One of my favorite all-time books is the great American novel Of Mice and Men. This year I’ve been on a bit of a John Steinbeck binge. I’ve picked up some of his classics that I enjoyed in year’s past and I’ve picked up a couple that were new to me. I picked up Of Mice and Men for the first time in twenty-five years and dropped myself into the world of George and Lennie. It was just as immersive and heart-wrenching as the first time I read it as a fifteen-year-old. No, it was better. As perfect a novel as has ever been written.
I’m not a big crier, but my eyes welled, and then tears streamed down my cheeks as George has Lennie close his eyes and imagine their life on their own farm in the closing scene. Maybe you remember the emotional wallop or reading that final scene? Maybe you cried as well?
I went to Goodreads, where I rate and review books I’ve written (if you have an account, friend me!). My jaw dropped. On a 5 star scale, Steinbeck’s masterpiece has received a 3.86 rating with over 1.7 million ratings. A 3.86 for one of the finest pieces of writing on the planet. As of this writing 51,618 people rated Steinbeck’s novel a 1 out of 5 stars. 51,618 people, more than the population of Prescott, Arizona, decided that Steinbeck’s novel wasn’t just average or disappointing… no, it deserved the worst possible ranking they could give a book.
Confession: I handle criticism poorly.
By “handle criticism poorly” I don’t mean that I don’t receive criticism or seek it out. I do both. What I mean is that I tend to hear criticism in BOLD and CAPS LOCK. My default is to overstate the criticism, to universalize it, and to see too much merit in the criticism. I can slide into doubting my calling and gifting.
Fellow discouraged traveler, remember, 51,618 people gave Of Mice and Men 1 star.
We all need criticism. My critics have a gift to offer me. They can help me see blind spots. They can challenge me to grow in areas I need to develop. I need to seek out criticism. I need to humbly receive criticism. But my critics don’t define me. And they don’t define you.
God has sovereignly given you and me gifts and he has purposed those gifts to be a blessing to his people. But my gifts aren’t going to bless everyone in the same way. God never intended them to. And he hasn’t intended for your gifts to bless everyone either.
It would be foolish for Steinbeck to try to revise Of Mice and Men to please the 51,618. He would ruin the book. Maybe those readers connect with John Grisham or Mark Twain or Willa Cather. That’s okay. Steinbeck shouldn’t try to be Grisham, Twain, or Cather.
There is criticism that we can grow from and there is criticism that just reflects that we weren’t supposed to be the writer, preacher, leader, or friend that fit the other person’s needs. That’s okay, too. That criticism reflects more on the needs of the critic than it does on who you are.
May we grow in grace as we receive and don’t receive criticism appropriately. We have a loving Creator who has shaped us with intricate intentionality and has purposed us to glorify him where he has placed us. May we steward the gifts that he has given us to the people he has called us to steward those gifts to so that he might say on the final day, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”[i]
[i] Matthew 25:23