Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.
-Paul (Ephesians 4:15)
I come from an educational background. Two of my immediate family members are collegiate professors. I enjoy academic pursuits and what they bring out in me. I finished my masters degree last year, and though I complained a lot, I love being a student. This week alone I cranked out several academic papers for a project that will never even be graded.
In my seminary experience, I noticed a movement that has come to characterize much of contemporary higher education. There is a major focus on the process of improving the final product, rather than simply writing a paper and handing it in. And the way improvement occurs is through "peer-review,” which simply means that your colleagues give feedback to your work as it happens. The goal is that with helpful outside input, original thoughts can become clearer, sharper, and more polished.
Almost universally, graduate professors now invite students to review each other’s work as they are developing it. This benefits both professors and students. Students help to sharpen each other’s work in advance, giving the professor a better product when it’s handed in. And as students learn how to edit and think through each others’ work, they become better at creating good work themselves. This is how my master’s program worked. Each of us gave simple feedback to each others’ writing. We highlighted good things to lean into, and asked questions about concepts that were unclear or potentially misinterpreted.
As we progressed in this environment, we became invested in each other’s work in new ways. Instead of being isolated as individuals doing our own thing and focusing only on ourselves, we were aware of what was happening in each other’s studies as we tried to make each other better. Originally we were forced to do it, but before long we found ourselves genuinely caring about what each other was working on. Additionally, we stopped being so defensive and embarrassed about our work because we were forced to share a product that was clearly still in process. We all knew that sometimes we’d express ourselves well and sometimes we would do it very poorly. There was no way to avoid that, so we stopped getting defensive when someone said, “I don’t think you were very clear about this idea at all.” Instead, we could respond with something like, “Thanks! Any ideas on how to make it better?”
Being open to change is difficult, especially when we have blind spots in our lives.
Transformation is hard work.
And yet, how beautiful of an image this is for community life with Jesus at the center! We are all "rough draft" versions. Let's not live under the illusion that we are final copies, fully ready to be handed in for a perfect grade. The problem is that we are not comfortable presenting our personal drafts to one another for editing. The vulnerability feels too risky. And unfortunately, that’s because Christians have often lacked grace and humility, two things that should be at the core of our identity. We have participated in a culture where we criticize rather than energize (see below), and pile on guilt and shame. But it can be so much different.
Imagine an environment of love where we, as sisters and brothers, are committed to each other enough to listen to the stories of our lives. Through loving peer review, an atmosphere like this can help us refine who we are, what we’re about, and if our lives are clearly communicating it. This need not require full agreement on every topic. Rather, it requires a culture of love, founded on the understanding that we belong to each other and have a responsibility to help each other become more thoughtful, more gentle, more loving, more Christlike versions of ourselves. In seminary I cannot tell you the amount of times that someone brought up a question that I thought had already been answered clearly in my paper. But upon further reflection and feedback, I realized that I was not communicating it well at all. Time to make some changes.
But this type of mutual editing, or mutual “editification” (read Romans 14:19 to fully appreciate my wit just now), takes some serious vulnerability, humility, and intentionality. We have to have the humility to invite this sort of growth in our lives. We must relinquish our defensiveness. And we must choose to actually read each other deeply enough to see the heart, taking the time to encourage one another in a way that truly helps us each become a more complete representation of Jesus.
The cost of community is significant. But that's because it's so valuable. Nothing else will transform and refine us in our journey with Jesus quite like the editing of a friend who truly loves us. Let us not grow weary in allowing others in.
Jesus, keep me humble and open to how others can help me grow.