In my last post, I talked a little bit about the merits of criticism and judgment. Reading comments that others have shared and just taking some time to meditate on this over the course of the day, I feel like I have a little more to talk about with this one.
Like I said before, I think that it’s a bit naive to say that there isn’t wrong in the world, in the same way that, feeling ill, it would be naive to say “I don’t have pneumonia” until one is bedridden and debilitated. Sometimes something is genuinely wrong, and it needs to be addressed. I think the crux of the matter of criticism lies in the motive.
Because it’s sometimes difficult to catalyze a situation through broad philosophy and objective pontificating, I’m going to keep that to a minimum (still just a little) and then use some case studies.
Criticism can come from (at least) two places. The first one I see is from the primary place of a solid ethical foundation. This criticism flows from a sturdy personal sense of right and wrong. That ethical lens is then presented with an action, behavior, or thought that is contrary to the way the world “ought to work.” This criticism might manifest itself as thus:
You’ve just met a new person at your local church barbecue and you’re getting to know them. The church is quite large, and the pastor had been advocating that people invite their friends, so there are a lot of people you’ve never met before. As the conversation progresses, you ask this person what their hopes are for the future, and they say that they want to open up a cool, rooftop bar in the downtown area that serves exotic cocktails done right. Up to this point, you’d been laughing and enjoying the conversation, but now you’re uncomfortable, because you think that drinking alcohol is wrong, and encouraging other people to drink it is even worse.
Now at this point, your natural impulse has kicked in. I’ve actually been in a very similar situation, and I hate when these come up because I always feel conflicted. I went into the conversation wanting to love this person and make them feel valued, and suddenly I feel profoundly uncomfortable and other things are coming into the picture. Can I keep that same goal of loving and valuing them if I know that they’re doing something I believe is wrong? Am I therefore loving and valuing their dreams of opening a bar? Questions worthy of consideration. I feel like this situation can play out in two ways (I’m sure there’s more, these two are the most obvious to me.) First:
You repress the feeling of distaste at this idea, wish them luck, and (maybe a little uncomfortably) change the subject. You can tell the other person noticed that it made you uncomfortable, but they don’t mention it, and you continue to conversation cordially and even share a few more laughs. The person walks away knowing that you clearly weren’t digging on the idea of opening a bar, but you didn’t jump at them for it, which was refreshing. Or perhaps they don’t notice your subject change and figure you just were a little distracted, but they think you’re a nice person.
You consider not saying anything, but then recognize that maybe nobody else has challenged this person on their idea. If you let fear get the best of you, maybe nobody will. So, calming your nerves, you say to them that you believe drinking alcohol is wrong, and that they should consider how someone who struggles with alcohol might relapse by visiting their bar. They get upset, and start to defend themselves, before saying they don’t really want to talk about it and then making an excuse to head back over to the person who invited them.
In my opinion, the first situation is the better one. The person interested in opening a bar is a stranger – the criticism, most likely, isn’t coming from a place of genuine concern for this person’s wellbeing, since we hardly even know this person. We just met them moments ago. As the person with ethics, at least those called by Christ, and able to wrestle with calling, I don’t believe we are called to be the spiritual and ethical police, neither do I believe we’re called to engage in enforcing law. The greatest two commandments are to love God with all your heart and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Love does not insist on its own way.
In my personal experience, I haven’t ever experienced this first brand of judgment and rebuke to be rooted in a place of love – rather, I’ve found it to be rooted in a place of anger and discomfort. The second kind of criticism, as I see it, is the criritism flowing not from the primary place of ethical conflict, but the primary place of love. This kind of criticism might manifest itself like this:
Due to a chance circumstance, you discover that one of your best friends has been struggling with attraction to someone who is not their significant other. This is a person who you have frequently had meaningful and open conversations with, but they haven’t voiced anything about this struggle to you. Out of concern for your friend and their significant other, both of whom are your friends, you approach your friend at the soonest opportunity and warn them of the danger of what they’re doing, how it might tempt them to be unfaithful, and how you care about them and want to see what’s best for them. They get angry that you’ve accused them of being unfaithful, and for a few days they won’t talk to you. Eventually, though, they call you to meet up and tell you that you were right, thanking you, and saying that they have made some life changes to avoid compromising situations in the future.
Or, perhaps in that situation, the person angrily and defiantly continues down that path, leading to strife and breakdown between them and their significant other, at which time they remember that you had warned them of this, and strongly consider coming to you for guidance in how to fix their broken situation.
What is different between these two criticisms? Would it change if it was a stranger flirting with someone clearly not his wife at a company-wide Christmas Party, or if it was a best friend who seemed to be drinking too much? Maybe: I can imagine that walking up to a man flirting with a woman at a party and drawing attention to his wedding ring could be the near-prophetic jolt that snaps him back to reality… at least, if he’s in denial about what he’s doing. If he’s completely comfortable with what he’s doing and sees his wife as a lead anchor on a moving speedboat, it could just come across as obnoxious to him.
But I think everything needs to be weighed by the Spirit. And this is ethics notwithstanding; this is in the realm of helpfulness and benefit. This is why a church can make a point of shouting down members of the congregation from the pulpit regarding the sin in their life, and then sit in the elder’s meeting wondering why the congregation isn’t fired up for Jesus.
Truth cannot be the complete Word of God without Grace. And love is helpful. Love is healing.
In my opinion, the difference between these two aforementioned situations is the relationship. Although we are meant to love everyone around us, we can’t always use the excuse that “I love this person and want what’s best for them” when we don’t even know them. Unsolicited critique can get dicey very quickly. Most times we don’t know what is best for them, and I don’t believe we can’t approach it from the position of knowing what’s best for everyone, either. In my case, I hardly know what is in my best interest most times. Sometimes grace means letting someone else walk their own journey for a while.
To quote Jesus, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
However, knowing someone’s struggles because of your relationship with them, and then seeing them walk down an all-too-familiar road, should generate conviction and a desire to help, however that seems best.
As a final case study, we can look at Luke 7:36-50. We see Jesus being invited into the house of a member of the Pharisees, Simon, who neglects to offer the appropriate hospitality and courtesy to Jesus. Essentially, imagine it as if Jesus went into this man’s house and the man didn’t offer to take his jacket, didn’t offer him anything to drink, and ignored him for the other dinner guests. The woman in this story sees this, and is deeply upset by it. She now has a decision. Should she point out what is clearly happening, shouting at Simon to fulfill his responsibility and stop dishonoring his guest? Or, as she chose, should she instead take the responsibility on herself to extend this honor to the esteemed guest. It wasn’t her place to do so in society, which is the way the Pharisees saw it, but instead of calling them out in criticism, she is simply faithful in doing what is right.
She doesn’t have a cloth or a basin like Simon does, unused on the other side of the room, so she makes do with what she has. She does so silently.
Is it easier to stand in judgement of someone else’s unrighteous behavior, or continue to faithfully seek more after the Kingdom of Heaven and the Way of righteousness that is Christ, taking the often repeated Bible verses that get thrown around so frequently in judgment and seriously considering what it would look like to live by them? And then doing so obediently? When confronted with things that ought not to be, I believe the appropriate response is to be a helper, and always ensure that your help is coming from a place of love and not from judgment.
To quote the over-quoted and often misunderstood Mohandas Ghandi, “be the change you want to see in the world.” This is what I think that looks like.
Postscript: Even writing this now, I’m not content and complacent with the opinions presented here. Sometimes I feel like I disagree with myself. My intent is to start a thoughtful discussion.