One of the parts of ministry that I love the most is Bible Study. When I lead a Bible Study, I try to create an open, caring and safe atmosphere where anyone feels free to say anything. My role becomes a combination of traffic director and moderator. I also love to play devil’s advocate, raising questions and making comments about the questions and comments that come as part of the group’s discussion.
One comment that eventually comes up in most Bible Study groups commonly arises when the group or some of its members begins discussion some group or individual whose conduct goes against the standards of some members of the group. As the group begins to discuss the rightness and wrongness of the conduct, inevitably, someone will make the following or similar comment, “But we can’t judge others!”
Unless we are in the middle of a really important thought that just can’t wait to be dealt with, I generally respond to that comment by shifting from discussion moderator to a more aggressive mode of leadership–I want the group to really look at that comment because it is one of those comments that sound really good and Biblical and loving and all that but which is in the end a too simplistic understanding of an important Biblical message.
The comment comes from Matthew 7.1-2 and isn’t actually a prohibition on judging. Rather, it seems to be to be a good statement on the reality of the human judgementalness. The passage says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (NIV)
I think that while the passage views a lack of judgement of others as an ideal, it also sees the reality that we humans will be judgemental–all of us have a line between our accepting side and our judging side. For some, the line is well defined and clear, with very little on the acceptable side and a great deal on the unacceptable side. Others have a very big acceptable side and a very small unacceptable side–but the unacceptable side does exist and anyone on that side will be judged.
We are human and something about our human nature causes us to judge others. Jesus might prefer if we didn’t judge others–but if we can’t stop our judgemental side, we need at least to be aware that the standards we use to judge others will be used on us. I don’t think Jesus is telling us that God will judge us by our own standards–God shows his judgement standards through the grace of the cross and the resurrection.
Most likely, Jesus is telling us that the way we judge others will be the way they judge us. If we are harsh, critical and unwilling to accept any deviation from our standards, we will eventually discover that that becomes the way people look at us. Rather than see us as paragons of morality, we will be seen as small and critical people, whose lives will be under scrutiny all the time as people look for the chinks and cracks in our armour as avidly as we look for their chinks and cracks.
Harsh judgement based on narrowly defined limits of acceptable and unacceptable always returns. It is like a boomerang–we throw it out and mysteriously, it returns to us, occasionally hitting us if we are not careful. If I let everyone I see know that I find this or that part of their behaviour unacceptable, they will let me know that they find my behaviour and attitudes unacceptable, either by directly telling me or more likely by ignoring me or going out of their way to ignore me.
And this is bad on many levels. As believers, we are to be a positive model of the Christian faith–and being overly judgemental simply isn’t an attractive model of the Christian faith. We end up not developing the kind of relationships that God can use to bring people to faith. In some cases, we will actually drive people away from the faith–in my pastoral ministry is has not been unusual to hear people tell me that the ultimate reason they haven’t been open to the Christian faith is the judgemental attitude of some believer.
While judgemental attitudes should probably not be part of our faith, they are there. But as Jesus warns us, we need to remember that the judgement we use will always come back to us. That by itself is probably a good reason to temper our judgemental attitudes.
May the peace of God be with you.