Giving and Receiving Godly Criticism: Sharpening Each Other With Your Words
“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
Criticism is something most of us like to shy away from. We naturally want to avoid tough conversations where our actions, motives, or ministries are put under another person’s microscope. At the same time, many of us don’t like to share critique or criticism with others because we don’t want to come across as judgmental or risk hurting someone’s feelings.
While it may feel unnatural, I want to suggest that giving and receiving godly criticism is a necessary element in the life of healthy relationships and healthy churches. If we intend to help people grow in godliness but can’t give godly criticism, we won’t end up helping them very much. God uses his people to speak the truth to one another in love, and this includes critical truth. If you’re missing this element in your discipling relationships, you’re like a shepherd with no rod.
WHAT IS GODLY CRITICISM?
The words “criticism” or “critique” don’t show up much in our English Bibles, but the concept certainly does. Terms such as rebuke, reproof, correction, admonishment, and instruction all capture the same idea.
Here’s my shot at a definition of godly criticism: to give a corrective evaluation of another person and their service to the Lord with the intent of helping that person grow in faithfulness to God.
For the sake of this article, I’m focusing on giving and receiving godly criticism in the context of a Christian relationship. This may be between a husband and wife, friends, fellow church members, or a church staff. I also want to emphasize that we are talking about godly criticism. This is important because not all criticism is godly. Some criticism is Satanic.
Some people give criticism inspired by the sinful flesh (1 Cor 3:3) that lacks spiritual wisdom (James 3:14-16) and does nothing but hurt others (Gal 5:15). Often times this ungodly criticism is aimed at tearing others down and lifting up oneself to appear “spiritual” (Lk 18:11-14; Prov 30:32). This insensitive attack is void of constructive grace and leaves people hurt rather than helped.
To help us avoid giving that kind of criticism, I’d like to share a few suggestions on how we should give and receive godly criticism.
HOW TO GIVE GODLY CRITICISM
1. The goal is growth.
The chief goal in any Christian relationship should be to help each other grow up in Christ (Eph 4:14-15). This means critiques must be aimed at building up, not tearing down (2 Cor 13:10). So when you speak, prayerfully consider how your words can give constructive grace that will help others mature in Christ (Eph 4:29). Show them how your correction, if applied, can help them better reflect the glory of God (Matt 5:16).
2. Criticize humbly.
Pride delights in criticizing others. So, if you’re excited to dish out critiques, it might be a sign that pride is guiding your heart. The best way to grow in humility is to spend time thanking God for the many ways he has graciously corrected you. Rehearse how the gospel is good news for you and be stirred afresh by how gracious God has been to you (Eph 2:1-5). This will help you to take the log out of your own eye before helping someone else take the speck out of theirs (Matt 7:1-5).
3. Give encouragement with your critique.
Critique should almost always be served with a healthy dose of encouragement. This is not a psychological trick to avoid hurting feelings; rather, it’s a way of affirming that God is working in them, despite their need to keep growing.
For instance, when our staff gives me feedback on my leadership or preaching, I need them to help me see both what needs changing and what I should continue doing. Pointing out evidences of grace along with areas to improve will make your critical conversations all the more helpful. You can read more about giving encouragement here.
4. Be thoughtful.
Give consideration to what you should say before you say it (Prov 29:20). This will help you sift out nit-picky stuff and get to the heart of what needs to be communicated. Prayerfully ask yourself, “What is the main issue I need to address? What do I hope they walk away from our conversation remembering? What really needs to be said and what can be overlooked?” This work on the front end will serve both you and the person you are confronting.
5. Be clear.
When you give critique, be as clear as possible. Are you speaking about a sin issue or a personality issue? Is this a big deal or something that could become a big deal? One way to do bring more clarity is to use examples.
For instance, don’t just say “you are rude.” But you might try saying it like this, “I know you have good ideas, but I’ve noticed that you tend to cut people off when they are talking. I’m not sure if you’ve caught yourself doing this, but it can make people feel like you don’t need to hear what they have to say.” Being clear in your critique will help make sure you get to the heart of the issue.
6. Be gentle.
Wrap your words of correction with gentleness. Love seeks to communicate truth in a way that can be easily swallowed. It’s a mark of spiritual maturity to gently help people grow in spiritual health (Gal 6:1). Gentleness must not be viewed as weakness, but rather a heart posture that God can use to lead others to repentance (2 Tim 2:24-26). One way to grow in gentleness is to think how you would want someone to speak to you if they were giving the same critique (Matt 7:12). How can you show them honor while still helping them grow (Rom 12:10)? By considering how they will hear what you say, you can shape your words to be given gently.
7. Be patient.
“Love is patient” (1 Cor 13:4). Remember that some habits or sins take time to be corrected, especially when they are deep-rooted heart issues. Take the long view in your relationship and ask God to help you remember how patient he has been with you (Ex 34:6). This will keep you humble before God and patient with those you are helping to correct.
8. Be prayerful.
Ruth Graham once said of her husband, “It’s my job to love Billy; it’s God’s job to change him.” There is much wisdom in that statement. While we can bring truth to a heart, only God can make that seed grow (1 Cor 3:6). What this means for us is that if we aren’t praying for people, we certainly shouldn’t be trying to change them. God alone is able to change a person, so plead with him on behalf of other people.
