#29  We Should Always Go Easy on Judging Others—Or Ourselves

IT IS SO EASY to be critical. In listening to talk about spiritual gifts, I have sometimes remarked to June that perhaps I have the gift of criticism. But I am certainly not the only one to have such a questionable gift.

Criticism comes easy, especially when we have perfectionistic tendencies such as mentioned in the previous chapter. When we observe others falling short of the “perfect,” we criticize their imperfection. We often do the same toward our own failings. In fact, many who have a critical spirit are as hard, or even harder, on themselves as they are on others. That is a characteristic of those prone toward perfectionism.

Sometimes, though, passing judgment upon others is a means of building ourselves up. It is not so bad to be critical of others if we are simply using the same measuring stick on them as we use on ourselves. But if we judge others in order to bolster our own self-image and to use the faults of others to accentuate our virtues by contrast, that is far from commendable.

Regardless, in this next-to-last chapter, I am contending that we should always go easy on judging others—or ourselves.

The Prohibition We Know, But Don’t Fully Understand

In one of the best-known verses of the entire Bible, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared, “Do not judge.” Most often, people who inveigh against judging others cite just those three words of Jesus, ignoring what follows—and other passages in the New Testament.

Read in fuller context, we find that Jesus actually said, “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” (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV). Thus, rather than completely prohibiting making judgments, Jesus was warning that judging others would inevitably entail being judged by others. And as the next three verses are spoken to hypocrites who want to remove specks from the eyes of other people while ignoring the planks in their own eyes, he was more than likely directing those words primarily toward those who were often hypocritical.

It is certainly true that no one is judged more quickly than the one who pronounces a public judgment upon someone else. When politicians openly criticize their political opponents, they are quickly attacked by the other side. Similarly, when Christians make judgmental statements about people outside the church, their faults are quickly pointed at by those who have just been judged. The charge of “hypocrites in the church” is legendary.

Still, Jesus didn’t really prohibit judging. He just warned about its consequences. In other places he assumed evaluation, which is a form of judging. In the very same seventh chapter of Matthew, Jesus warns against false prophets, but says twice, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (vv. 16, 20). How can fruit be recognized without making some judgment?

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus is reported as saying to the crowd who questions him, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (7:24). Sometimes we think that Jesus said only “stop judging.” But that is not the full statement. He commanded the people to stop judging improperly.

Further, the first few verses of Galatians 6 are instructive. The first verse of that chapter begins, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” Discerning the sin of other people depends upon correct judgment.

The same verse, though, quickly says, “But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” And the fourth verse goes on to declare, “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.”

So, in spite of how often it is used to prohibit judging, careful study of the New Testament leads us to see that judging is not prohibited, but judging must be done cautiously, correctly, and with serious reflection upon one’s own attitudes and actions.

Most People Are Doing the Best They Can

It is not easy to judge correctly, for it is hard to know all the facts about any given situation. It was in the early 1980s, when we were back in the U.S. after our third term of service as missionaries in Japan, that I decided to try to become less judgmental, especially of the Christian people I met in churches across the country. At the end of that year, I remember saying to June that I had come to realize that most people are doing about the best they can under the circumstances. And that, I still think, is true.

During that year in the States, I spoke in many churches seeking to encourage support of mission work overseas. Some people were interested and gave considerable support. But many others were rather uninterested and gave little support, and sometimes I found myself critical of them.

By that time I had also become much more interested in social issues than previously. I had come to realize that being a follower of Jesus means being concerning with the physical needs of people at the present time as well as being concerning with their spiritual needs after death. I often sought to encourage greater interest in and support of issues such as the elimination of poverty, racism, sexism and the like. But many did not seem to have ears to hear.

For some reason, though, by the end of the year I grew less judgmental, coming to realize that, in the main, most people were doing about the best they could under all the pressures they were under. Most people in the churches had their hands full taking care of their own families and tending to the needs of people in their local churches. They did not have the “luxury” of showing any sustained concern for people in another country seven thousand miles away. Further, most people were so involved taking care of the financial and emotional needs of their immediate family, they had little money or emotion left for the needy people on the underside of American society.

True, people often lived more affluently than perhaps they should. Many felt financial pressures because of purchasing houses larger and cars more expensive than necessary. But people in this country—then and now—were regularly being bombarded by television, radio, newspaper, magazine, and billboard advertisements urging the purchase of more and more. There were few models in society that demonstrated how to live simply in order to have fewer pressures in their own lives and also in order to have more to share with others. Most had not learned that when it comes to material things, too little is almost always better than too much, as I emphasized in Chapter 21.

It is also true that churches might have done a better job of teaching their members how to be good stewards and how to live simply in order to help others to simply live. But pastors, as well as lay Christians, often do not have an adequate understanding of how to live as a disciple of Jesus in this complex world.

