“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” Matthew 7:1-2
I had a love-hate relationship with forensics in high school and college. Now, for all you CSI fans, the forensics I’m referencing have nothing to do with crime scenes and dead bodies (although my debate partner and I did slay quite a few teams in our day). Rather, I’m talking about competitive public speaking. Yes, I was one of those guys – cocky, obnoxious, with opinions on everything.
To be sure, I loved spending summers at places like Northwestern University in Chicago or Michigan Seven Week honing my debating skills and preparing thousands of 3×5 cards with perfect snippets of cited quotations proving every conceivable angle of any potential topic. And writing an original oratory speech that made me seem erudite (look it up) and worldly was a blast at 16 and 17.
The “hate” part involved that scourge of every competitive public speaker: the judge. Not to say judges were bad people, mind you. For the most part, they were pleasant enough folks who volunteered their time to sit through generally self-indulgent puffery from young know-it-alls like me. The problem was, well, we usually did know more than the judges. All you had to do was ask us!
For 8-10 minutes (depending on the event), we’d pour our heart out on one topic or another, only to wait for what seemed an eternity in some high school or college hallway waiting for a runner to post our fate, determined by someone we’d usually never met before that round and who often told us nothing constructive in their lofty remarks about “deportment” and “fact checking.” Sheesch!
Three decades later, I found it ironic to be one of those judges supporting Daughter #2 as she followed in my footsteps – albeit more poised and significantly more talented in her various events. Remembering my own days in the hot seat, I vowed to be fair and balanced, with reasoned remarks and substance in my critique. These youngsters would learn something from my wisdom, whether they liked it or not! No, not much has changed with time.
The funny thing about judging another’s performance or technique or even their behavior is that for the most part our judgment is subjective. We see their actions through our eyes. Not always, of course. There are clear winners and losers in track and field where the fastest athlete wins, or in a NASCAR race where the fastest car takes the flag. But in most human endeavors, judging means rendering an opinion on someone else’s actions.
Which brings us to the topic of this post – Judgment.
As I write this, “judgment” is very much in the popular psyche. Today lawyers in the Casey Anthony Murder Trial are making their closing arguments after a month of constant televised testimony. As a friend wrote today, the case “is on overload.” Not since the sensationalism of the O.J. Simpson trial has our national attention been focused on such a prime example of judging the actions and motives of others.
The Casey Anthony trial is interesting because so much of the case is hearsay and based on the appearance of actions rather than clear-cut proof as in the track and field example above. The case will be decided based on what we (the jurors) believe to be true about Ms. Anthony. How we (the jurors) judge her actions and the motives they imply.
A murder trial, in a civil setting is one thing. Needed for society to function, of course. But what about when there’s not a civil trial involved? What if the person “on trial” is your friend, or your neighbor, or an acquaintance? Or perhaps someone you don’t really even know? And the judge and jury turn out to be you?
The passage I opened this message with is an admonition against self-righteousness. Sadly, we see so much of that in churches today. Indeed, when asked their opinion of American Christians in a recent survey, respondents overwhelmingly responded “judgmental.” Not “caring” or “empathetic” or “loving.”
Why is this? Why are Christians so often labeled “judgmental?” I believe it goes to the very heart of what Jesus taught again and again when confronting hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
First, let me be clear that Jesus did not consider all judgment to be wrong. For example, in verse 6 of this passage Jesus cautions: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Here the reader is cautioned to discern where to focus his or her faith on others in order to protect against what Jesus refers to in Matthew 7:15 as “false prophets.”
Elsewhere, Jesus instructed his followers to “judge correctly” rather than by appearances only (John 7:24), and Paul goes further in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 to hold those of the Faith accountable while not judging those outside the Faith.
Where Christians veer onto dangerous ground, where they create the impression of being intolerant and judgmental of those around them is when they render judgment on others without sufficient discernment. Jesus cautions in Matthew 7:3-5 that we should remove the plank from our own eye before attempting to clear the speck from another’s. His point here is that too often we attack another for many of the very same faults we have in our own hearts.
I have a friend, about my age, with a similar background. For 25 years he was married to the same woman, raised four children, was a strong leader in the church. What few people knew was that he and his wife had experienced marital problems for years. After many attempts to repair the relationship, my friend determined their differences were irreconcilable and filed for divorce.
Those who did not know the facts spent considerable time expressing their condemnation. One of these individuals went so far as to suggest my friend should consider finding another congregation, that my friend’s actions were not “appropriate” for his church family.
