Here lie I, Martin Elginbrode
Have mercy o’ my soul, Lord God,
As I would do were I Lord God,
And Ye were Martin Elginbrode.
-Epitaph in a Scottish graveyard
One of my mentors shared a true story that I have never been able to forget. A single young man was employed by a company whose president gave turkeys to all the employees at Christmas. This man did not have a clue how to cook a turkey nor did he have a desire to learn, so the gift was more of a burden than a blessing as far as he was concerned. Each year he had to figure out how to get rid of the large bird.
On the day the turkeys were handed out, a couple of this man’s friends nabbed the turkey with his name on it and substituted a fake made of paper mache. The only original turkey parts were the neck and the tail protruding from either end of the brown paper wrapper.
The bogus bird was then presented to the man and with his burden under arm he caught his bus and headed home. As it happened, he sat down next to a man who was obviously very discouraged. Feeling compassion for the man, the salesman began a conversation in which the poor man unfolded a tale of woe of losing his job and having no money for Christmas.
The salesman with the turkey sized up the situation and realized that he had a solution to both of their problems. He could unload his burdensome bird and bless this poor man at the same time. He decided not to give it to the man to avoid wounding his pride. So he sold his turkey to this man for a couple of dollars.
Can you imagine the man explaining his good fortune to his wife and children as they gathered around the “turkey” and began to unwrap it. You can certainly imagine their anger and disappointment of the poor family. They were convinced that they were the victims of a cruel hoax by a man whose soul must have been blacker than soot. Yet, the salesman went home content and satisfied with the “good deed” that he had done that evening.
“Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you– who are you to judge your neighbor?”
The origin of the word “slander” implies “speaking down.” When we link this with James other word, “judging,” it suggests a tendency to put a brother or sister down. Paul makes a similar observation, “Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?” (Romans 14:10).
According to Josh McDowell, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” is the most frequently quoted biblical text of non-believers these days. By which they imply that any evaluation of their behavior or attitudes is out of the question – does not our own book even rule it out? Yet, that view is a befuddled interpretation of the text. Certainly it is not acceptable for a believer to “tolerate” clearly wrong actions. As we live in the midst of a culture confused over the notion of tolerance – a “tolerance” that maintains that we cannot critique anyone’s idea of right and wrong- we must understand that it is legitimate and profitable to say what one should and should not do. We have been given the Word and God calls on us to discern between good and evil. Good judgment is one of the main marks of a mature person. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “Morality, like art, consists of drawing a straight line.”
Jesus’ words, “Judge not that you be not judged,” are not an admonition to suspend all our critical faculties and turn a blind eye to sin. Immediately following this statement he calls his disciples to “not give dogs what is sacred” or “throw pearls to pigs” (Matthew 7:6). This caution assumes that we are able to recognize cynical and hard-hearted people when we encounter them. Likewise, Jesus calls on his disciples to “judge for yourselves what is right” (Luke 12:57) and we are called on to judge disputes between believers (I Cor. 6).
Jesus’ and James’ warnings against judging are not about “drawing straight lines” but about condemning others and writing them off. A harsh judgment without showing mercy or caring for their souls is what is condemned.
God, in his absolute justice, has every right to instantly annihiliate us the moment we do any wicked deed, yet he has chosen to show us compassion and mercy. God will bring all sin to account in the final judgment, but for the time being he is reserving final judgment. How much more pleasant we would be if we were more like our Father in this regard.
I know my own heart and how quick I am to judge in a haughty and unforgiving manner. How I rush in to judge others motives and behavior though I have neither the right nor the complete knowledge required to do so. John Calvin wrote, “ Our indulgence ought to extend to tolerating imperfections of conduct…There have always been persons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness, as if they had already become a kind of aerial spirits, spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains.”
Judging others doesn’t seem like that grievous a sin – but James would have us see it as a serious breach of the law of love (James 2:8). When I judge my brother in this way I am not a lover but a condemning judge. When I am condemning my brother or sister I am playing God – taking his place as the rightful judge of the earth. “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy,” says James. Then his finger rises out of the text and points directly at me: “But you — (Yes, I am talking to you) – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Some actions are clearly sin and need to be dealt with in a biblical manner (see Matt 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1ff; I Cor. 5; II Cor. 2:5-11). But judging gets a little more complicated. What is the difference between discernment and ungodly condemnation? To be honest, I don’t always know the answer but here are some helpful hints that should be useful in guiding us.
The Scriptures are clear that all right judgment of my brother or sister begins with proper self-judgment. I cannot effectively discern another’s sin unless I have first been ruthless in dealing with my own. When I find myself pointing one finger at you I need to realize that four of my fingers are pointing right back at me. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4) Pray along with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Another point that keeps me in line is to realize that God has called me not to go “beyond what is written” (I Cor. 4:6) and to make obligatory for others what is not a biblical command. It is very possible for me not to judge another believer because he or she is in sin but because they are simply different than I am. People are strange…and sometimes Christians are even stranger! The oddities, eccentricities, personal scruples, habits, personality quirks of others are not necessarily an indication of sin or disobedience in their lives. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4). When the Word is silent I need not wag my tongue at another!
Finally, we get in over our heads very quickly when we presume to judge another’s motives. We are skating on thin ice when we make statements like, “You did that because…” God is the only one who is perfectly able to sort our motives out. “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (I Cor 4:5)
When I judge a man’s heart I presume to know something that only God knows – his motives. One day everything that is hidden will be made known but until that time I am called on to exercise grace toward others and to wait for the only truly qualified judge to take the bench.
Remember the “Turkey man”!
(I want to thank David Roper for his wise insights and illustrations of this truth)