In a post on his website, Mark Dever gives five very helpful tips on how to give criticism in a way that both honors God and is easy to receive. As someone who often needs to encourage others through constructive criticism, and who has been on the receiving end of both helpful and painful attempts at the same, I found these simple principles very easy to understand and on the mark. Here are his suggestions.
The Five Points of Criticism
by Mark Dever
In our own service reviews, we talk about trying to model giving godly criticism and receiving godly criticism, giving godly encouragement and receiving godly encouragement. Because of some of my own mistakes, and reflections on them, I offer the following suggestions on how to give godly criticism.
Proverbs 26:27 says “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” I think that Christians, and especially pastors, should have words which reflect hearts of wisdom and love toward those we speak to. And it’s in reference to those obligations and opportunities we have (and out of my own mistakes in doing this well!) that I offer the five points of criticism. Here are several ideas on HOW criticism is best offered:
1. Directly, not indirectly. If you’re anything like me, you might have a temptation to imply something, to presume something, to do anything to avoid a direct confrontation. Be very careful, however, before adopting this pattern, especially in criticism. If you’re not careful, you’ll have people regularly looking at your words and asking themselves what you “really mean.”
2. Seriously, not humorously. Again, I might want to give some piece of advice through a humorous aside, but I probably am giving criticism this way because of my own fear of man. I want them to like me, and so I don’t want to directly confront them. I want to be able to dismiss my own words if their cost proves higher to me than I had estimated. And humor can appear to be a useful vehicle for this. I can disown the words I’ve spoken, explaining them merely as humor if they’re not received well. I should know better. I should know that if something is worth correcting, I should show respect to the other person by taking it seriously. I should never joke about something I’m really concerned about in someone else, without first having spoken seriously to them about it.
3. As if it’s important, not casually. Similar to the previous point, but distinct, is the idea that the other person deserves me to give a certain level of importance to the issue, or I probably shouldn’t be offering them correction at all. Eleazar Savage has a wise section (pp. 487-490) in the book of books (Polity) on minor offenses that we as Christians should simply bear with in each other. Don’t use up the other person’s emotional energy on criticizing them if the matter isn’t really very significant.
4. Privately, not publicly. A remark around other people could have negative effects on other people’s opinion of the one you are offering criticism to. You probably won’t have the opportunity to follow up with all of them about the nature and reasons of your criticism. Your friend will probably only struggle more with fear of man issues, having those confused with the merits of the criticism you have offered. Now your friend may well be left open to the Evil One tempting him to be distracted by what this or that person will think of him. You honor your friend better by offering the criticism in private.
5. Out of love for them, not to express your feeling or frustration. It’s interesting how my “honesty” can sometimes be inspired by my own frustration. Good criticism should not be “my frustration”-driven, but “your need” driven. If I ever offer a friend criticism it should be in the time and manner that will best serve them, not that is most convenient and emotionally satisfying for me. One way we show that love is by sincerly encouraging them (not flattering them) in areas where God’s grace is clear in our friend’s life. The more they can believe that we mean this for their good, that we love them, and see real good in them, the less open they are to pridefully dismissing our criticism.
I hope you find those as helpful as I do. And I pray God will bless our efforts to give (and receive!) criticism in a way that honors Him.