HOW TO RECEIVE GODLY CRITICISM
1. Be hungry to grow.
Do you desire to grow in spiritual maturity? Do you long to look more like Jesus? If so, then you must do all you can to put to death the pride that wants to protect your image. When others criticize us, our natural reaction is to defend ourselves and make excuses for the critiques they bring up.
Brothers and sisters, put the idol of image to death. Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” The reason those who hate reproof are stupid is because there is nothing better than to be corrected for the glory of God. So plead with God to make you want to grow in holiness and usefulness above all other things. Ask him to help you not fear being made stronger through being humbled by the help of those who are speaking into your life.
2. Assume you need to be corrected.
Proverbs 12:15 reminds us that “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Do you assume you need people in your life to critique and correct you? Do you assume others can see things in you that you might be blind to? It’s foolish to presume that even on our best days we cannot be helped by the critical insight of others.
3. Don’t be easily offended.
Spurgeon once wisely advised, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him, for you are worse than he thinks you to be.” The pride in our hearts is often ignited when someone speaks corrective words to us. Plead with God to help you remember that no matter what someone says to you, it is far less cutting than what God has said to you in the gospel.
4. Ask clarifying questions.
When someone gives you criticism, thank them for helping you grow and then follow up with questions. Ask for examples to help you understand better. Ask for suggestions on how you might change. By doing this, it turns the critiques into a conversation, which is what is always the best place for growth to happen.
5. Assume there is at least some truth in what others say to you.
People are not infallible, so there are times their words of criticism or critique will be off-base and unwarranted. Your first response shouldn’t be to shoot holes in what they are saying, but rather to see what bit of truth may be salvaged from their words. It’s rare that you can’t find a little gold in even the biggest load of trash.
6. Keep the church in view.
When you are corrected by others, you aren’t the only one who benefits. Because you are part of the Body of Christ, your growth means good things for everyone (1 Cor 12). I could probably list 10-15 corrections I’ve received over the years that significantly altered the course of my life and ministry.
One that I most often remember came in my first year of preaching when a friend pointed out that I consistently preached the cross but rarely mentioned the resurrection of Jesus. He encouraged me to bring Jesus out of the grave in my preaching. I’m glad he did, and I’m thankful to the many others who have loved me enough to share their godly criticism with me.
7. Do it for God’s glory.
First Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do [including giving and receiving criticism] do it all for the glory of God.” This means that our aim in giving, receiving, and applying critique must always be to help God be seen clearly in our lives and the lives of others. If God’s fame is our greatest aim, it will guard our hearts in what can be tough and trying conversations.
CREATING A CULTURE OF SHARPENING IN THE CHURCH
What we don’t want to do is create a culture of critics who are constantly eyeing one another for mistakes. But what we do want to see is a church deepen in their love and care for one another so much that they are willing to engage in deep, painful, graceful, helpful, character-shaping conversations that will bring God much glory.
1. Preach the gospel.
The more regularly we preach and apply the gospel to ourselves and others, the more we’ll be equipped to give and receive grace-centered critique. To learn more about the cross and criticism, I highly recommend this excellent article by Dr. Alfred J. Poirier.
2. Model it.
Pastors and those who are spiritually mature must serve as models for those around them (1 Cor 11:1). How are you opening yourself up to critique as a model for your flock? How are you offering and inviting godly criticism as part of your date nights, family meetings, staff meetings, or discipling relationships?
3. Invite it.
Make giving and receiving godly criticism a normal part of your discipling relationships. This doesn’t mean that you should always be critiquing each other, but it does mean that you want to give each other permission to speak freely to each other. I often tell people, “You have permission at any time to point out any thing in my life that you think I need to hear.” I don’t say that to everyone, but the people I am discipling know they have free rein to walk around in my heart and ask any question. This has proven to be a wonderfully fruitful and freeing practice for me.
4. Organize it.
Find ways to make giving and receiving feedback a standard part of your life. During date nights my wife and I will sometimes ask the questions “What is something you’d like me to stop doing? What is something you’d like me to start doing? And what is something you’d like me to continue doing?” In the same way, our staff meetings include prayer, planning, and reviewing the services from the previous Sunday. This time of getting feedback on my preaching has proven invaluable in my growth as a minster of God’s Word.
5. Guard yourself from cultivating a critical spirit.
If you’re part of a church that gives and receives godly criticism, you will at times be tempted to develop a critical spirit. Every song, every prayer, ever sermon, every conversation could come under scrutiny. We must guard our hearts against this sinful quality. It is not godly to be critical, but it is godly to be able to help others with criticism. Understanding this distinction is essential to the life of every person.
6. Simultaneously cultivate a culture of encouragement.
A culture of encouragement is the key to a healthy culture of criticism. I’m not sure what a healthy ratio is, but I hope my wife and children and friends and partners in ministry hear 5-10 times more encouragement from me than they hear critique. If encouragement is intentional, persistent, and honest, then critique will serve as a polishing cloth on each other’s hearts. If it is not, then it will turn into a flamethrower.
7. Pray over it.
Pray that God will create a culture in your church that desires to help each other grow. Pray that he will give you and others wisdom in spurring each other on to godliness (Heb 10:24-25). Pray he’ll cultivate a humility in your church that delights in being corrected according to God’s truth (Acts 17:11). And above all, pray that through speaking the truth in love the church will be built up into a body that gives glory to Jesus (Eph 4:15).