“Judge not” is one of the most popular Bible verses in our society, especially among non-Christians. It seems to fit in with two of our society’s most basic assumptions—that (1) religion is private and (2) morality is relative. People love “judge not” because it seems to be a handy way of saying, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong.” Begin to make a public assessment on just about any moral issue and you’ll see this verse swiftly pulled out as a deflective weapon.
The problem is, Jesus—the one who uttered the words—didn’t share our presuppositions about private religion and relative morality. He was constantly making public judgments, many of them rather striking. In John 7:7 he told his disciples that the world hates him “because I testify about it that its works are evil.” So he couldn’t have meant that we’re all supposed to just throw up our hands and say, “Hey, to each his own. Who am I to judge?”
You judge someone not when you assess their position, but when you dismiss them as a person. Jesus told people that their works were evil. Yet John 3:17 says that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it. There is a difference between speaking a harsh truth and condemning. Condemning goes beyond saying “This is wrong” to saying, “I don’t want you around anymore.”
It’s what you do after you tell someone the truth that determines whether or not you are condemning—a.k.a. judging—them. When Jesus told us the harsh truth about our sin, he brought us close. He made us, even as sinners, his friends.
The antidote to judging is to remember the gospel. Here are some signs you’re judging others (because you’ve forgotten the gospel):
1) You are more enraged at someone else’s sin than you are embarrassed by your own. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that one of the first signs of Christian maturity was a frustration with the hypocrisy of the church and a desire to separate from it. But the next sign of growth was recognizing that the same hypocrisy in the church is present in oneself. We continue to confront others in their sin, but always while being painfully aware of our own.
2) You refuse to forgive (or when you forgive you refuse to forget). To refuse to forgive someone is to be almost entirely ignorant of the enormity of what God has forgiven you. And to “forgive but not forget” is, as I’ve heard it said, “a distinction without a difference.” It’s just another way of saying, “I’m going to remind you of this all the time and use it as justification for being cold toward you.” In other words, it’s not forgiveness at all. Forgiveness means absorbing the debt and offering love and goodness in return.
3) You “cut off” those who disagree with you. This is the essence of judging. When you disagree strongly with someone—over something like faith or morality or politics—and because you can’t agree you cut them off. You say, in essence, “We can’t really be friends if we disagree on this issue.” The ultimate statement of judgment is, “Depart from me.”
Hear me charitably on this: you have to love the person more than you love your position on a particular issue. That doesn’t mean you ever compromise your position or fail to state it. But it means that you stay committed to loving those who passionately disagree with you.
The best example of this is Jesus with Judas. Even after Judas had betrayed him, Jesus says to him, “Friend, why have you come?” Friend. Jesus offers the hand of friendship to him—and to us!—when we are his betrayers. How can I say “Depart from me” to someone else, when God doesn’t even say that to me?
4) You gossip. What makes gossip so dangerous is that you are judging someone without giving them the chance to change. At least if you judged someone to their face, they could do something about it. (And don’t mask it with a “prayer request” or a classically Southern “bless his heart.”)
5) You refuse to receive criticism. Why do you hate criticism? Isn’t it because you hate to admit that you have faults? But if you understand the gospel, that shouldn’t surprise you. So when others point out your depravity, you should be able to say, “Well, of course. In fact, I could tell you a thing or two you didn’t notice!”
6) You refuse to correct someone’s position. Irony alert. As a Christian, when you refuse to correct someone, it’s for one of two reasons: 1) You don’t believe that the Bible is true, or 2) You don’t think the other person can actually change. But by assuming the other person won’t change and won’t listen, you’re judging and condemning them from the start. You’re consigning them to their sin without ever giving them the chance to receive grace. Which leads me to the last one…
7) You write someone off as hopeless. Listen, we serve a Savior who raises the dead. It shouldn’t phase use if we think someone is hopeless. We are just as hopeless. But if we keep our mouths shut because we think someone is beyond hope—or worse, if we’re just afraid of an awkward interaction—then we’re saying that we would rather our friends suffer the full consequences of their sins than speak up. Where would you be if not for the courage of others to speak difficult truths into your life?
There is a balance here between grace and truth. So don’t judge others by withholding the truth. But don’t judge them by speaking the truth without grace. Instead, give them the grace and truth of the gospel. Truth without grace is judgmental fundamentalism; grace without truth is liberal sentimentality. The gospel combines both.