“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise…Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful. And judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: release, and ye shall be released: give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.”
And he spake also a parable unto them, “Can the blind guide the blind? shall they not both fall into a pit? The disciple is not above his teacher: but every one when he is perfected shall be as his teacher. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how canst thou say to thy brother, ‘Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye’, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye” (Luke 6:31, 36-42).
Jesus, in Luke 6:19-49, proclaims what is often called His “Sermon on the Plain.” His instructive is compelling on account of its clarity and direct application. We can always find ways to better practice these matters in our faith.
Tendencies toward judgmentalism are of special concern. Judgmentalism is endemic in the world. Everyone majors in judgment. Perhaps there is no mantle as easily taken by human beings than the mantle of the judge. Turn on the television: everyone is judging politicians, sports figures, liberals, conservatives, pundits, etc. If you have the stomach for it, read the comments on almost any news website or major blog; you will quickly see the black and judgmental hearts lurking underneath far too many in America and throughout the world.
People declaring their judgments on others are found everywhere. Liberals condemn conservatives as backward; conservatives condemn liberals as smug and elitist. People from different parts of the country, let alone the world, highlight their differences and judge themselves superior and others inferior based on those distinctives; “the sports team from my geographic area is superior to the sports team from your geographic area.”
The people of God are not immune from such judgmentalism. Sadly, far too often, the household of God is often seen as a hotbed of judgmentalism and sanctimony, full of gossip, slander, and all sorts of sins of the tongue. Too many Christians thoughtlessly tear others down with their comments, taking on a mantle not given to them, and many souls have been discouraged and broken by the tongues of professors of Christ (James 4:11-12). Such circumstances presume actual words; far more often people feel the icy stares and the mental judgments which are made but none would dare to speak. How many times have Christians fired off judgments before all the evidence had been heard? How many have spoken before they thought or prayed? How many have proven hypocritical, prosecuting certain sins while tolerating others, heaping nothing but scorn on those who commit the sins they are against but not daring to chastise those who commit sins with which they also struggle? Such is rightly called Pharisaism, and it is alive and well among the Lord’s people.
And yet, whenever any condemnation of judgmentalism would be offered, and any attempt to make sense of Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:36-42 is offered, there seems to be an almost reflexive response: “but there are times we need to judge!”
Judgmentalism does prove prevalent because judgment is a critical element of life. Exercising proper judgment can be a matter of life and death: every day we make untold number of judgments about where to go, what to do, what to eat or drink, and what to avoid, and one wrong decision could cost us our life! When we encounter other people we have a primal impulse to assess whether they are friend or foe, a help or a danger. Those who are like us are more likely to be friendly; the greater the difference, the more likely they may be hostile. In many ways we are hard wired to judge.
And it is absolutely true that there is assessment, discernment, and thus forms of judgment in which Christians must participate. The same Jesus who condemned judgmentalism in Matthew 7:1-5 would go on in Matthew 7:43-45 to warn against false prophets and teachers, indicating that believers would know them by their fruits. Any sort of discernment of truth versus error demands judgment (Hebrews 5:12-14). A Christian must confront a brother or sister in Christ whom he or she believes has sinned against him or her (Matthew 18:15-18); local congregations must discipline any of its members who persist in witnessed unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-13).
Thus we all have powers of discernment, and we use them. When we first encounter a person, we make on-the-spot judgments based on a person’s appearance, clothing (or lack thereof), attitude manifested, diction and language usage, and so on and so forth. We invariably compare and contrast how we view them with how we view ourselves. As we interact with others, we judge what they say and do. We cannot help but make such assessments, for without them, we could never calibrate if and how we should respond or engage with them.
And yet sin has corrupted our powers of discernment (Romans 3:23). As fallible humans, our powers of discernment may prove inaccurate. We are beset by inadequacies, insecurities, and fears: when confronted with something foreign, different, or alien, our perception of others may be colored by our fears and insecurities. We can never truly and “objectively” judge another without reference to ourselves; our discernment regarding others speaks volumes about how we see ourselves and our relationship to God, the world, and our fellow human beings.
