Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Everyone is a Critic
A member of a former church once challenged me about not using the word "repent" often enough in teachings and sermons.
As a pastor, when I get a sharp, direct critique, several things happen inside me. There's a bit of worry and fear... "Are they right? Did I mess up?" There's also a bit of defensiveness and anger... "How convenient. They don't have to risk saying anything, but get to complain when they hear me say something they don't like."
Both of those internal reactions are simultaneously dangerous and necessary.
Without the first reaction, I might dismiss legitimate critique and feedback. Someone who loves me and wants what's best for God's coming kingdom might be trying to show me something I have not seen. I need a part of me to stay open to critique, curious, willing to wonder if they might be right.
Without the second reaction, I might be so open to any opinion or critique that I would spend all my energy and words trying to keep people happy, satisfied. I need a part of me to stay confident and grounded enough to speak hard truths in love, even if someone may not want to hear it.
Ephesians 4 says it this way:
"14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ."
Our role as imperfect preachers or budding disciples is to mature. We must discern together what to let in so it changes us, and what to resist so it doesn't. We should not allow ourselves to be tossed around, to and fro, by every new fad or fashionable shift in culture, religion, or politics. Nor should we allow any critique or opinion to keep us from radically loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor. If however, someone speaks a difficult truth to us that may require some reflection and change, some repentance, then I pray we would take it in and grow from it. Our goal is neither to be perfect nor to be right. Our goal is to become more like the one who already is, the head of the church, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.
I asked that member to tell me more, more of what he meant by repentance, more of why this word was so important to him. In his earlier years, he had made some mistakes and bad choices. There came a point in his life that seemed like the end. He remembered his decision to repent at that critical point. Things began to shift for the better in his spirit, relationships, and career. For him, his repentance saved him. He wanted me to tell others about the saving power of repentance, so they too might be saved by their own repentance.
I appreciated his story and experience. Yes, repentance is critical, and I tried to let his critique soak in enough to remind me of the power of listening for God and saying Yes to God. God teaches us... to truly find our new life, one that is whole, complete, and full we must lose or lay down our old life, our former habits, preferences, and traditions... in other words, repent.
I also had to resist his critique. While his decision to repent was important, it was not his choice to repent that saved him. God saves. We cannot save ourselves with our words, thoughts, beliefs, actions, or repentance. God is the only one who saves. God's grace pulled him to the point of repentance, pulled him into and through the turning of his life, and pushed him forward in the new healthier direction. It was always, only God.
Do you have feelings of shame or guilt, anger or defensiveness? Perhaps someone critiqued your words or actions, or you reflected on your own words and actions and worry you made a mistake. Think of it all as small pebbles. In prayer, imagine holding out your left hand, open, palm up. In that open left hand are all the small pebbles that have led you to feel shame and guilt. At the same time, imagine holding out your right hand, open, palm up, and see in that hand all the small pebbles that sparked feelings of defensiveness and anger. Hold them out in front of you, before God. Feel how cold and heavy they are in both hands.
Now, ask God to pull away from both hands anything that will not help you grow, mature toward Christ. In prayer, feels God's presence approach you, closer and closer. Feel God brush pebble after pebble out of your left hand, then your right. Feel how much lighter each had in getting as God tells you, "No, this one is not true. This one is not your fault. This one is not important."
As the prayer ends, you might sense a few little ones still resting in both hands. In your left hand, without any shame or guilt, there are just a few precious nuggets of wisdom meant to help you grow. In the other hand, without any impulse to be defensive or angry, there are just a few small polished stones of truth you can keep and rely on going forward.
May this season of Lent open us all to ways we can grow, and ground us more securely on the solid rock of the God we know in Christ.