Christianity 201

November 1, 2021

Be Careful How You Judge

Today our search for good devotional material took us to Lamp and Light, and writer Jason Smith who lives in Oregon, a state in the western US. On his “About” page he writes, “…if there is one thing that will be said of me at the end of my life, I hope it is this: this man lived for Jesus.”

Because this article appeared just hours ago, I’m going to close comments here and invite you instead to click the header which appears below, and read and comment there. I know he would be encouraged if you do.

Beware a Critical Spirit

“What gives you the right to judge?”

If you’ve lived in the United States for almost any amount of time, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this question or some version of it. Maybe someone even threw this barbed question at you or someone you know. It’s a question that gets to the heart of some major cultural shifts that have been witnessed in the last several decades. It’s also a question that points to why so many seem fed up with Christianity today.

But wait a minute, someone might say. Didn’t Jesus Himself tell us we are not to judge others?

Judge Not or Judge Correctly?

Perhaps more than any other passage in Scripture, I hear Matthew 7:1 quoted today – by both Christians and non-Christians alike.

“Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1, ESV)

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Many will even say, “Who are you to judge? Even Jesus said ‘Judge not.’”

Certainly such a command should be taken seriously, if we claim to follow Jesus as Lord. But let’s make sure we are understanding what exactly Jesus meant by this. For example, in another passage of the New Testament, the crowds are quick to criticize Jesus – even calling Him “demon-possessed!” That’s when Jesus showed them the error of their ways and added,

“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (John 7:24, NIV, emphasis added)

So, which is it? Are we to judge or not judge? We like simple and straightforward answers to this question, don’t we? And yet, as with so many other areas of human relationships, the answer has to be more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”

Let’s consider the Matthew 7 quote in its full scriptural context. After saying “Judge not,” Jesus goes on to say this:

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5, ESV)

There’s a lot to unpack here, but if we seek to understand Jesus’ words we can avoid one of two errors that people often make. The first error is to think “judge not” is an absolute statement calling us to forsake all moral judgment or critique. The second error is to judge with a Pharisaical or self-righteous judgment.

Pharisaical Judgment

The first thing we need to see is that judgment here is akin to the word criticism. Jesus is chiding those who were eager to make harsh criticisms of others. This is seen in the ridiculous image Jesus paints for us. If you have read this passage before and completely missed Jesus’ use of righteous satire, there’s a good chance you missed what He’s saying.

Imagine someone walking into church with a massive tree trunk sticking out of his eye. To the amazement of everyone around him, the poor guy is somehow unaware of this ocular protrusion. How do you even broach the subject when he’s acting as if nothing is wrong? You then watch as he suddenly approaches one of the gentlemen staring at him in wonder.

“Listen, pal,” says Mr. Tree Trunk. “It seems that no one else is willing to tell you this, but you have some kind of black speck stuck in your eye. Here, I don’t want to embarrass you, but let me see if I can get it out of there.”

To which the other man, still startled by the size of that log, blurts out, “No, no! Thanks, but I think I’ll ask someone else to help with that.”

The whole scene sounds absurd, and yet it makes Jesus’ point perfectly. Jesus talks about things stuck in our eye, because very often our harsh criticism is the result of blindness to our own faults. To criticize someone else when we are struggling with the same thing (maybe even to a greater degree!) is to play the hypocrite.

Why Are We Quick to Judge?

It is part of our human nature that we tend to minimize the seriousness of our own sins and failures while we magnify the shortcomings of others. This can stem from spiritual pride – even if we don’t consider ourselves religious. We all have an inner Pharisee that is eager to make others look worse in order to make ourselves look better by comparison.

Take inventory of your own heart. When you hear about someone else’s failures, are you quick to condemn? Is there a part of you that smiles when others are exposed for wrongdoing? Do you jump at opportunities to show others to be in the wrong simply because you are gratified by being right?

There are times when we might be absolutely right, but the way we are speaking is shortsighted and harsh. Maybe it’s because we’re speaking like someone who has the goal of tearing others down rather than building them up.

