To judge or not to judge

Raise your hand if you agree with this statement: “I’ve recently been judgmental toward someone else.” (You can be honest: I won’t tell anyone.) It might be someone in your immediate circle: your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, or a member of your church. Or it might be someone you’ve only read about in your news feeds.

The judgment may have been fleeting: you formed a quick impression, thought or said something negative, and went on with your day. Or it might be ongoing: that person has become a continual thorn in your side, someone you have to tolerate or put up with in a grin-and-bear-it or even a grit-your-teeth kind of way. If and when you tell someone else about your relationship to this person, you are the hero of the story, and the other is the “bad guy” or something a shade less villainous. But the story will be told in such a way as to elicit some pity or admiration for what you have to endure.

Does any of this sound familiar? (Yes, yes, I see those hands.)

In previous posts, we’ve seen the apostle James take aim at the way believers were criticizing and passing judgment on each other: Who do you think you are? As with other passages in James, we might again hear the echo of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye. (Matt 7:1-5, CEB)

“Don’t judge,” Jesus says. That sounds like a pretty firm rule. But to put it in terms of what we’ve discussed in recent posts, Jesus isn’t saying that there’s no place for wise judgment. Note, for example, that the last sentence implies that removing the metaphorical splinter from another believer’s eye is worth doing. The problem, in other words, is not judgment per se, but arrogant and hypocritical judgment.

Let’s face it. Our stance toward the world around us, including our fellow human beings, is often self-protective and self-serving. Those of us who have been hurt repeatedly are wary of threats, and our brains are constantly scanning the environment for them. That’s how we’re built. Our defensiveness is a survival mechanism; the more difficult, stressful, or traumatic our life has been, the more likely we are to see threats even where they don’t exist.

We close ourselves off. We push away. We pass judgment on the basis of the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence: a word, a look, an assumed attitude. It’s normal. We all do it, to a greater or less extent.

But it’s not much of a basis for Christian community, for the shared life of a people who supposedly follow Jesus’ command to love one another.

Wise judgment has its place in the church, as it does in families. After all, we don’t let our kids do anything they please: we teach them the difference between right and wrong, polite and impolite, loving and unloving. And similarly, within the church, we can’t mourn sin properly and simultaneously turn a blind eye to bad behavior, refusing to say anything because Jesus told us not to judge.

Rather, what it seems Jesus wants us to understand is that wise and proper judgment begins with self-examination. Before we point the finger of blame, before we pick at the misbehavior of others, we need to ask, and ask honestly: What about me? What might I have done to contribute to the problem?

With the psalmist, we can pray both individually and as a community of faith:

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
    Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts!
Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,
    then lead me on the eternal path!
(Ps 139:23-24)

Let us repent of our quick and hypocritical judgmentalism without denying the need for wise, humble, and loving judgment. And let us find ways to cultivate such wisdom together.