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Thanksgiving, Appreciation, and Criticism
Repeated criticisms tend to be perceived as nagging. Repeated appreciation and thanks tend to be perceived as love. That’s what we all want and need.

In His wisdom and love, God created us social beings. Our interactions with others bring us both joy and sorrow. Some joy comes when others appreciate or thank us; some sorrow comes when others criticize us. We normally welcome appreciation and thanks and prefer to avoid hurtful criticism but tend not to handle the latter very well.

"…Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain - and most fools do...."

On a tour of western Canadian churches some time ago the following poster in a pastor’s study caught my attention:

It’s not the critic who counts, not the woman or man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doers of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the woman or man who is actually in the arena; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause, who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better to dare mighty things, to win the glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Most of this is adapted from a Theodore Roosevelt speech at the Sobornne, Paris, April 23rd, 1910.

Today our society is incredibly healthy in many ways. We enjoy one of the highest living standards in history, the greatest respect for human rights, the strongest social safety net for the unfortunate in our midst. But can we appreciate our blessings? Can we be the most thankful of people in the world or in history? Can we applaud those daring leaders who won these victories for our benefit?

Who is habitually thankful this Thanksgiving? Or do we prefer to be habitual critics, complainers, pessimists and fearfully anxious? As Dale Carnegie so eloquently put it: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain - and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” It also takes character and self-control to show genuine appreciation and thanks to God and others throughout the year.

Most families could be strengthened with more appreciation and less criticism simply because they need more expressions of love. Sure, criticism, correction and exhortation are needed at times. But more appreciation and thanks could smooth out strained relationships, encourage the discouraged, cheer the depressed and reinforce positive attitudes and behaviours.

Criticism

Almost daily critics of police, government, and leaders of all sorts condemn the real and perceived weaknesses of their targets. Some of these criticisms may have merit. Surely many don’t. Consider some recent examples.

  • Was it really wrong for Governor General Michaëlle Jean to eat raw seal heart as part of an Inuit ceremony?
  • Should tax-payers support forestry jobs as much as auto manufacturing?
  • The anti-nuclear lobby predictably expressed outrage over the May 2009 leak at the Chalk River nuclear plant, then in June condemned the shortage of medical isotopes while the aging plant is repaired.
  • Opposition politicians perennially complain that the government is not doing enough to stimulate the economy, but then when the government announces a stimulus package, the opposition is sure to complain that the government is running a deficit. We well understand that both sides are hoping their actions will glean more voter support in the next election.

Naturally, those given to thankless grouchy criticisms seek microphones to broadcast their objections. Such crabby habits are well entrenched in our culture, particularly among our academics, legal community, opposition politicians, media, comedians, minorities of all sorts, as well as the population generally.

Retro sit-coms like Cheers, Roseanne and All in the Family thrive on trashing people with witty put-downs. A popular T-shirt around Disney theme parks reads: “I’m Grumpy because You’re Dopey” – a reference to two of Snow White’s seven dwarfs. Grumpy criticisms perennially judge others as dopey, i.e., too limited in intelligence, morals or manners. Grumpy criticisms can also betray the critic’s pharisaic self-evaluation as being superior in intelligence, morals or manners.

One command of Jesus that it seems every Christian and non-Christian in the west can quote is, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1, KJV). Does this mean that all criticism is immoral? I think not. Perhaps when Jesus says “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1, NIV), He might really mean that we need to avoid a habitual judgmental or critical spirit. Note that in the context (Matthew 7:15-18) our Lord warns:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.

If we actually obey this instruction we will need to evaluate (judge) who are “false prophets” and why, and who are “bad trees.” False doctrine must be critiqued and “sound doctrine” must be appreciated (see 1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:3). The same kind of critique is involved in every rebuke and restoration of sinners (see Matthew 18: 15-17; Galatians 6:1). Acts and attitudes that reflect the mind of Christ must be appreciated (see 2 Corinthians 10:5).

Voicing complaints to leaders in their presence can be constructive, if done optimistically. But voicing criticisms of leaders to those who are in no position to correct the problem may better be labeled as “griping” or “murmuring.”

Griping and sniping

Merriam-Webster defines “griping” as “to complain with grumbling,” and notes it originally meant “to cause pinching and spasmodic pain in the bowels of” – a graphic image. 

Grippers like to see themselves as “just a little smarter than the average bear” (as in Yogi Bear of Jellystone Park). Griping commonly expresses criticism, condemnation, pessimism, anxieties and fears that the identified problem never will be resolved (e.g. homelessness, poverty, health-care wait-times, air pollution, obsessive materialism, racism, sexism, impaired driving, etc.).

Sure, there are injustices in our society, families and organizations of all sort that warrant responsible attention. Those who reject all complaining tend to neglect that fact. The global movement seeking “a complaint-free world” strikes me as seeking a gripe-free world. Ending all criticisms and complaints would surely be irresponsible on many real injustices.

Persistent pain (whether physical, emotional or relational) can feed criticising, correcting, complaining, and condemning (the “c’s”) habits.  It’s simply hard to be cheerful when we hurt. Too frequent, or intense criticisms typically threaten positive interpersonal relationships in families, communities and organizations, even when we rationalize them as expressions of “tough love.”

Whether or not they manifest “tough love” depends on whether we balance our criticisms at the same time with appreciation, affirmation, adapting and affection (the “a’s”) for the target of our criticisms.  James Dobson has observed that family members need at least a dozen such “ata-boy” positive expressions to balance each “you-messed-up” negative judgment. “Dr. Phil” McGraw sets this ratio at 1,000. Hence, voicing “c’s” in the absence of the “a’s” likely are all cases of griping.

Because we are all imperfect humans, we all warrant criticisms and corrections at times, and so do those around us. When such criticisms and corrections are unduly frequent or repeated they likely constitute “nagging.” The real issue is whether these criticisms and corrections are given and received amidst clear expressions of appreciation, affection and thankfulness, or whether they are given and received merely as dismissive judgments on people, their beliefs and behaviours. 

We tend to view our negative judgments of people as attempts to teach them what is right and true, particularly when we address these comments directly to them, as we do to children. But to adults we often make these comments more indirectly. While we can never control how the other will react to our attempts to teach them, we can control our own emotional tone and responses of appreciation, affection and thankfulness.

One strategy to make our criticisms and corrections more palatable is a variation of “The Sandwich Principle.” This suggests we always “sandwich” our criticisms and corrections between an opening genuine appreciation of the other’s strengths and/or achievements and a closing genuine expression of hope that future performance will demonstrate improvement on the issue, with a genuine offer of help in achieving the desired improvement. We thus demonstrate genuine appreciation, affection and thankfulness. It’s the “spoonful of sugar” that “helps the medicine go down.”

No attempts to teach others what is right and true will succeed, if the teacher is not open to being corrected in return for where they may have misunderstood what the other did, said, or believes. Successful corrections require openness, vulnerability, honesty, and a willingness to apologize, request forgiveness and extend forgiveness.

Some children habitually dispute virtually any suggestion voiced by others. So do some adults. Negative thinking is destructive. Negative judgments of people, their beliefs and behaviours, when expressed in tones of irritation and anger, often generate retaliatory judgments against the critic, in similar tones of irritation and anger. Some call this “The Principle of Reciprocity” – we get what we give.

A sniper is a sharpshooter. By verbal “sniping,” I mean short, often witty, “gotcha” complaints against an opponent. Snipers often see themselves as gifted in humour and wit. Politicians with this gift tend to be crowd favourites. If leaders reply, such responses are easily dismissed as being “defensive,” an alleged character flaw. It seems that gripers and snipers don’t want to hear facts or logic that might undermine their criticisms. Don’t we all tend to welcome only our own perspectives on issues?

Whining

Merriam-Webster defines “whining” as

  1. a: to utter a high-pitched plaintive or distressed cry;
    b: to make a sound similar to such a cry (the wind whined in the chimney);
  1. to complain with or as if with a whine (always whining about the weather).”

By “whining,” I mean a childish “high-pitched plaintive or distressed cry,” such as many of us practiced in childhood and/or observed in our children, or annoying “brats” of other families. This focuses more on irritating tones and/or repeated begging that refuses to accept a simple “No.”

We pay opposition politicians, union leaders and some ethnic leaders millions annually to practice a more adult version of this (e.g., demanding a full year of EI after nine weeks [360 hours] of work). Too many pastors spend too much of their time with whiners who insist they have their way on their pet issue. Appreciation and thanksgiving seem to be foreign to whiners.

