By Clark Bates| It’s taken me a while to write this post. When I first thought to write it, I was angry; angry and sad. Admittedly, that isn’t the best place to write anything from, especially not something that you want to honor Christ and God’s Word. However, now that enough time has passed, I feel that I can write this from a place of honesty and integrity.
Allow me to explain. Three weeks ago, a friend I knew from high school died from a drug overdose. That might not seem earth-shattering to some of you, but he’s not the first. After high school I left my home town with no intention of ever returning. 15 years later, the Lord had different plans and now I’m back.
While I was away, I learned that heroin has overtaken a large part of my old community, including several of my once-close friends. 6 of them have died from drug overdoses, 2 in the last year. I had no idea either were using, as I haven’t been in contact with them, but each one has been a wound.
I’ve been angry at them. Angry that they would allow themselves to get addicted. Angry that they wouldn’t seek help. Angry that several of them left children without a father. Angry at those that would sell this garbage. But, something else has made me even angrier.
While I wasn’t close with them anymore, I know several that were. Not only were they close, they knew about the addictions of each friend….and did nothing. How do I know? Because I asked. Why would they do nothing? Why would they not want to help their friends escape such an awful vice?
The answer: “I didn’t feel it was my place to judge.”
Everyone’s Favorite Bible Verse
It shouldn’t surprise me that this was their response, and it shouldn’t surprise you. Why? Because the most popular Bible verse among the churched and unchurched alike is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” Or, more realistically, it’s just, “Don’t judge.” Anytime a Christian begins to suggest that there is a proper morality, or ethical approach to life, they are hit with “Don’t judge!” This two-word phrase has become a mantra for the irreligiously pious and it has been repeated so often that, for many, it’s now simply a way of life.
Don’t judge others who believe differently than you. Don’t judge the family member that is embracing homosexuality. Don’t judge the friend who is thinking of leaving the church. Don’t judge those who self-harm. Don’t judge those use drugs. Why? Because you don’t know what their life is like.
The question is, since this directly connects to a verse from Scripture (and this is largely what is said to support its flagrant use), is that what Jesus meant? Are Christians commanded to not judge others? If we were to stop at those first two words, we could make Matthew 7:1 say anything. In fact, if that were all that Jesus said on the matter, then we could possibly infer that this is exactly what he meant. Thankfully, there’s more to the story.
Jesus in Context
Before going further in Matthew, let’s take a brief detour into the Gospel according to John, specifically John 7:24:
“Do not judge according to outward appearances, but judge with righteous judgment.”
I want to go here, ever so briefly, because we have from Jesus a clear statement that doesn’t say NOT to judge, but that WHEN you judge, you should judge with righteous judgment. In the context of John 7, Jesus is speaking at the feast of tabernacles and the Jews are opposing him, because he has been healing on the Sabbath. Others have accused him of being possessed by a demon. In response, Jesus is telling them, that they are judging him on the basis of actions and outward appearances and not on the basis of his teaching. This is where v.24 comes in.
So, what’s the point?
The point is that when Jesus responds to them in v. 24 he uses an imperative, i.e. a command. He is literally telling the people that they ARE to judge, but to judge righteously. Now, if this is the case in John, how does that affect the passage in Matthew? Well, there are only two options, either 1. Jesus is contradicting himself, or 2. We haven’t understood Matthew 7 properly.
Returning to Matthew 7, lets look at the first two verses,
“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 we just continue reading beyond the favored “Don’t judge” line, clarification is already provided. Jesus is not telling us not to judge, but, much like John 7:24, that we need to be aware of the way in which we judge, for that is the way in which judgment will return upon us. How do I know this? If it’s not clear in English (which I believe that it is) each active verb in the Greek of this passage is connected linguistically to a passive. In essence, the action of the individual is awaiting an equal reaction from God.
Verses 3-4 provide the comical, if not somewhat disturbing, image of a person trying to tell a friend that they have a piece of lint in their eye, while the individual “judging” has a 2×4 stuck in their own eye! The ridiculous imagery proves the point rather plainly, “You can’t presume to judge someone else with your own problems in the way!” But as clear as this point may be conveyed, it is often still applied incorrectly, for once again we must consider what Jesus has said in John 7. For many, the “log-in-the-eye” analogy only further proves the practice of never judging the actions of anyone, because we can’t see clearly enough to do so, but again that would only work if there was nothing else said in the passage.
Verse 5 continues the guidance,
“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.”
I have emphasized certain words and phrases that need to be noticed. You see, Jesus still isn’t saying, “don’t judge your neighbor.” Rather, he’s saying that before you judge your neighbor you have to deal with your own issues. If we were to consider the instruction of John 7:24 alongside Matthew 7:1-5, you might say it like this:
“Before you can judge another person rightly, you must address your own unrighteousness.”
How do we do that? We cannot make ourselves righteous but can receive the imputed righteousness of Christ. Only through the lens of His righteousness and His word can anyone judge another rightly.
Now, we should be fair enough to recognize that we often fall into judging someone else “self-righteously” rather than righteously, therefore we should be humble in circumstances that may require us to speak into them and prayerful at every step of the process. Incumbent upon any situation such as this, it must be certain that the person you have in mind is actually in a position that requires your intervention.
Additionally, we need to recognize that many people who espouse the “Don’t judge” doctrine, do so precisely because they feel they were unfairly judged by someone else, usually within the context of a church. That is a real pain that they feel and it must be acknowledged and affirmed. But the misuse of a text by one group does not preclude its proper use by another.
A helpful guide to maneuvering this minefield is found in the closing statement of v.5. When you are able to see clearly, then you can remove the lint from your friend. Notice that the action being depicted here as an analogy for judging rightly is one that helps the other person. For most of us, when we hear the term “judging” we think in legal terms. We picture a judge in a courtroom pronouncing a sentence with a gavel. If we are to be on the receiving end of that form of judging, we rightly recoil from the experience, but even more, if that is the image we carry with us when we deliver a judgment we will always hurt rather than help.
You don’t remove lint from your friend’s eye with a trowel. Neither do you jam your finger into their eye socket to get it out. You enter into the operation with gentleness and care, because you don’t want to hurt your friend. You are seeking to help them and you recognize that this is a delicate task you are about to perform. And, in the end, you want to be friends when you’re done.
To judge righteously is to approach the other person with that sense of gentleness and care. It is to speak truth, but to speak truth in love. It is to judge in such a way that your intentions are clear and your respect for the individual is apparent. For the analogy of Jesus in Matthew 7, to judge someone else is an act of compassion, not violence.
I have several friends that could possibly have been here today if someone had taken the time to judge them and their destructive actions. Judgment is not an inherently negative action, especially not if it is carried out in accordance within biblical parameters. The doctrine of “Don’t judge!” sounds loving at face value, but, if it is allowed to extend to its natural extreme, it leaves others in vulnerable positions that can be destructive and even deadly.
Nowhere in Scripture does the Bible tell Christians not to judge. To say it does is to twist the truth into an error, but an error that sounds just true enough to convince the masses. In contrast, Jesus tells us that we are to judge, but gives the guidelines by which to do so. If you are in a situation wherein you are unsure if casting judgment is the appropriate action, it is best to retreat and examine those guidelines, be in prayer about your intentions so that there are no “beams” in your eye, and proceed with humility and the desire to help, not hurt.
Lord willing, you could even save a life.