The Kindness of Constructive Criticism: How Input from Others Can Rescue You from Reckless Words

As a writer, I seek input from others on my writing and take it seriously. I hate having a book published and only then learning some of what I said was inaccurate, misleading, unfair, or confusing. Those who I invite to criticize my writing before it’s published thereby do me the greatest possible service. Among other things they help me have less to be held accountable for at the judgment seat of our gracious and holy King, who said to His disciples, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).

Jesus reminds us we should choose our words with care. After all, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Our words are so powerful they can make the dying live or make the living die. “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18a). Social media and people’s comments on it demonstrate this graphically. Tragically, some no longer attend church because they have been so deeply hurt by church members’ posts online, concerning secondary things such as political candidates, COVID, masks, and vaccinations.

Words That Heal and Help

Fortunately, the first half of Proverbs 12:18 about reckless words piercing like a sword is followed by the second: “…but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Words in private conversation, spoken in a sermon, and even on social media, can heal instead of wound. And with all the wounding going on in churches right now, this has never been more needed! In contrast to hurtful or careless words, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

Some reckless, wounding, and misleading words are deliberate, but others are not by design, and can be prevented if we bounce our words off others first. I am sometimes blind to my misspoken words, which is why each and every time I write something for a public audience, not only in books but also articles and blogs, I call on editors. Most often my editor is Stephanie Anderson, frequently also Doreen Button, and Kathy Norquist has often edited and critiqued in the past. When it’s a book, I get editing help from multiple people before the publisher’s editor ever sees it. Then they help me more to get it right and see what I and the other editors didn’t.

Every edit is a criticism because it is saying, “Your words aren’t as correct, or clear or helpful or concise as they could be—here’s what I would say instead.” Some writers resent this, and if they do, they will never become good writers or for that matter, good thinkers. When I look over someone’s edits, usually in red via “track changes” in Microsoft Word, about 70% of the time my immediate response is, “They’re right; I’ll change that to what they proposed.” I press “accept changes.” And 20% of the time it’s “They’re right that it needs to be changed, but I’d prefer to change it differently than they proposed.” Even then their criticism has helped me immensely to improve the words, even when I choose different ones. Iron sharpens iron.

The remaining 10% of the time (roughly), I say, “I think it’s better as I wrote it, so I won’t change it.” But the fact is, while what I write that’s published still has flaws, it’s far better because I have listened to critics whose goal is to help me. I am deeply thankful for them. Being a writer, or a writer who solicits such criticism, has helped me immensely to grow in my ability to handle all sorts of criticism, not just of writing and speaking but in all areas of my life. (As I’m reading an otherwise good book, I often bump into sentences and whole paragraphs where I think, “Did no one edit this? Or did someone try but the writer refused to heed the criticism?”)

The Best Way to Prevent Valid Criticism

If you can’t handle criticism, you shouldn’t write or speak or preach. If you resent and resist critical input, that exposes a character flaw in you. If you fail to seek such input, it reveals a lack of wisdom.  The best way to prevent valid criticisms after you publish—not just a book or article but a blog or anything you intend for public consumption—is to get good input and editing before you publish.

Likewise, the best way to prevent valid criticism after you teach or preach is to show your manuscript or notes to someone before and present it or at least talk it through with them and genuinely ask for their criticism. Don’t resist it. Listen to it and take it seriously. Don’t wait until you preach to find out you mishandled the text, didn’t interpret properly, or were unnecessarily critical—or even that the passing joke you made could hurt someone’s feelings, maybe a spouse or child or your fellow pastors or church members.

In fact, most of the unloving, divisive, and unfair words that I’ve seen on Facebook, blogs, and other online posts could have easily been prevented if people would delay that post one day and have one or two people read it over and give their inputs and edits before others see it.

One of the worst aspects of online technology is its immediacy. Forty-five years ago as a young pastor, I felt very hurt by someone and wrote them an angry letter. I put the letter in an envelope, addressed it, stamped it and put it in our mailbox. Several hours later I was convicted by the Holy Spirit that I’d done the wrong thing and spoken careless words that dishonored Christ and could be hurtful to the person I wrote to. I immediately ran out our front door to the mail box, and was relieved to find the letter hadn’t been picked up. I destroyed it. I don’t remember who I wrote it to or why. Whatever pain I had is long past. But had that letter been sent, to this day I suspect I would have hurt someone in a way that they might still remember over forty years later. Had it been only five or ten years later, I would likely have emailed the person immediately. In this modern era, this is all the more reason to stop ourselves, be  slow to speak” and “slow to anger,” and perhaps  go to a trusted friend and ask, “Should I send this email/post this blog? How would you recommend I change it?”

When you ask for an edit, don’t primarily seek input from people who think just like you do. If they share your same irritations at the world and the church, they probably share some of your blindness to other viewpoints. Hence, they may not criticize or edit you in the ways you most need it.

Seek input from people who don’t always share your same passions or hobbyhorses. If you get that input and revise what you first wrote, you will be heeding the words of Scripture, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV).

Don’t post impulsively or when you’re angry. Don’t trust your ability to accurately assess someone else’s words and actions. Don’t overestimate your ability to, on your own and without critical input, speak the truth in love. Seek the help of others to point out where what you’re saying isn’t true or isn’t loving.

The same applies to believers posting all those snarky comments on others’ posts that they may imagine are witty and courageous, when in fact they are mean and cowardly. While you are dropping Bible verses like bombs, you would do better to memorize and practice James 1:19, and repent in light of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:36 about our culpability for every careless word.

Recognizing our accountability to God, may we pray with the psalmist, “LORD, set up a guard for my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries