In my previous post, I mentioned that the gospel is essentially a criticism against us and a hope for us. It is a criticism against us because it exposes our failures and imperfections, and it is a hope for us because it offers us a way out of our total inadequacy. Recognizing that criticism is a sanctifying grace from God will change the way we respond to criticism, right or wrong.
But criticism isn’t always something that happens to us; it is also something we do to others, or should be. That’s right: we need to be criticizing each other.
Now before I go on, let me qualify what I mean by “criticize.” We tend to think of criticism in strictly negative terms, as a harsh or severe judgment against us. But criticism can be positive too, and doesn’t always have to be so “heavy.” The reason criticism seems so heavy to us is because we have created a culture that avoids “judging” and evaluation on a personal level. We expect criticism in D.C., in Hollywood, and on Wall Street. On a professional level, we get criticism—it makes sense to us.
But when it comes to having our personal life objectively evaluated by another person and found wanting, it’s a different matter altogether. We get really defensive, really fast. That’s because we have made our personal habits and practices “off-limits” to others. Sure, we invite people into our lives as friends, but too often we keep them at arms-length so that they cannot really get to know us, because if they did, they might have a problem with what they find. Like Adam and Eve, we hide from those who really know what’s going on in our hearts. It’s just easier this way.
This is where the gospel and community come together so clearly. The gospel serves to build community, both by inviting us into God’s family, and then by continually pushing us toward hope in Jesus. Christian community reflects the gospel in that it too is fundamentally critical and hope-giving. We like the hope-giving part; we tend not to like the critical part so much.
But think about it. If God intends to make us more like Jesus, then he will not stop until the job is done. And until the job is done, he will chip away at our egos and idols, and replace them with confidence in Jesus. But he doesn’t do this with a lightening bolt or magic wand; he does this through community, a community built by his Spirit and his Word, a “critical” community.
Criticism should be a regular part of our interaction with one another as a church. It will not always be heavy and severe. Sometimes it will be a gentle word of rebuke, or a good push in the right direction. And sometimes it will be a severe warning, or a devastating blow to our pride. Nevertheless, criticism is necessary for sanctification and fruitfulness. We need to have others telling us how we’re doing. It’s just better this way.
Avoiding criticism is why church-communities never really solidify, or end up unraveling. You can never build good community if people aren’t willing to be completely and aggressively honest with one another, and you can’t hold community together if you’re overlooking sin and immaturity for the sake of “peace.” Sure, criticism tends to be a downer; it has a way of making smiles disappear. But the goal of criticism is to strengthen faith and hope in Christ—it leads to real peace.
So if you want to be in community, expect criticism, and don’t withhold it from those who need it. We need to be honest with each other. It’s the only way we’re going to mature and become the kind of disciples Jesus calls us to be.