I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps I’m just contrary (or maybe just the devil). I was delighted to discover that my differing nature was a genetic gift. Hey, it’s not my fault!
Look at this tombstone of my grandfather’s brother. Do you notice anything strange about it?
My great uncle (I think that’s what he would be called) hated conformity. All the tombstones in his cemetery faced the road. To revel in a life of difference, he willed that his tombstone face perpendicular to every other stone in the cemetery. Even in death he celebrated his difference.
Apparently, the town council was furious at this desecration, so they outlawed the practice going forward. The irony, of course, is that the new law meant his differences would live forever. Every tombstone in the cemetery—before and after—faces the road. Except his.
Which is exactly what he wanted in the first place.
But perhaps my father was the oddest man I ever knew
Oh, my dad was normal in many ways. He married a wonderful woman, pastored five great churches, and raised five terrific kids. (Five out of six isn’t bad.)
My father was different in a different way. He didn’t mind criticism. In fact, he invited it.
Every Sunday after church, at our midday meal, my father asked us what we thought of his sermon. And he wasn’t happy with a “Nice job.” He didn’t want to know what he did right. He wanted to know what he did wrong. He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:
- “I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain Predestination well;”
- “I wonder if your second point should have been first, and your first point second;”
- “I think the best part was your final, ‘Amen;’”
- And even, “It was too long” (though he was less fond of that common complaint).
The discussions were partly intended to make sure we listened to his sermons. But they were more. He genuinely wanted to hear our opinions. Especially when we disagreed.
How many people do you know who invite genuine criticism? I have known very few.
Because there’s a tension
A simple “pat on the back” often feels false. Something in us wants to know the truth so we can improve. But we also fear the truth. We reject it when we hear it. Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM studios) expressed this tension best when he said,
I don’t want to be surrounded by “Yes men.” I want people who’ll disagree with me. Even if it costs them their jobs.
And there you have it. We don’t want plastic companions; but honest evaluation has killed many friendships. We prefer false comfort to real relationships. But it’s lukewarm soda pop.
The military method
A friend of mine once told me what the military taught him. When an important topic was discussed, the most junior person gave the first opinion, and then on up the ranks, and the most senior person spoke last.
That way minions didn’t contradict masters and Lieutenants didn’t humiliate Lieutenant Colonels. It assumed scared subordinates and domineering leaders. But it’s not a bad practice. It’s a reasonable way to get real opinions from smart subordinates instead of mindless, “Yes Sirs.”
But it doesn’t eliminate the brown-nosing that occurs when our environment discourages realness. It’s a jury-rigged solution.
The sandwich solution
This solution hides the “meat” between two pieces of Wonder Bread. We say, “I really like the strength of your convictions, but I think your leadership style is occasionally overbearing, and I hope you can teach me to articulate my opinions so clearly.”
The idea is to soften our assessment with positive reinforcement, to bookend the critique with compliments. This is probably the most gracious way to offer constructive criticism. It means negativity is not our goal; we are mostly after something good.
But my father wanted unvarnished truth. His insistence on realness had a quality that most of us desperately need in our lives: compliments that mean something.
When we said a sermon was great—any many of them were—he knew we meant it. It wasn’t a verbal bribe to take us to Baskin Robbins. It too was unvarnished truth. Truth without haggling.
What was my old man’s core strangeness?
My father possessed a humble confidence. His genuine humility created an atmosphere in which we could offer real criticism. But he had an unshakeable confidence (well, almost unshakeable); he wasn’t afraid of hurt feelings—and believe me, we did hurt his feelings.
His confidence didn’t protect him from hurt feelings, but neither did it bludgeon others into silence. His confidence overwhelmed insults, but it didn’t insulate him from them. And his humility attracted people to him, but it wasn’t a humility that made us croon, “Poor baby.”
He was the quickest of men to point out his own foibles—and there were plenty!—and the slowest of men to be insulted by criticism. How could he do that?
My dad’s confidence came from the death of pride. He really didn’t mind being wrong. It was his humility (quick to admit his errors, or be told of them) that gave him confidence; unlike the world where pride—“never admit your mistakes”—is the source of confidence.
My old man let his old man die—along with its insults and hurt feelings. He really was humbly confident and therefore confidently humble.
