During the last year of my undergrad education, I wrote a letter to the President of my Christian university. I remember at the time feeling a sense of righteous indignation and thought it was my duty to call the administration out on the lack of “authenticity” in our chapel services.
I used phrases like “Hollywood performances,” “very rehearsed,” “generation of marketing,” “exaggerated music leaders,” and the like.
You get the picture.
At the time, I remember this feeling of justice that went along with the letter, as if I should have been commended for speaking up. Pulling it up today puts me to shame. Back then, I masked my criticism with “authenticity” and “transparency.” But instead of revealing my university’s weaknesses, I ended up exposing my own pride and judgmental spirit.
Today, I’ve experienced leadership in the church. It’s hard to lead. It’s hard to create. It’s hard to stick your neck out and dream up a new way of doing things or seeing things. You risk failure and criticism and envy. And that experience has made me understand that it’s super easy to criticize and it’s extremely hard to lead.
There’s certainly a time and place to point out problems. Even (and sometimes especially) in Christian institutions, we need to be aware of problems and willing to change things we’re doing wrong. But the truth is, we live in a generation that is eager to criticize. We have incredibly high standards, whether it’s for churches, movies, books, people or goods and services.
Louis C.K. puts it perfectly in his standup gig about cell phones:
“We are the worst people,” he says. “Because we have this beautiful thing, and we hate it.” He goes on to talk about how no one ever boasts about what their phone can do, they just complain if it takes a long time to make a call or connect to the Internet.
This is when he exclaims, “It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?”
It’s a funny example, but it speaks to something larger: Instead of seeing the awe in things, we see flaws.
There’s No Pleasing Everyone
But this is nothing new. In the book of Matthew, Jesus points out something similar.
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt. 11:18-19).
Jesus’ cousin and predecessor had laser-like focus and completely separated himself from civilization to throw himself into his calling. Did people appreciate it? Nope. They mocked him.
Jesus took another approach: He ate and drank and traveled from town to town, home to home. Did this different approach please the critics? Nope. People called Jesus Christ a glutton and drunkard.
No one is safe from the human ability to criticize.
The Right to Criticize
But let’s be honest. There’s a lot of stuff worth criticizing in this world. Jesus criticized the religious establishment of His day. He called religious leaders children of hell. Why? Because they were doing something worth criticizing. And He had every right, not just because of His divine status, but because He lived and died changing the thing He criticized.
Criticism is an expression of disapproval. And it can be a tool for change. The key is knowing how and when to criticize.
Abraham Lincoln, who was well acquainted with being the target of criticism, said “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.”
In the same spirit, Louis C.K. challenges critics as well.
“Hate Verizon? Then make your own then. Make your own network. Get some hubcaps and climb some trees. See how close yours [is] to perfect. Why would it be perfect? It is as good as it is. Why do we expect it to be freaking perfect all the freaking time? We are not contributing. We are not helping it to be perfect. We don’t even know what it is that’s involved.”
In response to my own criticism about chapel services, a tactful response from my university president has stayed with me ever since:
“It is regrettable that you cannot find ‘an authentic experience with God’ in a context in which others are leading in a way that you are not.”
More Than Just Criticism
See, Lincoln and Louis and my university president are right. Criticism alone is distasteful at best. It’s lazy. It’s an easy way to make you feel better about your own life.
But criticism tethered to a helpful heart is how the world is changed.
Maybe you see how much potential that person, thing, event, organization or relationship has. You feel it. And while it may be tempting to give up and resort to a resigned criticism, don’t. Take those words, energy, thoughts and emotion and channel it somewhere productive.
Your dissatisfaction can spur you to isolate yourself from the world instead of improving it. It can spur you on to overcoming obstacles or leave you with unloving eyes as everyone else passes you by.
Critique the world. Challenge the status quo. Hold people to a higher standard. But don’t stop there. Have a heart to help.