None of us always do “the best,” even though we should always strive for the best, as we thought about in the previous chapter. There is always room for improvement. But at the same time, we need to accept people where they are and hold back on criticizing them for what they have not yet become. Further improvement is possible—and probable—for Christians, and even others, who follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

God Is Not Finished with Us Yet

Perhaps it was during that same year in the States that I first saw the acronym PBPGINFWMY, which stands for “please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.”[1] That is a good slogan, and it needs to be used with reference to others as well as to ourselves. If God is not finished with me yet, neither is he finished with you or those whom you and I are prone to criticize. If we can see ourselves, and others, as “works in progress,” we become less critical, less apt to judge in a negative way.

Of course, there are some who become satisfied with what they are at the present and have little inclination to seek to become anything more or better. Those are people who need a gentle, or sometimes not so gentle, nudge. A prophetic word is often necessary, especially for complacent religious people, and even more so for religious leaders. Jesus, after all, had some rather harsh words for the Pharisees, who were considered, and who certainly considered themselves, to be the outstanding religious leaders of the day.

But to the ordinary people, and especially to those who were struggling, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” To the masses who were having a difficult time in life, Jesus was anything but judgmental. Shouldn’t we have the same accepting attitude toward others today?

Jesus also said to the crowd around him, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV). Jesus did not assume that his hearers had learned all they needed to know or that they had already achieved the place in life where they needed to be. Yet he was gentle with them, encouraging growth rather than criticizing their lack of development. Shouldn’t that be our attitude also?

Jesus always accepts us where we are and helps us to become what he wants us to be. So for those of us who are Christian, that is what we need: Jesus’ help in becoming more of the person he desires for us to be. Then we can help others along that same path. But we must always to be careful to look to our own condition first, as Jesus indicated by reference to trying to take specks out of other peoples’ eyes while having planks in our own, that powerful hyperbolic statement mentioned earlier in this chapter.

We often grow discouraged and impatient with the slow pace of growth in ourselves and in others. That discouragement can cause us to think negatively, and that impatience can provoke us to be critical and judgmental. But we have to remember that sanctification, to use the old theological term, generally takes a long time.

While current Christian preachers or writers seldom use the term, and while in the past there have been conflicting ideas about how it is to be achieved, sanctification refers to the process of becoming “holy,” and it has been an important part of the teachings of Christianity through the centuries.

The Baptist Faith and Message says, “Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.”[2] While I wish inclusive language had been used in that statement, still I think it is a good explanation of the meaning of sanctification.

It is because of belief in “progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” that the acronym PBPGINFWMY can be meaningfully used. And that is a good reason for us to go easy on judging others, or ourselves.

The Case for Kindness

Christians have not always been kind to one another. The Catholic inquisitions of the Middle Ages, in which people designated as heretics were hunted down and executed, are infamous. Enmity and strife between Protestants and Catholics existed from the beginning of the Reformation, and Protestants began killing other Protestants as early as 1527.[3]

Although there have not been religious wars in this country, still among Christian denominations and even within national and local churches often there has been harshness, incivility, and unkindness. All of this is woefully contradictory to a challenging Biblical admonition: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32, NAS)

Instead of being tough-minded and tender-hearted, too many Christians have too often been tender-minded and hard-hearted.

One of my favorite contemporary Christian authors has written a book titled Generous Orthodoxy.[4 That is a good emphasis when it comes to theology; Christian thinkers need to be accepting and magnanimous rather than being mean-spirited and unkind.

The same is true for Christian believers of all kinds—and for adherents of others religions as well—as we seek to live out our faith. We need to be generous and open-minded in our evaluation of others rather than being critical and judgmental.

In a recent translation, 1 Peter 3:8 admonishes, “Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions”[5] These are good words to consider, and hard words to put into practice consistently.

But when we are tempted to say, or even think, critical words about other people, we need to recall this injunction to be sympathetic, loving, and compassionate.

When I was a freshman in college, I bought a little book titled Everyday Religion. I profited from reading that book then as a young man and I found it delightfully helpful when I read through it again a few years ago. The first chapter is “When We Really Live,” and I have remembered through the years how the author says that we really live when, among other things, we know how to be “a little kinder than necessary every day.”[6]

So when we start to be harsh and judgmental in evaluation of others, or ourselves, let’s remember these words and try, indeed, to be a little kinder than necessary. If we can do that, we will find that everyone will be better off.

[1] This acronym seems to have gained popularity through its use by Bill Gothard in his Basic Youth Conflicts Seminars in the 1970s.

[2] This statement from the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message was unchanged in the 2000 version.

[3] That is the year Felix Manz, an Anabaptist, was executed by drowning in Zurich, Switzerland, by the Zwinglian reformers. In 2004, the Reformed Church officially apologized for this and other persecution of the Anabaptists.

[4] (Zondervan, 2004). Brian McLaren (b. 1956), the author, was the founding pastor of the Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland and since 2006 has been working full time as an author and speaker.

[5] This is from The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, a translation/paraphrase by Eugene H. Peterson (1932-2018); the New Testament portion of The Message was first published in 1993.

[6] (Abingdon Press, 1950), p. 14. The author, Joseph Fort Newton (1876-1950), was a Baptist pastor in his younger years, but for his last twenty-five years he was rector of three different Episcopal churches in Philadelphia. Perhaps Newton remembered words from J.M. Barrie’s 1902 book The Little White Bird, in which one of the characters says, “Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?”