And the Verdict Is…

“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.  For 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. Some people might say not much has changed over the years…

To be sure, I loved spending summers at places like Northwestern University in Chicago or Michigan Seven Week honing my debate 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 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!

“The faster I talk the more convincing I get!”

For 8-10 minutes (depending on the event), we’d pour our hearts out on one topic or another, only to wait for what seemed an eternity in some high school or college hallway 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.”  Sheesh!

The interesting thing about judging another’s performance, 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.

Courtesy USAToday

As I write this, the news is filled with stories about the mistrial in the Bill Cosby sexual predator case. A lot has been written on both sides and my purpose here is not to render a personal view on Mr. Cosby or his behavior.  There are plenty of voices doing that.  Rather, let’s consider the implications of judging the actions and motives of others.

The Cosby trial is instructive because so much of the case is hearsay and based on the appearance of actions rather than clear-cut proof. “Consensual” turned out to be a very difficult thing to define and the non-verdict was ultimately reached based on what we (the jurors) believed to be true about Mr. Cosby.  How we (the jurors) judged his actions and the motives they imply.

What if the person “on trial” is your friend and the judge and jury turn out to be you?

A sexual predation trial in a civil setting is one thing.  But what if there’s no civil trial involved?  What if the person “on trial” is your friend, or your neighbor, or an acquaintance?  Or perhaps someone you don’t even really know?  And the judge and jury turn out to be … you?

The passage I opened with is an admonition against self-righteousness.  Political dialogue in recent years provides endless examples of smug opinion-sharing in social media and endless “news” outlets. Everyone has an opinion and if someone disagrees they are (fill in the epithet).

Sadly, we find similar self-righteous attitudes pervasive in our faith today.  When asked their opinion of American Christians many respondents overwhelmingly respond “judgmental.”  Not “caring,” or “empathetic,” or “loving.”

Why are Christians 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’s be clear – Jesus did not consider all judgment wrong.  For example, in verse 6 of the Matthew 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 in others 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.

Christians veer onto dangerous ground when they judge 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 someone else for many of the same faults we find in our own hearts.

I have a friend, about my age, with a similar background.  For 28 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 not knowing the facts spent considerable time condemning my friend.  One went so far as to suggest my friend should consider finding another congregation, that his actions were “inappropriate” for his church family.

Courtesy RELEVANT Magazine

Candidly, stories like this churn up the wrath of overturning temple money changer tables in me.  While I hold no ill-will against those judging my friend, their criticism comes from a place of self-righteousness, rather than love.  My friend’s decision was somehow not acceptable to these individuals’ view of what church should be.  Alas, my friend did leave.

I suspect had he been sitting in on the conversation, Jesus would have looked at his accusers and simply said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.”

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.

Self-righteous judgment has no place in the Kingdom if we are to live in love and mercy. 

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, many of us continually compare – we compare ourselves with others, we compare others against one another.  Differences often make us uneasy and it’s easier to “fit” in with each other, to be the same, share the same views.  With some exceptions, most of us don’t want to stand out.  This is true in Christian circles as well.  We have “acceptable norms,” and those who step outside those norms are looked at with suspicion.

Yet the church was never intended to turn out assembly line, cookie-cutter Christians.  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 do the same thing — trying to get everyone to speak and act 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 miracle of grace.

The second reason is our tendency to control.  As some of my older friends can attest, I’ve struggled with control issues most of my life.  I don’t like loose ends.

“Control” by itself isn’t necessary a bad thing – controlling a flood after a dam bursts, or controlling one’s spending.  The problem occurs when we browbeat those around us into compliance, to control their actions, to fit our view.  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.

What can we do to extend grace and forgiveness to those around us rather than rushing to judgment?  Three ideas come to mind (borrowed from Chuck Swindoll in his commentary on Romans 14).

  • Accept others as they are.  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 with discernment.
  • Not dictating to others allows GOD the freedom to direct their lives. While we’re all family, and I may urge you to be cautious in certain actions in your life, grace means I give you the freedom to choose.  God is fully capable of guiding each of us – some to one lifestyle, others to a different lifestyle.
  • We’re not qualified to judge others. God tells us He alone is qualified to judge; who are we to judge someone else?  We’re notoriously inconsistent.  We can seldom read the motives of others, finding it hard to be totally objective.  How often do we jump to wrong conclusions, make 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.

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 that your first best role is to simply offer guidance, and accept the outcomes with love, grace, and humility.

Colossians 1:17

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