“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.”
How I loved it – a great and godly man admitted he had lousy days when he could barely tolerate people. And while that doesn’t give me permission to wish hell on folks, it comforts me to know I’m not alone when I do. People are, among a myriad of other things, irritating. Not always, but at times, and with no exceptions. I know I occasionally (!) irritate my beloved wife, my clients, closest friends, sons, anyone. And vice versa, and more. Strangers driving carelessly irritate me; ditto for leaders expressing stupidity, friends flaking out on me, or enemies doing what comes naturally. Where there’s a human there’s a sin nature, and where there’s a sin nature there’s disappointment. Yet in the midst of all that, I’m forbidden to judge people. That’s one tall order, because how can I recognize someone’s wrongdoing without making a judgment, and how can I make that judgment without breaking specific commands from Jesus himself?
Surely it’s not as simple as that. Jesus also commanded us to rebuke a sinning brother (Matthew 18:5), an impossible task without first judging what he’s done to be a sin. Paul was likewise put out with the Corinthian church specifically because they did NOT have someone wise enough to judge disputes (I Corinthians 6:5); he commended reproving and rebuking (impossible without judging) as fruit springing from a knowledge of the Word (II Timothy 3:16); and his admonition to the Ephesians to “reprove the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11) demands a judgment call. Clearly, then, we are called to judge between right and wrong, truth and error.
New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce points out the seeming contradiction when he notes:
“Judgment is an ambiguous word, in Greek as in English: it may mean exercising a proper discernment, or it may mean sitting in judgment on people (or even condemning them).”
Proper discernment, fine. But there’s also a childish, maybe primal tendency to make someone “all bad” if they disappoint or hurt us. We do that to our parents when we’re kids – “Mommy made me mad so Mommy’s horrible” – and sadly, we can do it as, and to, adults. When I devalue someone’s general worth or character because of one sin in their life, I’ve judged them, wrongly and unfairly. Wrongly because I don’t know the state of their soul so I can’t say how good or bad they really are, and unfairly because I inaccurately paint them with too broad a brush. Just because one sin in their life pushes my buttons, it hardly negates all other good qualities they may, and probably do, possess. And let’s be fair here: the sin in someone’s life which pushes my buttons is usually a sin which was directed at me, so “You hurt me” becomes, in my dirty little mind, “You’re hurtful to everybody, and there’s nothing good about you!” I’m sure that’s what author Sam Storms means when he addresses the “judge not” question by concluding “Jesus does not tell us to cease to be men, but to renounce the presumptuous ambition to be God.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat myself: I’m worried about a growing lack of necessary judgment in the Church today; a laxity in discernment masquerading as love or virtue. Too little doctrinal and moral clarity; too much mush. But I should be even more worried about the unnecessary judgment that can grow in me. Lots of people have let me down, so boo-hoo. I know you can say the same. And when we hear their names, or recall their sins against us, it’s easy to write them off or, worse yet, to envision pulling the Straight to Hell lever Pastor Chuck mentioned. That’s when the command not to judge, along with the warning that to the extent I wrongfully judge others I’ll get a dose of the same, slaps me awake, reminding me I need a softened heart towards those who’ve sinned against me, a harder heart towards my own sins against God and others, and a godlier perspective on people in general. To that end I’ll say huge Amens to David’s very smart, very useful prayer:
“Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.”
-Psalms 19: 12-13