I lost track of how many “final” drafts my book had, but there were a few key people I most relied on for feedback. Not just that “hey, great job” pat on the head, but solid feedback. I desperately wanted and needed to hear where I’d gotten it wrong. Not just punctuation, but the content. “Please, save me from myself – tell me. Help me get it right. I want this to glorify God in both style and substance.”
From one, I got a couple helpful but minor notes. From another I got mostly praise but also some questions. And from another I got pages of comments and hours of rich conversation. The latter even involved some points of disagreement – that’s what most pushed me into greater insight and being able to speak to a broader audience. I literally couldn’t have done it without them. Encouragement helped. Challenge helped. Even silence helped, in its own way and timing.
When it comes to feedback I give to others, I’m not the same with everyone. Like these others were with me, how much I say depends on our relationship, the genre, and a host of other factors.
I’ve both succeeded and failed in all of this, to varying degrees. We all have. Honest feedback is one of the hardest, riskiest things to do well. Because we’re not just critiquing words on a page – as if they haven’t flowed from someone’s veins.
What does it look like when our feedback needs some fine tuning?
We say too much. We leave crucial things unsaid. We’re just plain wrong sometimes. We get a little too fixated on our own bugaboos. We try to make others more like ourselves. We praise or stay quiet for advantage rather than truth. We say good things with right motives, but clumsily. We speak cutting words all too well. When someone can’t or won’t hear us or pushes back, we’re offended and resentful. We compare rather than nurture. We overstep our roles in each other’s lives. We don’t fully step into those, too.
But isn’t receiving feedback just as challenging? Don’t we both succeed and fail there, too?
We reject valuable messages because of the messenger or delivery. And sometimes just because they’re things we’re not ready or willing to hear. We shoot back out of insecurity, arrogance, or just plain hurt. We misjudge intentions. We stand up for ourselves when it’s called for, but poorly. We go against our better judgment because of someone else’s confidence or credential. We allow too many people to speak into our work – or too few. Sometimes we won’t seek out feedback at all; we’re determined to go it alone.
Giving and receiving feedback is more complex than we tend to make it. Because we’re complex, and so are relationships – can I get an amen. And there’s a lot on the line – our words and silences can bring a spark to life, create a wildfire, or snuff out a smoldering wick.
This has spiritual implications, don’t you think? Beyond the borders of those pages and screens we write on?
We are so much more than how we perceive ourselves. Our vantage points are simultaneously broader and more limited than others’. There’s history no one in the world may ever fully understand about me, but that doesn’t mean I fully understand myself.
Unless you’re in marriage bootcamp, in counseling with another, or in an annual review meeting at work, most of us will never ask someone, “Hey, how do you experience me? Not just what I produce, but me. As a person. A leader. A servant. A coworker. A friend. I really want to know. Please – tell me. Help me get it right. I want to glorify God in both style and substance.” And most of us would find it difficult to answer honestly; at least fully.
No, our feedback tends to come and go in ways more spontaneous and uninvited. In bits and pieces. Both subtle and dramatic. How good are we at that?
The past couple weeks my mind keeps going back to Shimei and David, in 2 Samuel 16. You know, the guy who cursed David and threw stones at him and his officials. Shimei blamed David for Saul’s death in battle, though Saul had actually fallen on his own sword. Shimei even said it was David’s own fault that his son, Absalom, was trying to take over his kingdom. Dude. Vicious. He didn’t exactly pick his moment, either. David had a lot going on – he was on the run from his own son who was trying to kill him. One of David’s men offered to cut off Shimei’s head, but David said no, that God may well be trying to tell him something that he needs to hear – even through this loathsome vessel.
Bad content, bad delivery, bad motives. Stunningly humble and merciful reception, in spite of David’s despair. Or maybe because of it. There’s a whole lot more to that story, but that’s another conversation.
I’ve been thinking, too, of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation – those letters saying, hey, all this you’re doing right and I commend you for it, but this is what I hold against you and know you can do better in.
And I keep thinking of Jesus’ directness with so many – calling sin sin and exposing root issues.
And his speaking in hidden ways at other times so only those really listening would get it.
There were times he stayed completely silent, too.
There weren’t many he was ever harsh with, but it happened. Those were usually the self-righteous, the hypocrites. And he sometimes said harder things in harder ways to thin his crowds and identify who was and wasn’t really there for him after all. Truth was the door relationship always had to walk through, and not everyone was willing to.
Don’t we question his delivery in at least some of these cases? Even just a little? God is love, right? The resulting confusion or poor reception or even hurt feelings at times didn’t mean it wasn’t still the right or even loving thing to do.
How messy this gets so quickly when Jesus tells us, “Follow me, and do as I do.”
How do we even do that when Jesus did the unexpected so often? And when it’s hard to judge our own rightness or wrongness, much less another’s, and we can only do our best? When we’re all this jumble of spirit and flesh, and the flesh is so good at spiritualizing what it thinks and wants?
How do we do that?
By abiding in Jesus.
Jesus’ followers got it wrong an awful lot, but he was patient and forgiving, and they were learning. Their mistakes and sins didn’t mean they weren’t following – it meant they followed, stumbling. Like we all do.
In Ephesians 4, it says:
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it…So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Father, truth in love. Style and substance. Content and delivery. I’ve both succeeded and failed. Forgive me. Forgive us. For our words. For our silences. For leaving the truth out of love and the love out of truth. For our failures of courage and humility. And thank you for your patience as we learn to get this right. Thank you, Lord, for the times that we do.
Help us to have teachable spirits. Help the weak learn from the strong and the strong learn from the weak. Help the advanced learn from the inexperienced as well as the other way around. Help us remember that different types of growth don’t necessarily happen in tandem, and a wealth of teachers always surround us.
And help us live together not just as individual artists and thinkers but as Christ’s one Body.
Help us grow in discernment and courage when it comes to our listening, our words, and our delivery. And in our knowing when to hold our tongues, too. Help us to approach each other with your heart and mind. Help us all listen to you. Help us hear hard things well. Help us encourage each other, but as ones growing into maturity and unity.
Father, as both writers and your children, grow us up together in you. We want to glorify you in our lives and our writing. And we want to be one Body, working together, that Jesus himself can move most effectively through. Live and write through us, Jesus. Write your story.
Cheryl Velk is the author of the book Garden Songs: A Spiritual Formation Field Journal. Follow her on Instagram.