Judge Not: Okay, but Why?

This post comes to us from Adam Neder, the Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University. […]

Guest Contributor / 12.4.20

This post comes to us from Adam Neder, the Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University. He is the author of Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith and Participation in Christ: An Entry Into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Does anyone who cares even a little about the plausibility of Christian witness need to hear yet again that talking about people who disagree with us as if they are stupid, evil, insane, or all three at once, is not an especially good rhetorical or political strategy? Maybe, but endlessly repeating the advice doesn’t seem to be helping much. Our judgmentalism has metastasized. And at least part of the reason is that while most Christians know that Jesus commands us not to judge, we’re less clear about why.

Consider Jesus’s words in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Luke:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven […]

Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? […] Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

When Jesus commands us not to judge, what exactly is he commanding us not to do?

“Don’t judge” obviously does not mean, “Don’t make discerning judgments.” The kingdom of God is a kingdom of truth, and following Jesus is an extended apprenticeship in reading reality in the light of his resurrection — a long process of learning to see ourselves and all things in relationship to Christ. Being discerning is the same as being wise, and Jesus definitely doesn’t want us to be fools.

Instead, the command not to judge is a command not to condemn. When you judge someone, you set yourself up as judge and jury, you weigh the evidence and declare someone guilty, you close the book on that person or on a whole group of people, and once you do that, there’s no reason to keep listening to what they say. Your mind is made up. This person or group of people is beyond redemption, invincibly ignorant, hopelessly lost. When Jesus commands us not to judge, he commands us not to reach that conclusion. About anyone, ever.

And at first his reason seems clear: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.” But if you think about it, the threat of judgment can’t be the reason for the command. It can be the consequence. It can be what happens when you break the command, but it can’t be the reason for the command. In Washington state, where I live, there’s a law against riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but the reason for the law isn’t that you will get a ticket. That’s the consequence of breaking the law. The reason for the law is that if you crash and land on your head, your brain might come out, and it’s better if your brain stays in.

But then why does Jesus command us not to judge? This passage suggests two primary reasons. The first is that we’re incompetent; we’re no good at judging. The second is that we lack the authority; we have no right to judge.

Think about what’s happening when you judge someone. You’re doing it because you think you can, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. But Jesus is saying, “You know what? You’re not any good at it. You think you are, but you’re not. You’re convinced you see clearly enough to judge, but every single one of your judgments is a misjudgment.”

And to drive home the point, he tells a joke. The images of the blind leading the blind and someone with a log in his eye trying to remove a speck from someone else’s eye are comedy sketches. The point is to show how absurd it is when we judge people. Jesus is saying, “This is how dumb you look to me when you judge people.”

Consider people who judge Jesus in the Gospels. They had no doubt they were doing the right thing. After all, Jesus was breaking the law, acting like God, proclaiming a kingdom other than Rome, and so on. Of course he needed to be judged. What could possibly be more obvious than that? Notice, they were perfectly certain of their assessments, and they were perfectly wrong.

And Jesus is saying, “It’s exactly the same when you judge people. You are no less wrong than they were to judge me. So just go ahead and don’t do it. Poor thing, you’re no good at it anyway, so you might as well stop.”

My wife Janet is a pro at being kind and loving. She’s just an unusually good human being, and as an added bonus, she’s handy. She built a fence in our backyard, she fixed our washing machine when it broke, and when we had to replace our kitchen floor, she ripped out more than two thousand pounds of tile with a massive jackhammer. She’s a boss. I, on the other hand, am useless at fixing things, but I still try. I even have a little tool rack in our garage. And sometimes when I’m tinkering with something, I will glance up and see Janet watching me with a look of perfect sadness, pity, and derision. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how Jesus looks at us when we judge people.

Now to the second reason: We don’t have the authority to judge anyone. Each of us judges for slightly different reasons. Your reasons probably aren’t the same as mine. We just do it, often without a clear sense of why. But here’s something that is clear, something that’s definitely happening when we judge people: We’re acting like we have the authority to do it. But Jesus is saying, “Look, you can act like you have the authority to judge people, but you don’t. Only God has that authority, and he hasn’t delegated it to you because he doesn’t need your help.”

Jesus knows we like to judge, he knows it makes us feel good for a second, but he also knows that continually judging people is exhausting and depressing. It hardens us and weighs us down, traps us and eventually makes us miserable. The more we do it, the grumpier we get, and the less convincing we become as witnesses to the love of God.

Why should anyone believe anything the church says about God if they see us continually condemning those around us? There’s what we say about God, and then there’s who we are, and who we are says something. Judgmental Christians are embodied contradictions of the story the church lives to tell. They make the mercy, grace, and love of God less rather than more plausible to the people who hear us talk about it. And Jesus wants to free us from all that. He wants to relieve us from the burden of an angry and judgmental spirit.

And how does he do that? How does he take away the burden?

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (v. 27); “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (v. 31); “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (v. 36).

Jesus rescues us from the way of judgment by placing us on the way of love. He pours his grace into our lives, heals us from the poison of a judgmental spirit, and calls us to something we have the competence and authority to do, something that builds public trust and contributes to human flourishing.

Notice how brilliant this strategy is. Jesus understands that you cannot simultaneously love someone and judge someone. You can do one or the other, but not both at the same time. Consider the attitudes of love, the practices love requires: sympathy, compassion, attention, prayer, patience, generosity, hope, and so on. These are not practices you engage in while you judge someone. You just don’t.

You can no more love someone while judging someone than you can swim while sitting on your couch. Love and judgment are mutually exclusive ways of being, and Jesus continually calls each one of us, during every moment of our lives, to turn our backs on condemnation and walk in the way of love. That’s how he lives, and that’s how he trains his disciples to live.

So after all that, the logic of the command turns out to be quite simple. Why shouldn’t we judge one another? Because we’re no good at it, because we have no right to do it, because it damages us and our society, and because God has better things for us to do.