So we will discern, assess, and thus judge. The real issue, in the end, is what we decide to do with our judgments. And this gets to the heart of Jesus’ concern and instruction in Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:36-42. What will we do with our discernment?
How we respond to others expresses our heart and how well we have aligned with Jesus’ instruction. Judgmentalism, in the end, is proving arrogant and sanctimonious when we should have manifested humility and mercy. Such things have nothing to do with the assessment itself: it has everything to do with how we respond to others based on that assessment!
We will manifest either arrogance or humility based upon how willing we prove to own up to our failings, inadequacies, and limitations. Such is Jesus’ main concern in Matthew 7:1-5.
Many have attempted to blunt the force of Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 7:1-5 by appealing to Matthew 7:2: “see, we can judge others; we just need to use the right standard so that our judgment is right.” Such entirely misses the spirit of what Jesus says. At no point does Jesus doubt that the “judged” person has difficulties or problems; after all, he has a mote or speck in his eye, and that mote or speck should be removed (Matthew 7:3-5). Yet, as James will ask in James 4:11-12, who has given us the right to judge our brother in various matters? Are we any better than they? According to what God has revealed in Christ, no, none of us are any better or worse than anyone else; we are all sinners worthy of condemnation, none of us will be saved because of our merits, but are entirely dependent on God’s grace as manifest in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:20, 23, 5:6-11).
Yes, we will be judged by the same standard that we use to judge others. That means that just as we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by what they actually do, so others judge us by what we do rather than by our intentions. As humans we are all far better people in our minds than we are in reality (James 1:22-25); we wish to do good but we struggle to do so.
Jesus would not have us stop assessing but to start “judging our judgments.” What happens if our assessments have proven inadequate or even false? Are we willing to amend them or do we stubbornly hold on to our judgment? What would cause us to keep believing something that is not true? In many instances, pride and insecurity. What if we have rushed to judgment before all the facts are in and our judgment proves woefully inaccurate? Will we hasten to correct ourselves in humility, or will we pridefully resist? Have we learned to perhaps hold off in our final judgment and consider our assessments provisional until we can obtain more information? Above all things, when we see the failings or difficulties of others, do we use them as means by which we can feel smug about ourselves, as if we were superior to them, or do we consciously recognize our own failings, weaknesses, difficulties, and limitations? Arrogance, insecurity, and pride are the fuel of sanctimony. While no one likes having another speak of their flaws or weaknesses, it is far more tolerable to hear about them from someone who admits their own failings and weaknesses and approaches with humility than from someone who is “never wrong” and acts as if he or she is better than everyone else. Jesus has already told us this: He did so by means of the illustration of the beam and the mote (Matthew 7:3-5). Judgment may prove necessary, but we must always remember who we are.
Yet, as we have seen, it is not enough merely to know who we are and keep that in consideration as we judge. If we would follow Jesus we must go farther and show mercy, doing unto others what we would have them to for us (Luke 6:31, 36). Very few, if any, would presume to be perfect or sinless: people generally recognize they have flaws and limitations. Deep down we know that we depend on mercy from others. And so it is not for nothing that James says the following:
For judgment is without mercy to him that hath showed no mercy: mercy glorieth against judgment (James 2:13).
We know how this plays out even in our sinful world. News headlines are filled with stories regarding people caught in various transgressions. Those who were famous for harsh judgmentalism about various sins yet caught in that very same transgression are judged harshly. Others who proved more humble and were merciful toward others and yet were caught in transgression are judged less harshly. We also know this in ourselves: it is easier to prove more lenient in judgment to those who manifest humility and mercy than it is for those who major in judgmentalism. We take a bit of perverse pleasure in watching a judgmental person get what is coming to them based on Matthew 7:1-2. As they have judged, so they have been judged; as they have measured, they have received in full.
