A requirement of my Doctoral program was a weekly Church Leadership class, for which we read a book per week, and wrote a one-page reflection.
I’ll never forget the first book. None of us like it, much, and said so in our reflections. I don’t know why we thought criticizing the book was a good idea, since the Dean was the teacher and the one who assigned the book! Obviously, HE like it.
I’ll also never forget his reaction to our reflections. He said, more or less, “Your assignment was NOT to critique the book. Your assignment was NOT to focus on the faults and failings of the author’s ideas. Your assignment was to LEARN about leadership. You can always learn SOMETHING, whether you like a book, assignment, class, etc., or not. In my class, I don’t want to see another critique. I want to know what you learned.”
That’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and I strive to remember it every day. By critiquing the book, I wasn’t learning anything. I was evaluating the book based on what I thought I already knew about leadership, supposing I already knew more than the book had to teach me. But, the point of the assignment was to learn.
How often do we miss valuable life-lessons because we’re judging, measuring, evaluating, or critiquing? What arrogance! What a loss!
I, like you, am constantly presented with opportunities to be the critic or evaluator. But, what good does that do for me, or anyone else? Instead, why not seek and affirm the good?
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
It would be wrong for me to suggest Paul is saying something he isn’t. But, when I read this passage, I sense Paul is saying, “Look for the good, even when it’s less than perfect. Affirm the good. Celebrate the good. Focus on the good, wherever you find it.”
Let’s be honest, consistent perfection is an impossible goal to achieve, especially when you consider how opinionated, biased, and subjective we are. What might be perfect to you, may seem deeply flawed to me (and, of course, I would be right!).
If perfection is a score of 100%, when I was in school 90% and above was an A, 80% and above was a B, 70% and above was a C, 60% and above was a D, and anything below 60% was failing. C was considered average. Think about that. Average: normal, typical, to be expected. C grades – 30% less than perfect, is the norm! Of course, everyone wanted As and Bs. But, notice, you could still get an A or B without being perfect. And, Cs still got degrees!
There’s an old joke about pastors, and other professions too, I suppose. ” Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight As in seminary? Pastor. Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight Cs in seminary? Pastor.”
And, on a ten-point grading scale, even a failing grade potentially gets more right than wrong! I still remember Mr. Pfingstag’s Algebra II class in High School. On many occasions, the entire class failed his tests. As he returned our graded tests, he would say, “Here’s a good E!”, meaning “This is one of the higher Es.” Though, I don’t recall a “Good E” ever being much of a compliment or consolation! It was still a failing grade!
My point? Perfection is impossible. But, better than average happens all of the time. Most things – not all, most – are more good than bad. Rarely is something 100% perfect, or 100% flawed. A half-empty glass is still better than an empty one!
Never forget the timeless wisdom of Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” I have a particular dislike for coconut, for instance, which I inevitably choose. But, while my single coconut-filled chocolate may be disgusting to me, it might be someone else’s favorite, and is certainly not a reflection on the rest of the chocolates in the box (especially the chocolate-covered cherries!).
When we’re critical, we’re often ignoring much that is still good and valuable, focusing on the small percentage of little things we dislike or disagree with, blinding ourselves to what is helpful, positive or informative.
If I’m honest, a critical spirit comes naturally to me. I seem predisposed to it. I ALWAYS see things I’d like to change, improve, or fix – according to my personal standards, of course. The upside, I suppose, of seeing what can be improved, is to actually make improvements, not just critical judgements; like when Jesus suggested removing the log in your own eye, so that you’ll be able to assist the one who has a teeny speck in their’s. The downside is, critics can be JERKS. Even “constructive” criticism is still criticism, and no one really wants to hear it! I really don’t want to be a jerk…
So, here’s my suggestion. When something or someone falls short of your impossibly high standards, consider the following…
- The benefit of the doubt: Maybe you misunderstood. Maybe there’s more to the story. Maybe you missed something. Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, you haven’t considered. Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe you just happened to get the chocolate-covered coconut.
- Celebrate the Good: Focus on the 50%, or more, that’s right and good, instead of what you found objectionable.
- Acceptance: Life ain’t perfect – like a box of chocolates. We can always strive to offer our best, fix what’s broken, and improve what needs improvement. But, life, even at it’s best, is a mixture of good and bad, better and worse, desirable and distasteful. Accept it all as reality, and look for the good wherever you find it.
- Humility: Are you really so perfect? Never burnt a meal? Never bombed a test in Mr. Pfingstag’s class? Never misunderstood something? Never said something you wish you could take back? Never taken half-measures? Never spilled your milk? Never changed your mind?
- Receptivity: Don’t slam your heart and mind shut at the first sight or smell of offense (or coconut). Before passing judgement, force yourself to remain open. Maybe what offended you, at first, won’t seem so significant in light of the whole.
Last Sunday, as I greeted members at the door, following the 11:00 am service, someone said, “That sermon wasn’t progressive at all!!!” She seemed so surprised! In a particular sermon, almost a year ago, as I was naming various labels or “boxes,” that might be applied to me, I said, “On some issues, I’m progressive. On others, I’ve very traditional.” All this person heard and remembered was two words, “I’m progressive.” Two words have defined and colored every sermon she’s heard me preach for over two years. I responded, “That’s really not unusual. Most of my sermons are actually pretty traditional.” She just shook her head, saying, “You confuse me.”
The problem, of course, is that words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “Independent,” “Socialist,” “Christian,” “Gay, “Straight,” “black,” “white,” etc. are so emotionally charged, we immediately jump to conclusions when the word is used, without evaluating the whole. Yes, I am “progressive” on some issues, and not on others. No single word defines me!
Again, we’re so quick to judge, critique and evaluate. I can’t help but wonder how much this particular person has misunderstood or misinterpreted my sermons, because she’s been critiquing me through the assumption that EVERYTHING I’ve said is “progressive.” That’s inaccurate, unfair, and potentially a loss of helpful spiritual insight and teaching to her.
My advice – look for the good.