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The Secret to Giving and Receiving Critique

Written by Brandon D. Smith on . Posted in The Gospel Coalition Blog

Article by: Brandon D. Smith

I’ll never forget the day I publicly critiqued Tony Romo.

After another frustrating season, I told my friends and fellow Dallas Cowboys fans that I no longer believed he could lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. Some told me I was a “hater.” Some agreed privately but not publicly (sports peer pressure is a real struggle). Some would never allow me to compliment Romo again, or accept that I still loved him as a player and thought he was a premier NFL quarterback. Indeed, I only cared because I thought he was better than that. Romo wasn’t some third-stringer I expected to fail his team—he was a standout quarterback and one of my favorite players. I wanted to see him thrive.

They saw critique, and interpreted it as hate.

If misunderstood, critique can easily be seen as hateful and disrespectful. And sometimes, to be fair, people are hateful and disrespectful. It’s a two-way street, and rarely do both sides line up at the right attitudes. Sometimes the critiqued is overly sensitive, and sometimes the critic is a jerk.

But I think we can do better.

As I’ve cut my teeth in church ministry, academia, and publishing, I’ve learned critique can be a good thing. It grows and makes us better. In fact, it’s more insulting to be considered not worth critiquing than to be critiqued. Imagine writing something no one cares to engage with, that’s forgotten as soon as it’s read.

But if you write to be read (or speak to be heard), you should hope people are engaging with it—positively and negatively. You want to light dynamite that clears out space for new thought and perspective. You want to teach, yes, but you should also want to learn.

So here’s some advice for both sides of the fence, in the hope that we can learn to give and receive critique in a spirit of respectful love.

To the Critic

Being a good-faith critic is a noble task. It’s through constructive feedback that others are able to look beyond their blinders. I can’t commend enough the loving mentors, friends, and editors in my life who’ve shown me where I’m being unclear, insensitive, or downright mean. It has prevented more misunderstanding, more broken relationships, and more hurt feelings than I can quantify. These friends have loved me enough to help me think and feel beyond my own thoughts and feelings. They’ve handed me a telescope to see into space, where other ideas live and long to be seen. And they’ve helped me apply some of those ideas into my own thinking, ultimately making me a bit more intelligent and compassionate—a more truthful person.

But being a critic comes with consequences. I’m always annoyed at book reviews that sprinkle glitter all over the book without pointing out any sort of blemish. But it’s understandable, right? There’s a reasonable fear of insulting our heroes, or making friends or colleagues look bad when we engage their work. This causes us to not want to hurt others’ feelings, and to avoid potential conflict ourselves.

But we shouldn’t shy away from critique.

Critiquing sermons, articles, books, and positions (whether theological or political) is helpful, and should be done with truth-seeking love. Not “love” the way our culture defines it, where everyone affirms everyone and negative words are anathema. That’s not love. Love in the world of critique is genuinely seeking to make others better, to help them become more wise, more caring, or more accurate.

Facebook and Twitter are often terrible avenues to launch critique, where seemingly endless slap-fights happen. But they’re not hopeless platforms. Conversations online are often more honest than in person, as a matter of fact. We just need to engage others with the motivation of helping them swim, not stomping on their heads while they’re intellectually or relationally drowning.

As Christians, we’re motivated in all of life by love for God and neighbor. We critique because we want to go on a journey together toward truth and understanding, not toward division and strife. We want others (and ourselves) to take another step toward right thinking and doing, not get tripped up by the desire to score points in a debate. We want to critique in good faith.

More than that, if you are a “professional critic” whose platform consists of hit pieces and social media takedowns, you are a “fool” (Prov. 15:1–2). Social media didn’t create this type of critic, but it does give him or her a stage. The rhetoric of a bad-faith critic easily morphs into accusation and slander, not godly edification. Even if the critique is anchored in some sort of truth, a foolish delivery can render it unhelpful and downright wrong.

A good-faith critic seeks to edify others and glorify Jesus. A bad-faith critic just seeks to destroy.

To the Critiqued

Being critiqued is painful. I, for one, often feel a pit in my stomach the first time I see someone disagree with something I’ve written or a choice I’ve made. I get defensive or make excuses that give me the appearance of being right, even when it’s clear I’m not. Pride? Check.

This goes back to our fear of critiquing those we respect or care about, by the way. We’re not sure if they’ll respond well, if they’ll understand we still love them and respect them. But we shouldn’t let that deter us from seeking truth together. We should be clear about our motives, and we should be kind in the way we express critique.

Charles Spurgeon once said, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him, for you are worse than he thinks you to be.” As Christians, we live in a tension. On the one hand, we know we’re imperfect. We know Spurgeon was right and that we’re prime for critique every time we open our mouths. On the other hand, we care about truth. And sometimes that means we care that people think the truth about us.

But our future vindication is often ignored in the midst of momentary insecurities about how others perceive us. We can’t handle critique, even well-intended pushback, because our pride gets in the way. But we must rest in our identities as children of God and utilize opportunities to grow, trusting that truth and understanding is more fulfilling and eternal than self-esteem. Humble critique in good faith is worth heeding, even if the heeding hurts.

In other words, the critic and the critiqued should each care more about speaking truth in love than anything else. We should speak and write carefully, hoping to offer the most fair, reasoned, and careful opinion we can. We should receive critique with the humility that comes from having the long view in mind.

And above all, we should offer and receive critique as those who care about pursuing truth, and who love others enough to take them with us.

Brandon D. Smith works with the Christian Standard Bible and teaches theology at various schools. He’s also author of Rooted: Theology for Growing Christians, They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament (2017), and Echoes of the Reformation (2017). He also co-hosts the Word Matters podcast. You can follow him on Twitter.

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