Most protest demonstrations seem to fall into a gripe-snipe-and-whine category, whether they are anti-American, anti-war, anti-WTO or anti-government of many sorts.  Some are frankly orgies of hate (e.g., demonstrations opposing pro-Israeli speakers, opposing G.W. Bush, opposing same-sex marriage, opposing critics of same-sex marriage [dismissed as “homophobic”], opposing abortion, opposing critics of abortion, opposing neo-Darwinian macro-evolution, opposing critics of neo-Darwinian macro-evolution [dismissed as “simply stupid”], etc.).

Because media thrive on conflict and chaos, protests often glean more media coverage than the event against which the protesters are venting their criticisms. Our “loyal opposition” (and media) declare no responsibility to solve genuine problems. Their job is to bring down the government, in hopes that in the next election more Canadians will vote for them, and “kick the bums out.”

We reward habitual criticism with our attention.

Whining children are confident that their parents, teachers or leaders will accede to their demands in an exasperated hope for a little peace.

If the government accedes to whining opposition demands, they can always claim this as an example of how they “made parliament work.” Those who criticize habitually can display over-active fearful imaginations of possible calamities ahead, even if the likelihood of these ever actually happening may be at the 0.1 percent probability level. In the meantime, these anxious predictors of doom spread their gloom to all around – not a recipe for happiness, joy or thanksgiving. Can the arrows of habitual criticism be blunted by framing such comments as questions, or as silent gestures? Likely not much.

Breaking habits of being critical

Can habits of excessive criticism be broken?

Yes, depending on the choices of criticism addicts.

Some parents, teachers and leaders respond to whiners with, “I suffer from selective hearing, i.e., as long as you speak in a whining voice I will not hear what you are saying; only if you make your request in respectful tones will I even hear you, and then, if I agree, I will happily do as you say.” Respectful behaviour warrants appreciative and thankful reinforcement. Such strategies are too rare.

A crucial aspect of developing social maturity is learning habits of contented appreciation and thanksgiving. Too many have missed this.  If we really want to, we all can choose an attitude of gratitude. Many are too lazy here.

The New Main Street Singers in “The Good Book Song” ask:

But what if David, had whined and waited
We'd live like slaves to Philistine naves,
Our bosses would all be 30 feet tall
We'd wash their clothes with a fire hose
And we'd sleep in the cracks between their toes.

They encourage us to “Do what the Good Book says” -- to take the risk of faith and confront our problems with courage and to do our part to conquer them.

The NIV Bible uses “thank” in various forms 144 times. In 1 Timothy 6: 6-7 Paul notes, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Instead we all think we’re entitled to a life of unbroken happiness. If our happiness is disrupted in any way, we feel a moral “right” to gripe, snipe and whine. What thanklessness! How childish!

Joseph in Genesis and Elizabeth in Luke may have had a right to criticize, gripe, snipe and whine. Yet both avoided this trap. So should we.

Richard J. Krejcir comments:

Gratitude is an attitude of being thankful for what He has done for me! When we fully recognize that our greatest problem has been solved, our indebtedness of sin, we can feel and know gratitude and thus honor God, by leading a life of response to Who and what He has done! even when we do not see what we have. This is an aspect of worship, expressing to God, and others, how they have benefited our lives by showing them support, appreciation, and benevolence.

Excessive criticism clearly contradicts an attitude of thankfulness.

In Romans 1:21 Paul observes the ungodly are characterized by their thanklessness. Canadians have every reason to be thankful, rather than fearfully or angrily griping, sniping or whining, even if we claim the latter as “being honest.” The Holy Spirit and Scripture give Christians the power to control our emotions.

Criticisms tend to threaten relationships; appreciation and thanks builds them. Repeated criticisms tend to be perceived as nagging. Repeated appreciation and thanks tend to be perceived as love. That is what we all want and need.

Who of us this Thanksgiving is willing to abandon gripe-snipe-and-whine habits of criticism and replace them with a perpetual attitude of gratitude? In the Holy Spirit and Scripture we have the power to do so.

Dr. Al Hiebert, an ordained EMC minister, is executive director of Christian Higher Education Canada. CHEC’s mission “is to advance Christian higher education, foster institutional cooperation, and raise public awareness of the value of Christian higher education in Canada.” CHEC has 35 members—Bible colleges, seminaries, universities.

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