One of the worst things someone could call you in our culture is “judgmental.” There are lots of negative descriptors packed into that word: hateful, close-minded, arrogant, rude, angry, and unforgiving. Certainly, we’ve all had interactions with people who embody those descriptors. No wonder our culture cries, “Don’t judge!” Sometimes people even point to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.”
But should we truly never judge? Or is the concept of judgment nuanced? In that same passage, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (Matthew 7:24).
So then do we judge, or not judge?
Judgment vs Judgmentalism
The truth is, we all judge constantly. We have to! You can’t make a decision without exercising judgment. You can’t say “yes” to something without saying “no” to something else. For example, at my house we have a wire basket that holds the freshest fruit Aldi has to offer (which my wife probably told me was from Target…I know it’s from Aldi, Angela). Our kids go through fruit-eating spurts. Sometimes it’s all they want, and other times it’s worse than broccoli. So sometimes the bananas are eaten while they’re still green, and sometimes they stay in there until they become the hottest hangout for fruit flies in our kitchen.
If my child looks into the fruit basket, and there are two bananas available – one that’s perfectly yellow, and another that’s black and more liquid than solid – what is my child to do? Reject judgment, close her eyes, and hope for the best? No! I want her to use her judgment and say “yes” to the yellow banana and “no” to the banana smoothie forming next to it. Sound judgment is a gift! It’s a form of “discernment” – using our God-given faculties to judge between what is beneficial and what is not.
When does sound judgment digress into judgmentalism? In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus illustrates judgmentalism by saying, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’”
Judgmentalism is weaponized judgment. It’s using a standard against someone that you don’t meet, nor would want applied to you. Paul sees this in the Roman church and addresses it in Romans 2:1: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” How do we know if we’re practicing right judgment (discernment) or judgmentalism?
In the movie, Predator, the titular character only sees prey everywhere it goes. Judgmentalism turns you into the same type of creature. It turns you into a sin-hunter. Ever been tracked by a sin hunter? They catch every unkind word, thoughtless action, or mistake and throw it in your face. In other words, they’re like preschoolers.
Parents of preschoolers know exactly what I mean. If there is a preschooler in the backseat of your car and someone cuts you off in traffic, there’s a good chance you’ll hear them remind you, “Ooooh that’s a bad word, Daddy!” Or you can try and sneak a brownie before dinner, only to have them announce to the world, “Daddy didn’t listen! He’s eating a brownie early!”
That’s a sin-hunter. They can’t help themselves. They judge every attitude, word, and behavior and use judgment to either diminish others or elevate themselves. Jesus tells a parable about a sin-hunter in the temple. A religious leader was praying next to a tax collector, and he just couldn’t help himself – he prayed, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). Jesus said the religious leader left the temple unjustified before God. Turns out sin-hunting is a fruitless hobby.
Upright judgment doesn’t lead to condemnation; it leads to mercy. Look at Paul’s instruction to the church in Galatia concerning sound judgment: “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Galatians 6:1a). Paul is saying that godly judgment should lead us to restore our brothers and sisters in Christ with gentleness and humility, not to defame or attack them.
Righteous judgment leads to mercy because it looks both ways – not only outwardly at others, but inwardly at self. When we see brokenness in others, we’re moved to compassion because we see our own brokenness, too. We extend mercy because we need mercy.
I heard a story about godly judgment from the early Christian Desert Fathers, who were ascetics living in the Egyptian desert during the 3rd century. The story went something like this. A brother had committed a fault. To deal with his failure, a council was called, but one leader refused to attend. When the others sent for him, he finally rose to go. On the way, he picked up a leaky jug, filled it with water, and carried it under his arm. Upon arriving, the council saw the trail of water and asked, “What is this, Father?” The old man responded, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard his explanation, they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.
When we judge rightly, we don’t forget our own failures, but instead remember God’s mercy toward us in them.
Thank God for upright judgment.
And thank God for mercy.
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