciples (Matthew 9). He praised the promiscuous woman who anointed him at Simon’s house with extravagant—and very unorthodox—expressions of love (Luke 7). He regularly ate with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He hung out with lepers and women and little children, all of whom were at the bottom of the social pecking order. Jesus, the author of all truth, beauty, and goodness, was quick to affirm, embrace, and keep company with the most unlikely people.
The only people Jesus seemed to chastise were dutiful religious people who, because of their dutifulness, were quite sure of themselves—priests, Levites, Bible scholars, as well as committed pray-ers, money givers, and churchgoers. Wherever there was self-congratulating and superiority, Jesus was unimpressed. He gave no applause to those known for bravado. He critiqued them sharply and often; told them they were not children of Abraham but children of the devil; called them blind guides who don’t practice what they preach, narcissists who honor themselves instead of God, hypocrites who neglect justice and mercy and shed innocent blood, and whose devotion was a self-indulgent show.
And yet, their self-praise reflected not only a prideful root but a needy one. Their posture of needing praise so deeply that they felt compelled to muster up praise for themselves wasn’t just off-putting and offensive. It was also very sad.
Why We Crave Affirmation
Comedian Tom Arnold once confessed in an interview about his book, How I Lost Five Pounds in Six Years, that most entertainers are in show business because they are broken people, looking for affirmation. “The reason I wrote this book,” Arnold said, “is because I wanted something out there so people would tell me they liked me. It’s the reason behind almost everything I do.”
Tom Arnold is not alone. Who cannot identify with a craving for affirmation?
Some call this neediness. Others call it the image of a God whose nature invites not only people, but rocks and trees and skies and seas, to praise Him. The chief end of everyone and everything, we are told, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We have been designed to be a reflection of Him. This means that receptivity to and desire for praise is deeply ingrained in us. In other words, it is natural.
Demanding recognition and praise is neither good nor healthy. Desiring it is both.
This is why the gospel, the truth that we have been given all the affirmation we will ever need in Christ, is such good news.
This longing for affirmation makes sense. Both existentially real and biblically true, it is the reason we Christians should be the most affirming people in the world. Rather than rushing to find fault, we should proactively seek opportunities to, as Tim Keller calls it, “catch others doing good” and to encourage (literally, put courage into) others.
Jesus certainly understood this, and so must we.
But What About Speaking the Truth?
“But,” a Christian may ask, “Doesn’t critique play some sort of role in the life of a believer?” Shouldn’t Christians speak truth and warn people about sin and judgment? Shouldn’t Christians shine as light in dark places, call people to repent and believe, and go into the world and teach people to obey everything that Jesus commanded?
Shouldn’t we expect that as we do these things there will be people who treat us like enemies and who say, like Gandhi once did, “I do not like your Christians?
Yes, in some instances we should. Even when done in love, speaking the truth, shining as light in darkness, and taking up a cross to follow Jesus will draw certain forms of opposition. But if people are going to oppose us, let’s at least make sure, as far as it depends on us, that they are the same kinds of people who opposed Jesus.
Smug religious people wanted to throw him off a cliff.
People with special needs, little children, women, as well as sexually damaged people, crooks, charlatans, prodigals and addicts couldn’t get enough of him.
Critique Where You Must, Affirm Wherever You Can
I remember watching an interview with Mariah Carey, who at the time was in her late twenties and had accumulated more #1 hits than anyone in music except for Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The interviewer asked Carey if there was anything left for her to accomplish. She sat quietly for a moment, then replied, “Happiness.” The interviewer, thrown off by the answer, asked how this could be true. Carey didn’t even have to think about it. Right away she said she could hear a thousand praises and then just one criticism, and the one criticism would wreck her emotionally.
What does criticism accomplish? Really?
How many people do you know who started following Jesus because someone scolded them, disapproved of them because of their substandard ethics, or made it clear how appalling their “lifestyle” is? I have been a Christian for more than twenty-five years and a minister for seventeen. I have never met one.
So, does that mean we just “live and let live” when we see friends and family exhibiting destructive behaviors? Of course not. When a friend is caught in addiction or destructive behavior, the loving thing to do is to help them out of it through intervention.
But intervention is not criticism, it’s critique. Critique always comes from the motive of restoring and building up, unlike criticism, which aims to harm and shame. Critique, in the end, will leave a person feeling cared for and built up. Criticism will leave a person feeling belittled and beaten down. Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”
Restore…in a spirit of gentleness.
Sometimes love calls us to be courageous, because it takes courage to offer a redemptive critique. Similarly, it takes courage to receive critique, even when it is redemptive. Yet this is what we are called into – like iron sharpening iron, we can help one another grow into the likeness of Jesus. We speak the truth in love to another, to build up the body of Christ, but leave judging those outside the body to God (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
If we want to really reflect Jesus to the world and also amongst ourselves, let’s not be known for what we’re against, but for loving as we have been loved.
So, critique where you must. Affirm whenever and wherever you can.