Understanding what Christ meant when He commanded His people to to judge others
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”
The biblical command not to judge in Matthew 7:1 has, ironically, been a claim under much judgment. There’s no doubt that amongst both the Christian and non-Christian community, Christ’s words “Do not judge,” have been misapplied. They’ve been misapplied because they’ve been misunderstood; they’ve been misunderstood because they aren’t read in its context. After all, there are a number of statements in the Sermon on the Mount that, when taken out of the context in which it was spoken, can lead to a brand of outrageous living that Christ never intended for the church. Imagine taking the following statements from Christ’s lengthiest recorded sermon out of their context:
• “If you’re right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it in front of you.” Take this out of context context, and my ophthalmologist would have no Christian patients.
• “Make no oath at all.” Take this out of context, and forget wedding vows.
• “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” Take this out of context, and your home must be removed of all its locks.
Christian living, as describes in Matthew 5-7, was meant to be radical, but not stupid. Christ doesn’t expect us to physically disconnect our retinas from our optic nerves. Nor does he expect us never to say the words “I promise”. Nor does he expect us to give all of our possessions to thieves when they break in. And, in the same light, Christ doesn’t expect us to abstain from making all judgment calls and thereby result to amorality (which inevitably leads to immorality). Understanding His command of, “Do not judge,” in Matthew 7:1 in its context reveals that Christ is instructing us not to hold people to a standard that we ourselves do not desire to be held. In other words, it’s a rebuke against hypocritical judgment of others, as was characteristic of the religious leaders in Christ’s day.
Read it in its context:
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take out the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
There’s a way that Christians today judge that is not only permitted but biblically mandated. Contrary to what many claim, Jesus never said that we should never tell people that what they’re doing is wrong should they be in sin. Just fourteen verses down from Jesus’ command not to judge, He says to beware of false prophets, and that we are to discern them by their fruits. Later in Matthew, Christ prescribes the church discipline process by which one is to rebuke a fellow brother who is in sin (Matt 18:15). The Bible is full of instruction about how Christians should judge, and how to do so righteously.
What Christ is saying here can be interpreted as follows: “Don’t judge or criticize people in a manner that you yourself don’t desire or aren’t ready to be judged.” The standard by which you measure others and thereby criticism will end up being the standard by which you are measured. It’s as simple as that.
So if you don’t want to be harshly or unfairly criticized, then don’t harshly criticize others. And if you do choose to scrutinize people beyond how God has called you to do so, then quite whining when you yourself end up being scrutinized by others in the same manner. If you don’t want others to unfairly shine a spotlight on your faults, then don’t unfairly shine the spotlight on the faults of others. If you decide to point out the speck in your the eyes of all of those around you, be prepared for all of them to point out the sequoia tree in yours.
It was a hard lesson to learn personally. I vividly recall a particular incident when I had listened to a lesson taught by someone in the church. I listened cynically to the lesson, typed a transcript of the whole thing, and nit-picked every word and every detail with the intent of looking for mistakes, after which I proceeded to find as many faults as I can and communicated them to the pastors. Sadly, I had fallen into adopting this attitude during that particular season as a general attitude, both towards the things people taught and the way people lived. I felt like it was my duty to do so as a “guardian of spiritual truth” and “protect the saints from harmful influences.” What was missing, however, was the grace, and the lack of preparation on my end to receive the same kind of treatment. You can imagine how flabbergasted I was when, in the following months, I received several of complaints by members regarding both some of my own lessons that I had taught on different occasions as well as counsel I had given. Those saints who proceeded to harshly criticize me, I was tempted to feel embittered towards…until I realized that the critical, nit-picking attitude that they demonstrating toward me was the same attitude that I had exhibited toward a number of different teachers and speakers. It was a painful experience that the standard by which I had critically measured others would be the standard by which I myself would be measured. But such was both providential and proverbial. Instead of trying to “clarify things” with those who had criticized me or “correct them for their arrogant attitude”, I simply made a commitment to abstain from judging another brother or sister in the manner that I had previously done so.
When in doubt, be gracious. By default, be gracious. That is, if you desire for others to be shown grace the next time you stumble.