Have you ever left a meeting, returned to your office area with colleagues, and proceeded to tear apart not only what was said in the meeting but also who said it?
I am not talking about healthy, constructive dialogue, often necessary in our places of responsibility; rather, I am speaking of conversation that diminishes or dismisses other people. If you’re in a leadership position and practice such speech, others will follow your example.
I often tell students where I work that we must be critical in our thinking but not critical in spirit. The differences between the two are significant.
One who is critical in thinking speaks from a desire to help and build up, not to harm. This person contributes to a conversation or issue in ways that strengthen the institution or individual, though there may certainly be disagreements.
One who is critical in spirit, however, speaks from self-centeredness with perhaps even a subconscious motive for recognition and power. Often a person with a critical spirit is insecure, and perhaps more interested in bringing someone down than in lifting him up, in seeing someone fail than in helping her succeed. A critical spirit destroys people and institutions.
Being critical in our thinking can bring glory to God; being critical in spirit cannot.
Psalm 19 is a fascinating reflection on God’s glory. The psalm begins with the macrocosmic notion of how creation glorifies God; it then moves into how the law (torah) glorifies God; it concludes with this microcosmic -- albeit foundational -- piece necessary to glorify God: the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts.
As God’s creatures we are dependent upon God’s created glory. We cannot live and grow without the beauty and glory of God’s creation. God’s law (torah) provides guidance and instruction within his created order, and those who allow God’s word to guide them receive the glory of God that refreshes, makes wise, gives joy and light.
The psalmist beautifully illustrates that in the same way creation proclaims the glory of God, and in the same way the torah proclaims the truth of God, so too the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts are significant and powerful in proclaiming God’s glory and truth. It is an amazing and humbling thought -- that our words and thoughts carry that much power to bring about the glory and truth of God.
I have recognized in my own life that even if the words of my mouth are somewhat under control, the meditation of my heart -- though not intentionally malicious -- can easily become destructive to that with which God has entrusted me. I have at times found myself harboring thoughts of frustration, anger and even resentment toward others. And while those thoughts may remain unspoken, they clearly do not bring glory to God.
When we harbor thoughts of frustration and resentment toward another, it will naturally affect how we view and treat that person, which then has a negative effect on our organization or church.
A “critical spirit” is already at work toward that individual even before we walk into a meeting or Sunday service. Granted, we may have a “history” with some colleagues, with whom we are often at odds, and we may even have been hurt by them. Yet we are still called to please God with all that we say and think, even when dealing with the difficult people in our lives.
This is not a call to allow ourselves to be berated or manipulated, for to accept such treatment is neither professional nor Christian. As leaders, however, we must have the strength, maturity and wisdom -- by the grace of God -- to respond in ways that demonstrate health and bring about redemption, even in dysfunctional situations.
I have begun the practice of concluding many of my prayers with, “Now may the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.”
I pray this before I preach (especially before I preach) because I never want to use the pulpit for my own agenda or selfish gain. I pray the prayer before meetings (and oftentimes silently during meetings) to remind me and our community that even in difficult and challenging moments where there may be disagreement, God still calls us to glorify him with our words and thoughts.
One of my dearest friends and mentors is a retired Methodist minister. He offers a “safe place” where I can unload my honest thoughts and frustrations (even if they are about others) and know that he will hold them in confidence. He will not judge me or those about whom I may speak. He wants the best for me and will speak honestly if I am out of line. Daily prayer practices and mentors in life have helped me in not harboring bitterness in my heart toward others.
The responsibilities we have as leaders in our churches and organizations can be daunting. Often we do not feel qualified, nor do we have the resources required, to meet the overwhelming demands and needs placed before us. I believe, however, we could be more effective if we consistently practiced the spiritual discipline of giving glory to God as the psalmist instructs.
I cannot help but think that God would do so much more through our organizations and churches if we would do a better job of glorifying God, individually and corporately, with the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts. After all, our words and thoughts are foundational to what we do; they are foundational in bringing glory to God.
To be critical in our thinking but not critical in spirit is desperately needed in our churches and organizations. As leaders, we must set the example for those we lead, not only in our work but also in our words and meditation.
So allow me to conclude by asking you a very challenging question: Have the words of your mouth and the meditation of your heart been pleasing to God today?