I remember the first time I sat down with my pastoral mentor, David Prince, to hear critical feedback after preaching a sermon. I had no idea what to expect. The only feedback I had ever received up to that point in my life was the inflated encouragements of well-meaning elderly church members. If I measured my giftedness based on those kind remarks, then I was the next Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Pastor David was always gracious, but he was also honest. He would generally begin positively by noting the strengths of my sermon, which had the effect increasing my confidence. No matter what criticism was coming my way, I knew that God had called me to do this. The raw materials were there; I just needed to learn how to use them.
But then, he would tell me, as directly and as honestly as he could, what was wrong with my sermon. “Your opening illustration was a stretch.” “You need to concretize application more.” “Your transitions were rough.” “This was the worst sermon I’ve ever heard you preach.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve now come to see that the honest feedback I was receiving is a rare occurrence in contemporary culture.
Consider this article that elaborates on the findings of a recent study that concluded, “Instructors who tend to give out easier subjective grades…dramatically hurt subsequent student performance.” The author then gives evidence to support this conclusion: “The amount of time college students have spent on academic work has gone from 40 hours per week in 1961, to 27 in 2003, to less than 15 hours in 2008. During that time, the average grade has risen in both public and private universities, while national SAT scores continue to decline. Today’s graduates are not smarter or more prepared for their future, but at least they think they are.”
What is going on here? It would be impossible here to detail the historical factors involved in this transition, but Carl Trueman has recently devoted an entire volume to it. In short, we have transitioned from a society that seeks human happiness by directing the self outwardly toward some objective standard of life purpose to a society that seeks happiness inwardly by trying to achieve psychological well-being. In other words, success in life is now totally subjectivized, measured by how one feels at any given moment. Self-esteem has usurped objective standards. How you feel is more important than what is actually real.
It makes sense, under the prevailing notions of selfhood and human flourishing, to do away with criticism altogether. No one feels good after it. Even today when I’m fully convinced that I need criticism for my own growth, it is still difficult to endure. I don’t exactly feel good after a good critique. A couple of years ago, I worked harder than I had ever worked before on a research paper for my first PhD seminar under my supervisor, Dr. John Wilsey. It took me thirty minutes to deliver the paper. It took Dr. Wilsey one hour to critique it. I left wondering whether or not I was in the right degree program.
Psychological discomfort aside, what do we lose when people quit being honest with one another? Quite frankly, we lose a lot. We lose motivation to improve. We lose objective standards by which to measure excellence and to distinguish work that is good from work that is bad. We lose integrity, because truth gets replaced by an all-out effort to preserve self-esteem. We end up lying to one another.
Whenever I’m critiqued constructively, the emotional turmoil eventually gives way to determination to improve. It may take a night to sleep on it, but a new perspective usually sets in and I discover a God-given drive to get better.
That’s not just me. We were created with that drive. We were created to image God by taking dominion over the earth that he created. However much that image has been marred by sin, it has not been completely surrendered. In fact, Christ, the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15), completely restores God’s image in his people (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:9-10).
I recently tried something with my 11-year-old travel baseball team. As other coaches led drills, I devoted a whole practice to meeting with each player one-on-one. My goal was to be completely honest with each player on how they needed to improve. Like my pastoring mentor, I began by noting each player’s strengths, but I did not sugar coat my criticisms. I was as honest I could possibly be about attitudes that needed to improve, skills that needed refinement, and effort deficiencies that I observed.
What was the result? Team-wide improvement. We won the next two tournaments. In fact, we haven’t lost a game since. That won’t last. We will lose. But I’ve seen these 11-year-olds respond to honest criticism by striving collectively to get better. Our world needs more of that.