Are you better at seeing the good intentions of others or finding errors in their thinking? Too often, we can criticize someone else only to find out later that we had no understanding of their unique situation. Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.”

The Pharisees felt they had to bolster their own self-image, because for them everything hung on being seen as righteous and morally praiseworthy. But when you understand that your righteousness comes from Christ through faith, you no longer feel the need to be superior or self-righteous. When you understand your own guilt has been removed by Christ, you won’t feel the need to find guilt in others.

Why We Can’t Neglect Discernment

Secondly, let’s note that Jesus is not calling for an absolute ban on any and all moral judgments. We’ve already noted that Jesus elsewhere calls people to “judge correctly” or to make sober judgments in the right way. And in Matthew 7, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (v. 6). Picking up Jesus’ metaphor for those who mock and malign us, how are we to know who the “dogs” or “pigs” are without careful discernment? A little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (v. 15). If we should never make any moral judgments whatsoever, why would He say, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (v. 20)? To determine if “fruit” of someone’s life is good or bad, one must make a moral judgment.

But even in the example of the man with a log in his own eye, Jesus tells us to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5, ESV)

In other words, Jesus isn’t calling us to stop correcting people who are in error. Jesus is saying that until we have examined our own hearts first and confessed our own sin to God and others, we are in no position to confront others. A good question to ask ourselves before issuing criticism is: “While my situation is different, is this something that I too struggle with in some way?”

God calls all His people to live in holiness, so of course Jesus still wants us to speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15). If God calls something “sin,” so should we. Sin is always destructive, and God’s commands are for our good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). When we keep this in mind, we can warn both ourselves and others against it. Jesus calls the clear-eyed to help the brother with the speck out of love.

Elsewhere the New Testament says:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1, NIV)

Confronting a brother or sister in sin is something Jesus explicitly calls His followers to do. But this is so important: the goal must always be restoration. The goal is not to expose, embarrass, condemn, or make an example of someone. To confront someone in love is to say, “I know that what you are doing offends God and can only bring harm to yourself and others in the long run. So please come back to the Savior who loves you too much to let you go your own way!”

Tenderness in tone goes a long way here. That’s why Paul says to restore the person caught in sin “gently.”

Jesus, Friend of Sinners

Let’s remember that Jesus came into this world not to condemn, but to save.[1] If you are at all familiar with the teachings of the Bible, you know it says that every last one of us are sinners. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” All includes you, me, and everyone else in the line of Adam. What does that have to do with being overly critical?

Well, if I am a sinner who deserves condemnation but instead receives grace from God, that should radically shape the way I deal with others. As a Christian, I know that Jesus found me when I was lost and showed me incomprehensible grace when I was headed for the ultimate judgment of hell. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV). To forget this in my relationships with others is to forget the greatest thing that happened to me.

How quickly we can forget that because of Jesus’ compassion for the lost, He was frequently found with the biggest sinners. Why? Not because the perfect Son of God wanted to join in their sin, but simply because He loved them and knew they needed Him. How ironic that we don’t find Jesus sharply criticizing the sexually promiscuous or materialistic tax-collectors. Instead, it was for the religious leaders that Jesus reserved His sharpest criticism, the very ones who mocked Him with the label “Friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).

Cruelty, slander, and mud-slinging happen in the world. We know that. We know people get canceled and shamed and ostracized without a fair hearing. But that should not happen in the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not delight in a church that looks down on a sinner who has lost their way.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who goes after that wandering sheep with the goal of bringing it back to the fold. That should be our hearts, too. And as I look at my own heart, I confess there are times that I’ve jumped to conclusions about people without giving them a fair hearing. That is always wrong, and Jesus calls us to do better than that.

Christians of all people should understand the importance of being slow to criticize. We should take our cues from Jesus and be known for humbly loving those with whom we strongly disagree. We should confront religious hypocrisy while being especially watchful about such hypocrisy in our own hearts.

Question for reflection: Am I more eager to confront hypocrisy in others than I am willing to confront it in my own life?


[1] John 3:18.