This is a question that you’ve probably heard, whether directed at you or someone else; maybe it’s a question that you’ve even asked. It’s a question that I’ve been thinking a lot about in our age of tolerance. Many years ago, a friend told me that his mother-in-law was living with a man who was not her husband. I asked him if she considered herself a Christian, and he said yes. I then asked my friend if he (or his wife) had talked to his mother-in-law about the fact that she was living in sin. He said that he didn’t want to be “judgmental.” I had to ask myself: was I being judgmental in asserting that my friend’s mother-in-law was living in sin?
Matthew 7:1-2 says this: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” If you look at the context of Matthew 7, Jesus goes on to use the humorous illustration of a plank in your own eye and a speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye. Notice our Lord’s words in verse 5: “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.” As I thought about these verses, it seemed obvious that it doesn’t mean that we can’t make judgments about right and wrong behavior. As I examined my own heart (“first take the plank out of your own eye”) in the light of this passage and others, it seemed that the difference between judging and being judgmental had something to do with my motive regarding my friend’s mother-in-law. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” Proverbs 21:2 is almost a carbon copy: “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Was I condemning my friend’s mother-in-law, or did I genuinely want her to renounce her sin and live according to the faith that she professed? I don’t remember if I prayed for her at that moment, but I know I did later, and it was something like this: “Lord, if this woman is your daughter, I ask that You would convict her of her sin so that she can live the way that You want her to. If she’s not, I ask that You would draw her to Yourself in saving faith.”
Last year, I read a book with the same title as the title of this post; it was written by Erwin Lutzer. In one of the early chapters, he defines judging as being discerning; in other words, we need to be able to understand what is right and wrong. If this somehow makes you feel uncomfortable, think about this: can you imagine trying to raise kids without teaching them right from wrong? On TV and in movies, I have often heard things like, “Follow your heart. Do what feels right. Everyone has their own truth.” Is that really how we ought to raise our kids? Is that how we want them to make their decisions? Is that how we make our own decisions?
In an early chapter, Lutzer lays out some principles for helping us make discerning, Biblical judgments. The first one is humility, not superiority. This was one of the fundamental problems with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day; they viewed themselves as being superior to the rest of the Jews. Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” That is the essence of judging with humility.
Rather than go into detail about Lutzer’s other principles, let me lay them out here, with a brief comment on each:
- Facts, not presumptions: Let’s make sure we do research, have evidence, and ask questions before making our judgments.
- Words and actions, not motives: Let’s focus on people’s behavior, not their motives. I would add, however, that it’s important for other people to understand their own motives.
- Biblical issues, not preferences: Some things are always right, while some are always wrong. Then there are actions (e.g. drinking wine) which are not always right or wrong.
- Temporal, not eternal judgments: We have the power (even the responsibility) to judge, but not the power to condemn.
One other thing I should add: in I Corinthians 5:12-13, the apostle Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” Sure, I can observe and comment on trends in society as a whole that are sinful, but when it comes to people outside the church, I don’t expect them to live by God’s standards; why would I? However, when it comes to a brother or sister in Christ who is behaving in an ungodly way, we have the responsibility to confront them. Whether it’s me or someone else who confronts a person depends largely on my relationship (or lack thereof) with them. And yes, I have confronted brothers and sisters before. I hope that you will not shirk the responsibility of doing the same.