Judgment, wise and unwise

Some parents possess remarkable wisdom. Imagine the following scenario: you have one cupcake — yes, with sprinkles — to divide between your two kids. It’s supposed to be a fun treat, and you don’t want it to turn into a nightmare instead. You know from experience that your kids are prone to squabbling. Someone will whine “It’s not fair!” if the other gets an extra sprinkle (or more blue ones, or whatever). What will you do?

And no, you can’t just eat the cupcake yourself.

Here’s one parent’s solution: have one child divide the cupcake in two, while the other child gets first pick of the two pieces.

Brilliant. Solomon himself couldn’t have done better.

King Solomon, son of David, was legendary for his wisdom. One of his first tests as a young king was to judge between two women who both claimed to be the mother of the same child (1 Kings 3:16-28). They had given birth in the same household, only three days apart from each other. But one woman accidentally smothered her baby in her sleep. She then stole the other woman’s baby and claimed it was hers. Neither woman, of course, could produce a official birth certificate.

What was Solomon to do? He proposed to cut the boy in two, giving half to each woman.

Obviously.

As Solomon expected, the real mother cried out, “No! Don’t kill him!” She loved the child and could not bear to see a hair on his head harmed, even if it meant giving him to the other woman. But the second, scheming mother spitefully told the king to go ahead and divide the child. The king, of course, awarded the baby to the first woman, seeing her motherly compassion. That day, the legend of his wisdom was born.

Unfortunately, not all of Solomon’s decisions were equally wise. During his reign, he seems to have been driven by a relentless ambition that evoked the people’s resentment. His policies ended up fracturing the kingdom into northern and southern factions.

Selfish ambition corrupting wisdom? That should sound familiar to readers of the letter of James.

According to James, as we have seen, there is true wisdom and false wisdom, a godly wisdom from above, and a worldly wisdom from below. How does one know the difference? True wisdom is embodied in a life of humility before God. Some of the believers who aspired to the role of teacher, unfortunately, were doing so to gain honor and status, betraying their lack of humility and hence their lack of true wisdom.

When James teaches that we shouldn’t judge others, I don’t think he means that we shouldn’t exercise wise judgment. Anyone who cares about the things of God must constantly make wise decisions, discerning good from evil. But this must be done in humility, with an eye toward fulfilling the law of love.

It’s humility that allows us to recognize how our need to be right prompts us to assume the other is wrong, ignoring evidence to the contrary. It’s humility that helps us to follow James’ advice that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak. It’s humility that permits us to question our snap judgments of others.

And it’s humility that teaches us to submit to the “royal law” (James 2:8) of love. When we judge others unwisely, James insists, we put ourselves above the law; conversely, we cannot judge wisely without placing ourselves under the authority of God and the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Indeed, when we take that wisely humble stance, we might think less about judging the behavior and attitudes of others, and more about examining our own. Can we discern what God-honoring neighbor-love would require from us in a given situation?

That is where wise judgment should lead.

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