Do you want to improve in one of your roles? Do you want to grow? Then seek out honest, detailed feedback. It may sting, but it can be eye-opening and transformative.
Anyone learning this lesson knows that not all feedback is created equal. For example, student evaluations have limited value for me as a teacher. Students often write about what would make my class less demanding for them. They want an easier semester and a higher grade. Since their objective in giving feedback doesn’t match my goals or priorities, I don’t usually gain much from their evaluations.
I find gems on occasion. A student will see what I’ve been trying to accomplish and let me know what’s working and what isn’t. These students don’t focus on themselves, but they relate their experience to my goals in an honest attempt to help me improve.
The posture of the person giving feedback makes all the difference.
Jethro and Moses
In Exodus 18, we read of a prolonged encounter between Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro. This occurs just before Moses goes up Mount Sinai to meet with God.
After Jethro arrived at the Israelite camp, he observed Moses’s routine. He was troubled.
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. (Exodus 18:17–18)
Jethro was concerned about both Moses and the people. He didn’t want them to wear out. His feedback was rooted in his care for Moses and the rest of the people.
In examining Jethro’s advice, we must not ignore the first half of the chapter. Jethro arrives with Moses’s wife and sons (v.5), greets Moses with warm affection (v.7), and hears about “all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake” (v.8).
Jethro’s response is striking. He rejoices (v.9), confesses God’s supremacy above all other gods (v.11), and worships God with Aaron and the elders of Israel (v.12). Given that Jethro enters the chapter as a priest of another religion (v.1), many interpreters view this as a turn toward God. If Jethro is not converted here, he is clearly interested and sympathetic to the Israelite religion.
It took me a while to connect the two halves of Exodus 18. Why do we need Moses’s testimony and Jethro’s reaction? Previously, Moses was connected to Jethro by marriage, but now he knows (and we know) more of Jethro’s heart. Jethro’s advice comes from love. Because Jethro cares for Moses and the Israelite people (with whom he may now identify religiously), he cautions them about a harmful practice.
Ground Your Feedback in Love
The debate over Jethro’s conversion is only tangentially related to my point. Because of God’s common grace, we should be open to feedback from outside the church.
But feedback given in love is powerful. It can make all the difference between someone hearing or ignoring your advice.
Of course, it’s far too easy to critique for reasons other than love. We’ve all done it.
- You critique because you want things to be familiar.
- You critique because you esteem another person or place highly.
- You critique because you want to be correct.
- You critique because your preferences aren’t shared.
- You critique because you compare your situation to an unrealistic ideal.
- You critique because you want your way.
When we give feedback like this, we act more like correctors or evaluators than loving, helpful friends. It’s a sure way to discourage, to make someone feel like they are always being measured or tested or rated. No one wants to be a project.
I’m prone to a critical spirit, and I’ve given plenty of lousy feedback in the past. By God’s grace, I’m trying to move away from harsh and relentless criticism. Toward this end, I’m trying to think through these questions as I give feedback.
- Do I love this person/organization? — Hopefully the answer is yes, but even our best intentions can sour over time. Pray for this person, not only that God would use your feedback for their good, but that God would bless them richly in all aspects of their life. Pray that God would create or sustain love for them within you.
- Am I too negative? — Even in the midst of criticism, we should find ways to encourage the other person by pointing out how God is at work in their life or in this situation. Remember that “to encourage” means “to give courage” — offering a mountain of unvarnished negativity doesn’t prepare anyone to face the next challenge.
- Am I proud? — When giving feedback, a humble posture is essential. Acknowledge that any expertise or ability or wisdom you have is from God, and underline the fact that you haven’t arrived. We all need correction and we all need to grow. Acknowledge the difficulty of the hard tasks or the repentance you are suggesting. Point your friend to the depths of forgiveness, love, and power that God offers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Tell your friend how God has been your strength and shield and deliverer.