Volume XIV No.1
To Judge Or Not To Judge
In working with married couples I often see first hand the devastating effects of people being judgmental toward one another. We cannot avoid judgment altogether because it is integral to our phenomenological human experience and our survival. But there is a healthy way to judge and an unhealthy way to judge. In scripture we are commanded to refrain from judgment of one another
. At the same time we are instructed to judge all things
. ( Matt. 7, Rom. 2&14, 1Cor. 2:15) This need not be confusing. Let me clarify. ¹
To judge all things
simply means to test them with an objective or external standard. For example, a carpenter uses a level or plumb-line to judge the horizontal or vertical truth of a beam or door jam. We are admonished in scripture to be diligent in the judgment of all matters, phenomena, occurrences, opinions and such —not persons. We have a variety of more or less objective tools to help us judge a wide range of such matters. For example, we have moral and social law which is explained and exemplified throughout scripture.
In judging another person, we have no such objective standard. Our default is to judge others from a bias self-image, using the self-justified ‘ I ’ as the standard. We look at someone doing something we dislike and say “I would never be like that because I am better than that person.” This is being judgmental.
The simple way to judge as we should while avoiding being judgmental is to empathize: ask, “If I had that person's life, understanding and circumstances, would I do as he or she did? ” The answer is invariably yes
. And so, as Paul points out in Romans 2, the judgment we apply to others is also applied to us. (Also see the words of Christ Jesus, Matthew 7) This is as it should be. In this way we judge the action, but show mercy to the actor. Now, what of the consequences of failing to do this correctly?
In important intimate relationships, vulnerability is essential. We cannot afford to be judgmental. When we are judgmental we fail to understand and to appreciate the other person's reasoning; thus denying our common ground or communion. We construct psychological and emotional walls between ourselves and others “ fig leaves,
if you will (Gen. 3:7). This really amounts to dehumanizing the other person, perceiving him or her as a thing that is either right or wrong. Dehumanizing ineluctably leads to abuse. We must avoid this at all cost, learning instead to judge the action while in a sense joining the actor; saying to the other, 'we are much the same in our weaknesses.' This is in effect an act of kindness in that it treats the other as the same kind. We must in effect say,“I fully understand why you did what you did. I probably would have done the same. However, we see it was clearly wrong for us, and let's agree to neither of us do it.”
This is how intimate friends remain intimate and grow together, by rightly judging matters while refraining from being judgmental of one another. One gets the image of two hunters in a field. One accidentally steps into a hidden rabbit hole. The other helps him out and says, 'If not you, then me. Now we both know to be careful.'
This must be genuine, not patronizing. It cannot be faked. It must come from conviction, from the heart. We are talking about true empathy. I must put myself in your place until your behavior makes perfect sense to me. You must do the same for me. Only then will we come to understanding of one another, and of the truth of what is really happening between us as human beings. This genuine empathy, this balance of truth and mercy engenders security and trust.
It also makes it impossible for either of us to mock or abuse the other. Think of the broad implications. I recently spoke with a high school student who was telling me about what he was learning in his world and religious history studies. He had his details pretty mixed up. What he seemed clear on was that there were once some uncommonly bad guys who were responsible for war, racism, poverty, slavery, avarice and so forth. I found myself explaining to him how that before later agricultural advances it made economic sense for Genghis Khan to slaughter the enemy - every man woman and child - and take no prisoners; how that before the industrial revolution it made sense for one people to enslave another to insure cultural growth and survival; how that before nationalism came about it made strategic sense for the universal church to control the armies to ensure protection. In order to even truly understand history we have to empathize with historical actors until - given their understanding and circumstances - their choices make perfect sense to us. It doesn't make the choices right, but it allows us to see ourselves making the same choices.
Judgmental-ism, the failure to empathize, is present in all human conflict. It is largely to blame for why there is so much ferocity between Christian groups who come to blows over minor doctrinal issues, such as the age of the universe, and whether or not an evolutionist can be a Christian. It is also responsible for the ubiquitous generation gap, and the inability for an atheist
like Richard Dawkins to speak intelli-gently
about religious views that differ from his own. Please don't misunderstand me. I have very strong biblical views. I also have observed that understanding why someone else could strongly hold an opposing view has helped me understand my own views more clearly. Sometimes this has allowed me to let go of certain fear-bound dogmas. In other cases is has enabled me to grasp essential truths more completely.
So the unchanging objective is intimate relationship. (See John 17 “...that they might be one...“) Intimate relationship requires vulnerability. Judgmental-ism is an attack, an offensive, that demands a defensive response and creates an adversarial relationship. On the other hand judgment that employs empathy —truth and mercy —can never be used to judge another person. It always judges all things
as separate from the person. It is therefore disarming, kind, enjoining, and invites vulnerability and deeper communion. ²
¹ Judge Not —Judge All Things (Cornelius Stam, http://www.bereanbiblesociety.org/articles/1017954523.html) and similar teachings miss the point, I believe. It's not important because scripture says. Rather, scripture says because it's important. But why is it important? There is a reason that we must not judge persons. Failing to address the command from an understanding of its purpose fails really to address the command. Christ's command has in purpose the same thing that Christ himself has in purpose —That we be intimate with God and one another. This is why we must not judge one another. From this understanding we then venture out to ascertain all of what scripture must mean when it tells us to judge things but not persons.
² The greatest example we could think of comes to us from Luke's gospel (23:34). While being mocked and tortured Christ Jesus asks, “ Father, forgive them. They don't realize what they are doing.” In other words, given all the circumstances and conditions, their behavior, though wrong, made sense to Christ Jesus.
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