Constructive Criticism (Part III)

images-3In the previous two posts, we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around the concept of genuinely constructive criticism.  We looked to Old Man Webster to provide some basic definitions.  But most importantly, we have looked to Jesus to teach us how to help our brothers and sisters struggle hard against sin for the glory of God.

Like everything in the Christian life, constructive criticism is only possible in submission to the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit applying the Word to our hearts, minds and lives.  But possible it is, praise the Lord!  And I strongly suspect the reason why I, and so many of you, have dorked this thing up for so many years is precisely because we go about our day-to-day lives walking not in the Spirit but in the flesh.  Living by our own power.  Using our own wit, will and wisdom.  And that produces fruit of the flesh.  In the case of offering constructive criticism, the particular fruits of the flesh that blossom are “Enmities, strife, jealousy, angry outbursts, disputes, dissensions and factions” (Galatians 5:20).  Haven’t we all seen these things result from our efforts at criticism, or our own reception of criticism?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I have noticed some trends in my 43 years on earth.  Trends that have dragged my initially well-meant criticism into the trash bin of “grumbling and disputing” (Phil 2:14).  Here’s a bullet list of thoughts and questions that I pray may assist us in discerning how to both give and receive criticism biblically.

  • Is the issue at stake a sin?  If not, I remind you once again to state up front to the person you are offering an opinion or a preference.  If a sin is the issue, follow Matthew 18:15-18 and Luke 17:1-4.
  • If you are noticing something that you think needs some improvement in a brother or sister or church ministry, spend some time praying about it before talking to ANYONE else about it.  God has a way of giving good and right perspective.  I can’t number how many times this one simple practice has kept me from saying a word to anyone as I come to realize the issue isn’t really worth it.
  • Are you talking about the issue to someone other than the person who should be receiving the critique?  The Bible calls this “gossip, backbiting” or “stirring discord.”  Repent!  Confess your sin to God, and then go directly to the appropriate person and seek his or her forgiveness for talking about your judgment / critique behind his or her back.  You may not think you’re stirring discord by discussing with other church friends the improvements you’d like to see in a church minister or ministry, and indeed, your motives may be pure.  But I know from personal experience, sadly, that where two or three are gathered to discuss their critiques of ministers and ministry, there a faction arises among them.
  • God hates one who stirs discord (Prov. 6:19).  God says, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).  Friends, this is more serious than we have let on in the church.  One of the sins I most regret is a time in my life when I was dissatisfied with the direction of a ministry and I sometimes offered a criticism to others who had some stake in the ministry, instead of going directly to the right person to hear my critique.  I was building a coalition, even if ignorantly.  And I now hate myself for it.  By God’s grace I have repented and strongly desire to not slip into that trap again.  Oh, how I need Jesus!  Oh, how I need the Spirit’s wisdom every day.
  • DO NOT SHARE A CRITICISM with anyone other than the proper recipient.  This is the only way I know of practically to “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil 2:14).  Believe me, if you go offer an humble criticism to a brother, sister or ministry leader, he or she has probably been thinking of it or hearing a bit about it from others too.  Let God do the work in that person.  If God wants to get a message to His people, I have found He often hammers it home repeatedly via various people and means.  Trust Him.  No need for you to check and see how many in the church agree with you.  Just pray, keep the matter between you and God, and then if you sense Divine permission, go offer the criticism.  Then trust God.
  • Criticize rarely.  Praise frequently.  Remember, criticism does not always need to be negative!  If you’re going to be hyper-critical, then make it the encouraging kind of criticism!
  • When you are criticized, analyze very carefully how you responded.  This often takes me weeks of prayerful reflection to assess how I reacted and responded to criticism.  It always reveals much about my heart.  Where was I too defensive?  And why?  Where did I disagree?  And why?  Did I listen more than I talked?  If not, why not?  Wow.  Honestly analyzing how I received a critique seriously exposes pride, jealousy, envy and idols in my life.  Oh for grace to receive criticism more humbly.
  • If you think the critique is of such a serious nature that it may well explode, you might ask a neutral third party to sit in on it.  God typically uses that to calm and humble everyone in the room.
  • Nail down what really matters in a church, and use your Bibles to do it!  This may well be the best advice I can give when it comes to criticizing something or someone in the church.  Knowing what hills are worth dying on, or even worth debating, is so important.  I have seen people that were precious to me leave the church over issues that I considered small preference-type things.  Or over misunderstandings.  Or over a few things in a ministry not being done precisely to suit them.  It saddens me.  Church is not a place for us to exalt our egos, our preferences, or our opinions.  Church exists to exalt its Living Head – the Lord Jesus Christ.  And how shall we do that if we are “grumbling and disputing?”  Especially over personal preferences.

No doubt you could add many more tips and godly techniques.  But I hope these at least get us headed down the right road as a church.  May God unite us around our commitment to seeing His Gospel penetrate our community and world.  For His glory in Christ alone.  And may He be exalted even in the way we give and receive criticism.

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Stephen Cox - In the wisdom of God our King, He has united us to Himself in the Spirit in such a way that no progress in the Christian life is possible until we work through these sinful tendencies in our hearts individually and corporately, as the Church. The need for devotion to the Head, and likewise to the Body, is a MUST in order for us as sinners to partake of His Holiness and Righteousness in daeling with OUR remaining sin. James speaks of the tongue being a WORLD of Iniquity,that which like a wild fire consumes all it touches. We as the Church sin more with our tongues I would wagger than in any other way against each other. May LOVE Gods LOVE that never fails be worked into us all, in order that we may corporately build up the Church, not tear it down. Thank you for these post Pastor, thank you for doing with Gods word what He has called you to do, to reprove, rebuke, correct and instruct us in the right ways of the Lord. Equip us to serve the Lord, and each other. 🙂

Constructive Criticism (Part II)

Good+Choice+Bad+Choice

Do all things without grumbling and disputing (Phil 2:14).

In the last post, I made the case that genuine “constructive criticism” is possible for believers in Jesus who are filled and empowered by Holy Spirit God to love and obey the Word.  As many theologians from the past have said, “What God commands His people to do, God enables His people to do.”  And to remind us of the immensely deep gospel context of Philippians 2:14, consider this quote from the Puritan Powerhouse Pastor John Owen:

“To presume that what God commands, we have power in and of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Christ of none effect.”  

Amen Brother Owen.  Preach on!  The command to the Church to “do all things without grumbling and disputing” flows out of the humble condescension of our Lord Jesus who sacrificed Himself on the cross in our place, and is now raised and exalted to the highest position.  His perfect work for us and in us is the ground and hope and power of any good work we do or ever attempt.

So why then do so many of us believers flub this constructive criticism up?  Why can’t we seem to walk the line between an edifying critique and grumbling / disputing?  Per Webster’s definition, to criticize someone or something constructively is to make judgments about the merits of a performance and express them in such a way that the recipient can infer conclusions, feel encouraged and see the way towards improvement.  Easy for him to say!

Let’s get practical.  To begin, we should notice that to criticize is to judge.  We cannot criticize or offer a critique apart from making judgments and using discernment.  What was good about the performance?  What could have been better?  What good do you see in a fellow believer?  What areas for improvement do you think exist?  What changes might be needed?  And how can I be a part of the solution towards improvement?  This is criticism 101.

Jesus told His followers how to judge one another.  Though pundits often quote Matthew 7:1 to try and rebuke all judgments by all people, in its context Jesus was actually instructing His people in how to offer constructive criticism!  There’s much for us to learn from the Master here.

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite!  First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:1-5).

Several principles emerge:

  • Jesus is manifestly not forbidding His people to ever criticize or make any judgments about one another.  See also Luke 17:1-4 to reinforce this truth.
  • Jesus insists His people use the right standard to assess one another.  We know that standard is the infallible Word of God given to us in the Bible.  If you are expressing an opinion but do not have any biblical texts to support it, then make it clear you are merely giving your opinion.  If you are expressing a personal preference not supported by explicit Scripture references, or not backed up by a Biblical principle, then say so.  This kind of honesty really helps ground a critique and guides the discussion in more productive and brotherly ways.  There’s freedom for disagreement in matters of opinion and preferences!  And room to learn from each other!
  •  Never criticize anyone or any ministry unless and until you are scrutinizing your own heart, mind, and life in the exact same way.  My Dad often told me when I first started in ministry, that in his experience people in the church often accuse others of doing what they themselves are doing.  The critique is a cloak.  A mask.  Jesus confronts this very tendency!  A hypocrite is an actor. Hiding behind a mask.  So before we level any criticism at all, we must be searching out our own hearts for similar sins or mistakes or needs for improvement.  Ask yourself, “Do I have anyone looking for this same sin or tendency or pattern in my life who is holding me accountable?  Am I confessing and repenting of any known sin?  Am I willing to admit those sins to the one I am criticizing?  Do I have any real authority, experience or expertise to offer this critique?”
  • We all have specks and logs in our eyes.  Notice Jesus assumes every single one of His followers either have logs or specks!  Those symbolize specific sins or sinful habits / patterns.  But how do we know which one has a massive 2×4 protruding and which one has just a bit of sawdust?  Easy.  If it’s in my life, it’s a log.  If it’s in my brother’s life, it’s a speck.  Do you see how gospel-centered this all is?  If I’m not viewing myself as the chief sinner in the relationships I have in the church, I really should be keeping my criticisms to myself.  Or, better yet, aiming my criticisms at myself!
  • We as a church family should be seeking grace from God to deal with sin in our own lives and help our brothers and sisters deal with it in their lives too.  The goal, according to Jesus, is to “see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”  And so we must give criticism very carefully, and very rarely.  And we must receive it humbly.  That’s surely what Jesus has in mind when He continues the instruction with these words:

“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”  

Wow.  I do not want to be the dog or pig in a church!  God help me receive criticism humbly.  Thankfully.  Knowing I, like all Christians, have blind spots.  God help me not turn and tear a precious brother or sister by my aggressive defensiveness.  God forgive when I have in the past.  God give grace to enable me to seek forgiveness from the torn family member.  God help me receive holy, constructive criticism well, so that I might also give it well.  God fill our church with this very spirit.

Is it any wonder Jesus then concludes this block of instruction on constructive criticism with an exhortation to persistent prayer?!  See verses 7-11.  We have no prayer of offering a godly critique apart from prayer.  And the concluding principle of Christ is . . .

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (v. 12).

Next post will help us with some practical ways to avoid grumbling in the Church.  A criticism meant for only a certain person or ministry far too often grows into grumbling, doesn’t it?  Join me next week for more.

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Stephen Cox - Thank you Pastor for reminding us of these critical truths which will either tear down of build up if not engaged in in the Spirit of Truth and attitude of needful humilty. The story of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven his dept, but then refused to forgive his fellow servant his dept reminds me that God really does expect us to treat each other as He has treated us, graciously. When we judge unjustly we are not acting toward another as God has us, and it stirs His displeasure greatly. Luke 18:21 to 35. 🙂

Constructive Criticism? (Part 1)

images-1Constructive criticism.

Sounds like an oxi-moron, huh?  We think of construction as positive.  Criticism as negative.  We normally think of construction as building or putting together.  But Webster’s 1828 Dictionary also includes this definition:

To interpret or understand.

And “constructive” is defined as “not directly expressed but inferred.”

OK.  Still with me?  Good.  “Criticism” is defined as “the art of of judging with propriety of the beauties and faults of a performance” or “the act of judging on the merit of a performance.”  A “critique” is the “science of criticism; standard or rules of judging of the merit of performances.”  Pretty clear so far.

Putting the two together, then, we can surmise that constructive criticism is a judgment made about the merits, beauties or faults, of a performance that is expressed in such a way that the criticized can infer the conclusion.  In other words, the person being critiqued will not feel personally attacked or directly assaulted when encountering a skilled critic.  Rather, he or she would hear a series of feedback statements of the best things, and things for potential improvement, and be able to easily discern the best way to continue pursuing excellence in the craft.

But get real.  Is this even possible?  Is it possible in the Church?

Well, I need to be the first to confess my sinful blunders when it comes to offering genuine constructive criticism.  I have made people feel beat down and discouraged when I know in my heart I actually meant to do just the opposite!  And a few times, I have even sat around and just flat out belly-ached and threw little fits about something in the Church I didn’t like, didn’t prefer, didn’t want, or wanted to see changed.  Sadly, I have even done this in the presence of other church members.  I’m a horrible sinner in this area, but God is showing Himself to be a perfectly patient Redeemer and Teacher.  I speak on this not from a position of “arrived” but rather “just pulling out of the station.”  All aboard!

