To build up or to destroy

When I was in elementary school, fifth or sixth grade or so, I was teased. Mercilessly. The kids who teased me made fun of my shoes, my clothes, my hair. If I happened to wear something new or get a hair cut or, say, mess up a cheer at a pep rally, they ridiculed me all the more. This wasn’t good natured teasing among friends; this was pointing and laughing and name calling (“Sleepy” after the aforementioned cheer goof). I’m telling you, it was merciless.

Don’t misunderstand. I was happy and I had friends. I know enough now to realize their ridicule masked other, deeper, more complex issues. I may understand but I do not forget. In fact, it only takes a moment’s thought and I am there, in that school gym, hearing their taunts and seeing their laughter at my expense. I’m grateful I’m no longer the young girl dreading walking across the gym before school but I do still now, sometimes, fear being the object of the joke.

I find it fascinating, the power the critic holds. We all know that sticks and stone break our bones, and that unkind, mean words break us as well. In a broader picture, I think we also tend to ascribe greater wisdom and far greater import to the one who critiques. For example, when I am contemplating reading a particular book I often read the negative reviews on Amazon or goodreads. Subconsciously, I tend to view the negative review as more honest, more thoughtful, more reasoned, which is curious. Why lend such weight to a review only because it criticizes?

A few days ago, I read an exchange on Twitter where all parties involved dismissed a novel I completely adored. They judged the book boring and trite and annoyingly cute and, well, unenjoyable. I was mortified. I even began to consider that my opinion was not only alarmingly unsophisticated but I was ignorant and shallow–and so what? It’s just a novel for heaven’s sake, and we are all free to like or dislike as we choose. It’s my gut response that I find intriguing: because they disliked it and found reason for derision, their opinion must be the more valid. Curiously enough, we tend to admire the critic and assume she has the high ground. We are quick to believe the negative assessment, be it regarding politics or theology or book reviews or our eleven year old self wearing a new pair of shoes.

So sure, I remember and no doubt give undue attention to the negative things said to me or about me, as do we all. Though it is sometimes more difficult to do so, I also remember the truly affirming words. Several years ago, in 2012, at the first Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, I met a fellow blogger at an early morning gathering for bloggers. She has since published several books and may not even remember me or our conversation but that particular morning she gave to me such a simple, direct word of encouragement that I still remember and I’m grateful.

Our words have power to build up or to destroy. The Bible instructs us to speak only what is good for building up, so as to give grace to others with our words (Eph. 4:29). Of course we are not to base our identity or worth on the words of others, whether those words affirm or destroy. Our worth is in Jesus alone. However we must realize the inherent power in what we say, particularly when we criticize or demean or ridicule. May we put aside bitterness and wrath and slander and instead be kind, building one another up as we affirm God’s grace at work in each other.