In short, my dad planted his tombstone perpendicular to the rest of the world.
[reminder]I’d love to hear your stories, ideas, and experiences of learning to be real. [/reminder]
Made me think about how often I just want people to agree with me and we all get along instead of trying to grow.
Hi Nicol the Pickle,
I hope you’re not offended or insulted or bothered, but … I agree with you! That is, me too.
One of your “best” posts. It gets to the heart of the problem that many of us have; pride. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” We do want the compliments and the praise rather than the critique. Part of the problem that is rarely addressed is that of “constructive” criticism. Most people are unable to perform that task effectively, and even when they try, we read into it too much because of our “pride.” This post makes me think on both sides of the issue.
Thanks. Yup, it’s both hard to give and receive constructive criticism.
For me, at least, I think I want to create an environment that allows others to constructively criticize me. I bet–and it’s just a bet–that once that environment is created, direct (and gracious) comments can flow both ways.
But I think it begins with me accepting that I make LOTS of mistakes and I’m wrong LOTS of the time. Then I won’t be surprised if someone else sees it too.
In the end, humility alone creates the best confidence.
Once again, you are correct about humility being so very critical in our lives. In 2 Chron. 7:14, God lays out the 4 things required for His people to do to get back on track with Him. The very first thing He requires is “humility,” and I believe there is a reason for that. Humility is only difficult because we have a tendency to make “relative measures” of ourselves with others. If we would use our Holy God as the absolute measure, humility would be much easier for us.
One thing that I’very learned about being real is that it’s a dialogue, not a speech. I’ve tried being real through e-mails and letters and it always ends very badly. You highlight here the importance of humility, which is such an important reminder, and I guess that has to go both ways. If you’re gonna dish it out, I guess you better be ready to get some back, right? Oh, and your Dad left you an amazing heritage – bravo Mr. Williamson.
Yeah, in this case, maybe it’s better to receive than to give (criticism that is).
My Dad was really a great man. I didn’t deserve him. Of course, I was a handful to parent, and there were probably times he thought he didn’t deserve me!
I really appreciate this attribute of your father and will be thinking about how I can better reflect the Lord in humility with confidence. I had the privilege of sitting at his table a time or two when invited by Sarah to his home. He was a man that one does not forget after meeting him. He carried authority but with tenderness and always a twinkle in his eyes. His sermon at his grandson’s funeral was also a moment of beautiful, heartfelt honesty. Thanks for your sharing.
Great to hear from you, and thanks for those great comments about my dad.
He really did have something special in the area of humility. I can’t remember how many times we kids (as we got older) told him how to parent, husband, and pastor a church. You’d have thought he was an infant in diapers. But he always graciously and seriously considered what we offered.
Even though we were idiots!
What a great dad to have!
Yes, your Dad was a man who planted his tombstone perpendicular to the rest of the world and I loved him for that, although not everyone did. He made a great influence on my life and for that I am very thankful. I won’t tell the rest of the world how much you are like him!!
I love to read well thought out blog posts, like yours Sam, but I have a hard time reading some of the comments when they become sermonettes rather than personal admissions, thoughts, ideas or dialogue. I learned in groups to use the I statement rather than the you ought, we ought, or “bible verse bombs” (my own words). I really admire your fathers humble approach and think I could learn a lot from him. I want to grow, not snow. Thanks for the – right between the eyes – honesty.
Love your phrase, “Bible verse bombs,” I may use it someday (hopefully I’ll attribute it to you!).
For the most part, I want to give a pretty free rein to those who comment on my articles. I don’t mind if they speak their opinion in response to my opinion. In fact–as this article says my dad did–I really want to encourage it.
I would like this blog to have an environment in which each reader can comment freely, truthfully, and even in direct contradiction of me. Maybe ESPECIALLY in direct contradiction of me.
I have only deleted three of four comments (out of three or four thousand comments). They were either nasty or too long.
But I agree with you that personal stories or questions are always interesting. I love it when someone says, “I never thought of that … and now I realize I do ‘X’ all the time. I want to stop [or start…].” Or, “I have a boss who does the opposite. He hates anyone to disagree with him. And I don’t know what to do….” Or, “I just realized I’m an overbearing boss, but I don’t know why and I don’t know how to change….”