Do all things without grumbling or disputing (Phil 2:14).

Well, given that Christians are told to admonish and rebuke and encourage one another (Rom 15:14; 1 Thess 5:14; 2 Tim 4:2), and also commanded to “do all things without grumbling or disputing,” we must conclude that constructive criticism is indeed possible.  Like everything in the Christian life, it’s possible only by the power, presence and grace of the Spirit of the Living Christ in us.  But, nevertheless, possible.

It’s very significant that the verse above in Philippians 2 flows directly out of one of the most beloved passages on the condescension of Jesus who laid aside His Divine prerogatives to become an obedient man, even to the point of death on the cross.  It is because of our Great Savior’s atoning sacrifice for our sins that we are then told to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you to work for His good pleasure.”  There’s both the motive (His loving humiliation and sacrifice) and the engine (God at work in us making us like Christ) of the command: “Do all things without grumbling.”

I find it compelling and convicting that the very first way the Holy Spirit through Paul fleshes out what it means to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” is to exhort us never to grumble.  Never.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing.

All things?  Yes.  All.  Without grumbling?  Murmuring?  Complaining?  Arguing?  Disputing?  Belly-aching?  Yes.  Without all these attitudes and behaviors.

Theologically and/or doctrinally, I get how constructive criticism is possible.  Why then have I managed to do so poorly at it?  Surely I’m not the only one still wondering how this all works out in practice?!  If we are trying to judge how certain ministries in the Church might be improved, how can we possibly express it without falling into the trap of grumbling?  How do we practically avoid this sin against God?  

The next blog post will seek to answer that very critical question.

Pun intended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stephen Cox - Bring it on Man of God, speak the truth to us in Love! 🙂

D-Day for the Greatest

U.S. boxing great Muhammad Ali poses during the Crystal Award ceremony at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 28, 2006. REUTERS/Andreas Meier/File Photo

U.S. boxing great Muhammad Ali poses during the Crystal Award ceremony at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland January 28, 2006. REUTERS/Andreas Meier/File Photo

The man who called himself “the Greatest” is dead.

The Louisville Lip who used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee was reduced to frailty and near inability to even speak in his final decades.  Like every man before him.  Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.

I never admired Muhammad Ali.  While his athletic prowess was world-class, I never bragged on him or admired him or thought much of him at all.  Maybe it’s because my childhood memories are mostly 1980s, when Larry Holmes was the undisputed champ.  But mostly it’s because my Dad, my earthly hero, told me Muhammad Ali was a coward not worth admiring.

My Dad, you see, was drafted in 1966.  Keep in mind Dad was a junior in college, was married, and was already intending to pursue pastoral ministry.  He could have easily pulled one of those “cards” to avoid military service.  He knew plenty of men who did pull those cards!

But not my Dad.  Not only did he do his duty, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps because he figured if he was going to go to Vietnam (a given in those days), he might as well go with the best!  And go he did.  Two tours in Vietnam.  Four years of active duty service total.  Battlefield promoted to Sergeant.  Winner of the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry (the second highest medal for that government, if memory serves me).  My sister was not yet 1 year old when Dad left for ‘Nam.  Call me crazy, but in my book, this is what heroes are made of.

“Somebody died in his place.  Somebody’s son died in the place of that coward.”  

That was Dad’s assessment of “The Greatest.”  It has been amazing to me how in the media aftermath of Ali’s death, no one has mentioned the almost comical irony of Cassius Clay conveniently changing his name and his religion to avoid going into a real war.  With real bullets.  With real heroes who bled and died by the tens of thousands.  Sacrificed themselves for others, for a cause greater than themselves.  I mean, come on, does anyone out there not see the laughable irony of an “Islamic conscientious objector”?  Could you imagine someone trying to pull that card today?

I served for over five years in the Marine Corps alongside American Muslims.  In no way do I mean to belittle them or their religion.  The Marines I served with who were practicing Muslims trained hard and deployed, leaving family behind, and were ready to sacrifice for America just like me.  And just like my Dad did 45 years ago.  But that’s precisely my point – they would not have even considered it an option to “opt out due to religion.”  And frankly, I am not sure any man should be permitted to do so.  It has always gotten under my skin that Muhammad Ali got filthy rich from a country he was not even willing to serve in the trenches.  All the benefits with no sacrifice.

