I retrieved my paper, convinced the grade would be good. I’d done my best, after all. I’d poured over the text and squeezed it dry. I just knew I’d found everything there that could be found, and surely my professor would see that as well.
I looked at the paper, listened to the professor, and almost teared up. It wasn’t that I’d done horribly. In fact, I’d done decently well. But, there was no fantastic rating. And what was that he was saying? No! He was telling us that we could find more! More? Really? What more is there?
The class was Biblical Interpretation, and the professor’s goal was to teach us to truly dig into Scripture. I never ceased to be amazed at how many facts and truths I had always missed in some of the most familiar passages. Dr. Hays knew. And he knew that we were capable of finding those truths. So, he continued to push us. But there were days when the grading of my efforts was just plain discouraging. I felt criticized and just knew that my efforts were not being appropriately appreciated.
I learned a lot about digging into Scripture that semester. But I also learned something else. I learned that my best right now is not meant to be my best tomorrow as well. And one of the best ways to improve on my best is to receive constructive criticism for it today.
If I am honest, I will tell you that I hate criticism. I want to be liked. I want to be encouraged. I want what I do to be seen as good. And there are many times when hearing, "Well done!" without any criticism or evaluation is just what I need. But if I am never encouraged to improve, I never will. Today’s best will always be the best there is. As I contemplate the various "bests" I have put forth in my life, I realize just how thankful I am that my first best was not allowed to stand.
If my first best as a ninth grader had been allowed to stand, I would not be writing today. My mom bled my written assignments profusely, taking what I thought was my best effort and pointing out all of the ways it could be so much better. Not until my senior year of high school did I turn in a paper that was returned to me without a single red mark. But even now, nearly two decades later, I still have not achieved my writing best. I want people to like my writing. But, I know I still have much room to grow.
Recently I wrote a book review that was not well received by the author. His response was to inform me that I needed to "Grow up!" At first I was angry. I wanted to spout back at him and point out all of the ways his response to my review was flawed. But then I calmed down and remembered that he’s right. I do need to grow up. I need to learn more and more to take criticism, whether warranted or not, and apply it to my own personal growth.
But there is a problem with the criticism we as believers receive. Far too often, it resembles the criticism of that author rather than the criticism of Dr. Hays or my mother. The latter two offered me constructive criticism in love. They really did want me to learn. They wanted my best. The author, however, cared little about me. And rightfully so. He didn’t know me as anything more than the writer of his most negative review. His criticism was meant to counteract my criticism so people would buy his book.
Where does most of the criticism come from in your life? In your family? In your church? Does it truly come from those who love you and want your best? Or does it come from those who don’t know you? Those who only seek to improve their own situation?
And what about the criticism you hand out? Are you willing to be constructively critical of those you love? Or do you reserve all of your criticism for perfect strangers for whom you have no personal concern?
I would encourage you in two ways today. First, I would encourage you to learn to receive criticism. It’s hard, I know. It never feels good, no matter how constructive it is. And, it’s easy to snap back and take a defensive stance. But, may I encourage you to stop before you respond, pray about what God might be showing you through the criticism (regardless the source!), and see how it might grow you. The more you are willing to receive criticism from those you love, the more you will grow in your relationship with them and in your own spiritual life.
Secondly, I encourage you to prayerfully hand out constructive criticism to those you love. It’s such a delicate thing, and it must be handled with so much fervent prayer. But, if we are not the ones to constructively criticize one another, then the criticism will come from the outside instead. People who don’t care a bit about our loved ones will beat them down with unloving remarks. How much better for us as the family of God to strengthen, train up, and grow one another!
I’m thankful for the things I’ve learned and the criticism I’ve received as my writing opportunities have grown. But I’m even more thankful for people who love me enough to prod me to grow.