Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. (Matthew 7.1)
Eight words. They seem clear enough. How could they possibly be misunderstood or misused?
Two ways. Quoting them the way the world does (i.e. – “never try to change me”). Or by getting tripped up by their apparent tension with other words from Christ (“judge with right judgment” – John 7.24). Which is it, Jesus? Judge or don’t?
Understand: the world misunderstands. When Jesus said “don’t judge” he was calling for people to change. Specifically, to stop living a life of condemnation. Sometimes we need to be challenged and to reform our ways.
Understand as well: sometimes the church doesn’t get it either. By thinking our Lord was somehow backtracking, contradicting, or qualifying himself. Christians need to exercise discernment and self-evaluation, and certainly so before they try to help others change.
And that’s the thing. Disciples of Christ must be discerning (“judge with right judgment”), but not damning (“don’t judge”). Or in Christ’s words, we’re to “be wise as snakes and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10.16)
There’s a world of difference. Discernment is a scalpel wielded by a surgeon for the good of the patient. Judgment is a lever in the hand of the executioner. The former is about saving life; the latter is about taking it. We must see the difference between being all we can be as humans walking with God and usurping God’s unique place over the lives of us all.
But blindness is common. And that’s the context in which Jesus’ words “don’t judge” originally appear.
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. (Matthew 7.2-5)
Such blindness within us typically comes about in one of two ways, and they are not mutually exclusive, rather, they often go hand-in-hand. As in the passage just noted, our hypocrisy – that is, our play-acting – can come from, and bring about, blindness. When we condemn others for doing things that we are habitually about ourselves – perhaps even in far greater measure, but secretly! – we have become blind hypocrites and are in no position to lead the blind. In those cases, the log needs to be removed.
But such blindness can also come about by self-righteousness, simply forgetting that God is at the center of all things and has the final say, not us. We then need to recall the words of our Lord’s half-brother, James:
There is only one lawgiver and judge, and he is able to save and to destroy. But you who judge your neighbor, who are you? (James 4.12)
Who are you? Who are we? Indeed!
No one wakes up and says: “Today, I want to become a self-righteous hypocrite doling out condemnation.” No. Hear this! The slow descent to the hell that is hypocrisy is made by small, steady steps of being critical. Hypocrisy is simply the next step in the evolutionary ladder for someone consumed with casting criticism. To be hypercritical is to be hypocritical.
Now what I say next grieves me to no end, but I believe I would fail you if I didn’t remind myself, and all of us, of it. I do so with one end in mind: that we might be humbled, and ever remain so. Here it is: the heritage of faith of which I am a part has a long and strong reputation in the religious world for being just this: hypercritical. This is our history. And it is this sad truth that plays no small part in the reason why many will never seek out our counsel as to how to no longer be blind or will even remotely be open to our call for them to come see God.
We know from hard experience that being hypercritical comes at a very, very high price.
But, to this someone might say, “But truth is truth, God is truth, and doing it all right is what we must be about!” To which our Lord Jesus himself would respond: “Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9.13)
Yes. Mercy. Let us learn what this means. Again and again. Afresh and daily. Not to judge.