Almost sounds like the new motto of America, huh?!

Well, perhaps you’ll excuse this rant.  Perhaps not.  But one thing I can assure you of, I do not think Muhammad Ali was the greatest.  Not even close.  I am sad for his family.  But even sadder for him.  He spent his adult life in arrogance and defiance of the one true God.  He died, as far as anyone knows, believing that the Man who was truly The Greatest – Jesus the Christ – would one bow His knee to Muhammad the prophet of Islam.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  For this reason God has highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him a name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:8-11).

Turns out Dad was right.  Somebody’s son no doubt did die in the jungles of Vietnam in the place of the Louisville Lip.  But even more critically for all of us to grasp is that God’s Holy Son, the Divine-Man Jesus, died in place of all His sinful people who would cry out to Him for forgiveness.  D-day is coming for us all.  Bow to Jesus today and you will know the joy and soul deep peace that no religion of human merits / works can ever truly give!  Islam is a religion of self-salvation, and a very uncertain one at that.  But no man, not even one we called “the greatest,” can save himself from his sins.  That’s why we call Jesus . . . Savior.  

One can’t help but wonder what might have been had Ali submitted his life and his prideful lips to the Lord Christ. Surely nobody would have been able to get him to shut up about the love and grace of King Jesus!  But it was not to be.  His death is sad.  And thousands more are dying all around us on their way to the same Christ-less hell.

O Lord Jesus. help us start boasting more of You and Your cross!  And help us guard carefully who we extol as a hero.  Amen.  

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Stephen Cox - Bottom line is this, he like all called great by the world died in his sin, and as you pointed out was full of pride and self promotion, and was no hero in many peoples eyes for not answering the call of duty as a citizen. Hind sight shows Vietnam to be a huge blunder for the Politicians. But our soldiers for the greater part did their duty honorablly at at great cost like always. Christ alone deserves such great praise for He unlike this man is the Greatest man ever to walk in our midst.

Ellen McWhorter Stone - I’m glad to see my brother speaking out on this issue because I certainly have been. Amen!!

Enjoying Life

DSCN6961So often the posts on this blog tackle very serious matters.  Even life or death matters.  Spiritual matters that may well impact our eternities.

It is my calling from God to preach His Word, undiluted and in all its fullness and glory.  It’s serious business!

But for those who may only get their impressions of me from this blog, or even from my sermons, I want you to know I actually do enjoy life.  At least most days I do – ha ha!

God has blessed me beyond measure with the most amazing best friend and wife a man could ever want.  And to our union, God has gifted us with two simply wonderful daughters.  Most days, our home is filled with laughter and silliness.  Granted, like all sinners in need of Jesus, we have our “moments.”  But all in all I am very happy when I’m hanging with my girls!  Blessed.

Recently, my youngest daughter and I enjoyed an amazing day out turkey hunting.  Now, to be sure, the first 5 hours of that hunt were spent in a pop-up blind.  By 11 am it was getting hot and uncomfortable.  We had only seen a few hens, and no gobblers.  But just as we were packing up to leave, things got crazy in a hurry!

Long story short we heard a distant gobble, which set into motion a mad scramble for us to get set up in a tree line to intercept him and/or call him toward us.  The picture accompanying this blog entry shows the end result!

Blessed.  In the right place at the right time.  My daughter made an incredible shot on a trotting gobbler, and then exclaimed “Thank you Jesus!”  It was a back-slapping moment, until I realized the other tom was still just standing in the field confused.  So I went ahead and filled my tag too!

Fun, fun, fun!  Blessed.  Not everything in life is deadly serious (well, I suppose our hunt was deadly on these two toms, but you get my drift).  God has given us so many little pleasures, hasn’t He?  I have often said that so long as I have Jesus, every other good in this life is just icing on the cake.  But oh, how my Savior seems to just keep layering the icing on that cake!

So, dear Christian, take some time soon to enjoy some of that Divine icing.  Our God is so good, even on our worst day.  We, dear chosen ones of God, are blessed.  Let’s not neglect to praise the Lord even for the “little” graces He lavishes on us in this life.

I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – is the the gift of God” (Eccl 3:12-13).

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Stephen Cox - Sweet!

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