Annette, as always, I love to hear your sharing. And I’m definitely going to steal your line!
It’s okay because I’ve learned to pick up on certain comments that are peppered with preaching and I just skim on by. That’s my choice, but I wonder if people who are doing that realize that it’s poor blog etiquette to post your own sermonettes in the comments. If you want to do that, just link your own blog with your own stuff on your own carefully thought out website. If people want to listen to you then they have a choice to go there and listen.
I also have a term that I’ve used over the years, called, “bible bullets.” I would have to point the gun at myself first.
I guess what I’m saying is; the reason I read your posts is to get a fresh perspective which I can glean from and when I write my own blog it will have enriched my own critical thinking so I can thoughtfully present my own fresh perspective. I guess I’m “owning up.”
Sorry, I ended up writing my own mini-blog here. POW!
I love your humor and I love your honesty. I didn’t see you last sentence coming, and I literally laughed out loud when I read it (humor is always about timing and surprise).
My wife asked me what my belly laugh was about. I said, “Just an honest person sharing an honest embarrassing moment.”
May we all do so more often.
The world needs more humor.
I tend to shoot myself often. Self-inflicted humiliation caused by a self-righteous bullet. The grace given me afterwards is what’s hilarious.
Sam – The happy and sad of your story: Happy – your Dad was unique in welcoming your critiques, and you were lucky to be part of the process, can only think that you benefited greatly from this open relationship.
Sad – “honest evaluation has killed many friendships.” If I didn’t think you were right, I’d have to call you on it, but it is true and we have to look at what we call a friend.
A friend will take it when question his comments, ideas, principles – but you better be ready when he throws it back at you. The real problem is not being open to criticism, but in not having relationships where you can feel the concern behind the critiques. I have friends that I can make happy or angry with my comments, and they can do it back to me, but it doesn’t kill, because we care for one another. And I have former “friends” that I didn’t lose, we just gave up.
But I digress – good thoughts on life, Sam – stirred me up
Always good to hear from you.
Since writing this article, I’ve been thinking about my father. As I think, I realize he first created a safe environment. And he created it intentionally. That is, he invited criticism, and if he didn’t get it, he pushed for it.
Once we realized he was serious, and once we realized he would take it graciously, we felt safe to offer it. And we didn’t always (or even often) offer it graciously.
But my father was also pretty good at GIVING constructive criticism. Not everyone liked it–many, many didn’t–but I think more people than average took it from him because he first created an environment to receive criticism.
I really like this blog, Sam! (that’s serious, thoughtful positive response!) It meant much to me, upon personal reflection, and perhaps, just this particular blog should be called, “Prick of the Heart”! The blog touches on two spirits that in my opinion, the evil one works double time in triggering the Body of Christ…spirit of pride, (versus spirit of humility) and spirit of disunity (versus a spirit of unity)! I refer to the Body of Christ in it’s broadest form that includes the smallest grouping, individual Christian families and marriages, our local churches, and the Bride of Christ, the Christian Church universal. In reading this blog, I am drawn to 2 scripture passages, and one sharing that took place at my church some years ago. First, Christ’s prayer to His Heavenly Father, “Father, may they be one, even as we are one.” Secondly, “How beautiful it is when God’s people live together in unity.” The church sharing was from a representative from “Voice of the Martyrs”. He kept his sharing/sermon informal, inviting comments and questions from the congregation. (Like your dad did at the dinner table!) One person asked him what he believed to be the largest spiritual barrier to persons being drawn to Christ, receiving Him into their hearts as their Savior. His response was, “Lack of humility, and unity among brothers and sisters in Christ, resulting in lack of repentance and forgiveness”. How timely is your blog, Sam…when our local communities, nation, and world attempt to remove God from their culture and life! Thank-you for this blog! May it move us all!
Thanks for you gracious email. I’ll take it as your unvarnished truth, and for that I’m grateful.
I would have liked your dad. When you cause trouble, you’re actually doing something.
From one troublemaker to another,
You would have loved him.
Well done Sam! I love that the difference in the tomb stone is hard to see in the first photo, but a small change in view makes the difference obvious. A good metaphor for life! Thank you.
Great point. Sometimes it’s a tiny change in perspective; sometimes that’s all we need.
Love the stuff you’ve been doing. Keep it up.