This kind of story tends to churn up the wrath of overturning temple money changer tables in me. While I hold no ill-will against the person judging my friend, the criticism came from a place of self-righteousness, rather than love. My friend’s decision was somehow not acceptable to this person’s view of what church should be. Alas, my friend did leave.
Jesus tells us to guard against judging others when we are blind to our own faults (in the case of my friend and his accuser, the fault was self-righteousness). Paul writes further in Galatians 6:1 that any attempt to correct another must be done after considerable introspection lest we also fall victim to our own shortcomings.
In the case of my friend I suspect Jesus would have looked at his accusers and, much like the incident with the woman about to be stoned in the market place, would have simply said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”
Indeed, self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy. Jesus teaches us in Luke 6:36-37 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Later, Jesus’ brother James would write “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” meaning that anyone who judges without mercy will receive the same.
Many of us struggle with this. I know I do. Why do we find it so hard to extend grace and mercy to others? Two potential and rather obvious reasons come to mind.
First, all of us have a tendency to compare – we compare ourselves with others, we compare others against one another. Differences often make up uneasy. My youngest daughter just turned 16 and we frequently discuss how her peers dress and act at school – people try to “fit” in with each other, to be the same. No one wants to stand out as being different (with some exceptions of course). This is true in Christian circles as well. We have “acceptable norms,” and those who step beyond those norms are looked at with suspicion.
Yet the church is not intended to turn out cookie-cutter Christians on an assembly line. We don’t all have to look alike and sound alike and think alike and act alike. For example, as parents we naturally compare our children to others, trying to get them to do the same things, often forcing them to be something they were never meant to be. Unfortunately, in the body of Christ, we sometimes do the same thing—trying to get everyone to do and say the same things, in the same way, forcing them to be something they were never intended to be. This tendency to compare and get everyone to fit certain “acceptable norms” hinders the extending of grace.
The second reason is our tendency to control. As I’ve written in previous posts (see a few here), I’ve struggled with control issues most of my life. I don’t like loose ends. A close friend and I were talking recently about this subject in relation to her 7 year old son. My friend is a terrific mother in a shared parenting relationship with her ex-husband, and is going through a transitional period requiring a great deal of patience. I realized as I listened to her story and how she’s dealing with the circumstances that I’m still learning myself how to let go of control.
The problem with control is that we tend to browbeat those around us into compliance, to fit our view. Even when that view is cloudy and flawed. And those we attempt to control either submit and become less than what they are intended to be, or rebel and push us away. Neither of these is an example of grace and mercy and forgiveness.
How do we overcome our tendency to judge others? What can we do to extend grace and forgiveness to those around us? Three ideas come to mind (borrowed from Chuck Swindoll in his commentary on Romans 14).
- Accepting others as they are is basic to letting them be. In the context of Romans 14, the issue was the eating of meat. Paul tells his readers to “accept others,” meaning meat eaters and non-meat eaters should co-exist. Not too controversial these days, except perhaps with ardent vegans. Consider other, touchier subjects facing Christians today. To drink or not drink alcohol, to watch certain types of movies, to get tattoos or not, to allow ordination of men and women who are same-sex oriented. Each of these and a thousand other issues can divide us. Paul tells us to allow for these differences and not judge.
- Not dictating to others allows God the freedom to direction their lives. While we are all family, and I may tell you to be cautious in certain actions in your life, grace means I take my hands off and give you the freedom to choose. God is fully capable of guiding each of us – some to one lifestyle, others to a different lifestyle.
- Judging others means assuming a position we’re not qualified to fill. God tells us He alone is qualified to judge; who are we to judge someone else? We’re inherently inconsistent. We can’t read the motives of others, finding it hard to be totally objective. How often have we jumped to wrong conclusions, made judgmental statements, only to later learn of off base and insensitive we were?
Loving others requires us to allow for freedom of choice without judgment. We may disagree, we may not choose that path, but our charge as Christians is to love our brothers and sisters in the midst of their own choices and let God take them down the path He will. Sometimes that path leads to and through hardship. We must love them regardless.
As you reflect on your own life this week, I encourage you to see where you may be rendering harsh judgment against others. Look into your own heart. Ask yourself if you are qualified to sit on that judgment seat. I suspect you’ll find, like I have serving as a judge for my daughter’s peers in forensics, that your first best role is to simply offer guidance, and accept the outcomes with love, grace, and humility.
Copyright © 2011 Robin Green, All Rights Reserved