Jesus modeled mercy. He rightly could have condemned all of us for our sin; He instead came to save us (John 3:16-17). He was given many opportunities to sharply condemn sin; throughout He never compromised or commended sin, and yet He showed mercy to sinners like the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), yet heaped condemnation upon the Pharisees and other religious authorities (Matthew 23:1-33). The “sinners” knew they were sinners and looked for redemption; the Pharisees and religious authorities presumed to be holy, righteous, and without sin, and were judged as they had judged.
If we want to receive mercy from the Lord, we therefore must show mercy to others. Mercy does not mean that we compromise and call evil good. Mercy does not mean that we sugarcoat the difficulties or act as if nothing is wrong. But mercy does demand that we do not give the condemnation and justice we think we have the right to give; mercy, after all, is not giving what is deserved. This mercy is informed by humility; we recognize that we are flawed and fail, and so we recognize that others are flawed and will fail. When we show mercy, we are looking for reasons to encourage and to redeem, just as our Lord does. We will always have plenty of reasons to condemn; so does Jesus. And yet Jesus wants to save.
As Christians we must take very seriously what Jesus teaches about judgmentalism. We must first challenge our resistance to Jesus’ instruction: why is it that we have such an almost reflexive impulse to commend judgmentalism? We must stand firm for truth; yes, people in our culture, as in every culture, feel as if we are being overly judgmental no matter how we point out their sins and failings. But how much of this resistance is because we are attempting to justify our own weaknesses and sins and our predilection for arrogance and sanctimony in how we treat others?
We must then look in the mirror. Would I want people to be judging me in the same way that I judge them? Quite honestly, no. Am I showing mercy to my fellow man? Quite honestly, no. Would we want to be tried before a court of brethren or of worldly people? Probably not. Yet am I not too often guilty of wanting to use the gavel on others? The Scriptures make it clear that such self-assessment is very difficult, and most shrink away from it (James 1:22-25). Yet we must come to grips with our inadequacies, hypocrisy, weaknesses, fears, insecurities, and failings. There is no other way in which we will see the beam in our eye. We otherwise cannot learn humility.
Then we must practically consider how to move forward. If we could just break down the judgments, we might find the humility to be able to actually reach more people in more meaningful ways with the water of life. The greatest to the least among us have a need to be served by those who would show them the Gospel, and we have no right to consider it to be “beneath” us. Jesus loves your political opponent as much as He loves you. So much of our witness is hindered because people feel judged and not loved. Far too often Jesus’ example is inverted: in Jesus’ name Christians condemned sinners like Jesus condemned the sanctimonious religious authorities and offer hope and relief to religious persons like Jesus offered to repentant sinners. May it never be! The comfortable must be made uncomfortable, and the uncomfortable offered relief; may we exercise proper discernment, humility, and mercy in these ways.
If we could just break down the judgments, maybe the back door of the church building could be closed. Far too often we treat the spiritually weak as the spiritually errant; we do not encourage and strengthen them but spiritually shoot them through sharp judgment and chastisement. It is absolutely shocking what some Christians believe they have the right to say to other Christians which proves highly judgmental, gossipy, slanderous, or at the very least counter-productive, pushing away the very people whom we should be drawing closer. Far too many times everyone is on the watch for specific sins but allow many others to be perpetuated without comment. How often, in the name of attempting to protect the youngest Christians, they are all but driven out because of a superabundance of focus and concern? Furthermore, how many Christians are not allowed to grow up or mature in the eyes of their fellow Christians, still put in the same box and perspective as they were 5, 10, or even 20 or 30 years ago? If people reached out a loving hand more quickly than the ruler of judgment, what could happen?
For good reason does Jesus direct His instruction about judgmentalism, perspicacity, humility, and mercy to His followers. We need to hear it. We need to come to grips with it. We need to take it seriously, both inside and outside of the church.
As for me, I do not presume to be better than anyone else; I struggle with judgmentalism, and solicit your prayers for strength, humility, and a willingness to show mercy. I pray for all of you toward the same end. The more mercy we show and the less judgment we produce can only lead us to being better disciples of Jesus. May we judge as God would have us to judge, in humility, show mercy, and obtain the resurrection in Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry