I stared at the bathroom mirror in horror. I had just arrived home from a formal dinner to discover, firmly wedged between my front teeth, a substantially-sized salad leaf.
Salad had been part of the entrée, meaning this piece of greenery had been stuck between my incisors for the last three hours. It had been present through least a dozen conversations.
I began to play back each interaction in my head, re-evaluating the reactions of the other participant for any sign of distaste at the small shrub that would have been clearly visible in my mouth.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” I silently screamed.
Had it been mentioned in the first or second conversation, much of the damage could have been avoided. But now it was too late.
Despite my frustration, I understood everyone else’s reluctance to mention this dental disaster. There was probably a desire to avoid awkwardness, to avoid being the one who points it out the problem and then has to go through the obligatory ritual of coaching me while I try to remove the salad leaf, repeatedly asking “is it gone?”, “is it gone?”, “is it gone?”
THE SCARCITY OF CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
This incident got me thinking – what if there’s other stuff, much bigger stuff, that needs to be fixed in my life, but no one is saying anything?
What if, at the end of my life, when I’m looking into the metaphorical bathroom mirror of self-reflection, I notice something far worse than a lettuce leaf? What if I recognise that what I thought I was particularly good at, I actually wasn’t, but no one had the courage to tell me?
Or perhaps I was good at a thing, but I missed the potential to be truly great at it, again because no one dared offer constructive criticism?
Constructive criticism can be defined as a way of giving feedback that provides specific, helpful suggestions for improvement.
In my life, there’s a real scarcity of this kind of feedback. I’ll do something creative and when I ask friends and family for feedback, the response I’ll get is “it’s great.”
“Thank you,” I’ll reply, “but is there anything you think I could have done better?”
“No, no” they say, “it’s great.”
“Great” is the feedback equivalent of politely smiling at someone when they’ve got salad stuck in their teeth.
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CHRISTIANS DON’T CRITICISE?
My concern is that this avoidance of constructive criticism is not just a feature of polite society, but it has become an engrained part of Christian culture.
Good Christians, we all know, are meant to love their neighbour. So, in an effort to be loving, we avoid saying anything that could be interpreted negatively. We praise where we can and keep silent where we could criticise (even when the areas deserving criticism far outweigh those areas that are praiseworthy).
We’ve mistaken affirmation for love, and positivity for virtue.
If you genuinely love someone, you don’t just want to make them feel good about themselves, you want what is best for them and you want to help them become the best person they can be.
Constructive criticism is an essential part of that journey. It is through constructive criticism that we can improve in those areas where we are already doing well and identify those areas where we are going wrong.
This is an important principle repeated throughout the Bible. In the book of Proverbs we read, “Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise” (Prov 15:31).
In 2 Timothy, Paul doesn’t instruct the young disciple Timothy to “make sure you tell everyone how great they are.” Instead, his advice is to “correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”
CHRISTIANS NEED CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
So, how do we re-introduce a culture of constructive criticism into Christianity? To carry the mirror motif just a bit further, I think the best first step we can take is to start with the person in the mirror.
If we want to become the person God created us to be, we need to create avenues in our life for receiving constructive criticism. These avenues could include:
Finding older, wiser mentors who are going to be able to identify where we are going astray, often before we can.
Working hard to build deep friendships where you each have the courage to give and receive constructive criticism.
Identifying those areas of life where the result itself is providing us with feedback. For example, if you were promoting an event and very few people actually showed up, that’s probably a signal you went wrong somewhere.
Our goal should be to humbly receive constructive criticism when it is given to us and to courageously offer it where appropriate. In every relationship with someone that we love and trust, there will be times when the most loving thing we can do is offer them some constructive criticism.
Remember that the goal of constructive criticism is always to construct. When we are criticising others, it should always be with the goal of building them up. When we receive constructive criticism, no matter how hard it is to swallow, we should remind ourselves the other person is doing this for our benefit.
If we want to build the best lives, relationships and ministries that we can, it’s essential that we create a culture of constructive criticism.