Judgment, Discernment, and understanding God.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”  Matthew 10:16

I often caution people against being judgmental, saying something along the lines of this:  “God loves and desires for all of creation to be reunited with Him.  If our judgment of others separates them from the love of God that we can offer them, that is the worst kind of sin.”  That is something I believe wholeheartedly, one of the most core and fundamental tenets of my personal faith.  There are many things about my beliefs which I am willing to question and have questioned, many things which I could debate happily until my last breath.  But if any Christian tells me that they believe they have the right to judge others I feel literally ill.

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  (Hebrews 5:13-14)

The Bible seems clear on the fact that Christians are supposed to know what is sin and what isn’t.  Christians are supposed to understand the difference between good and evil, and cling to one while rejecting the other.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  (Romans 12:9-20)

The problem is that while the Bible repeatedly speaks of discernment and understanding the nature of Good and Evil, the Bible often couples such terms with lengthier passages about the need for fraternity, forgiveness, and love in the Church.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:10-12)

So why is there this coupling of preaching discernment with commanding love?  Some modes of belief preach that judgment is good and necessary.  Not a week has ever passed on this blog where someone didn’t say “but we’re supposed to judge our brethren.”  It’s undeniable- it’s in the Bible.  But the question is why? 

In Romans 14 the author of that book writes about how there are arguments between believers about what is or isn’t unclean.  Some people believe one day or another should be sacred.  Some believers eat whatever they wish while others feel that eating some things are sinful.  The author states that a person’s convictions should never become a stumbling block to their brother or sister, that a choice needs to be made to honor each other’s convictions, because:

It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.  (Romans 14:21)

This is interesting to consider, but far more powerful is a verse that comes earlier in the passage:

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

Yes, we should know good from evil, and we should know which actions of our Brothers and Sisters are good or evil.  The Bible even says to expel the immoral brother from among us.  (1 Corinthians 5:13)  Yet with all of that, the scales remain tipped in the other direction, and the Bible never really spells out why.

Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.  (1 John 2:6)

We know what Jesus did.  We know that he ate with the tax collectors and sinners.  We know that he let prostitutes be in his company, he even let them hang all over his feet.  He did this prior to telling them to sin no more, so we also know that he let them do this while they were still sinners.  And, as it says in 1 John, we know that he died for us while we were still sinners too.  We know that we are all sinners, not just because we know ourselves but because the Bible reminds us of that pretty regularly too.  So here’s the thing:

If we all sin, and we all do, and we’re supposed to know good from evil and reject one and cling to the other, if we make the assumption that we’re supposed to judge each other where does that lead us?  If the judgment is about who is or isn’t worth communing with, the church is going to end up empty because we all sin and we all sin knowingly.  It’s part of who we are.  If the judgment is instead about what is or isn’t hurting ourselves or hurting the brethren and is made to edify instead of condemn, we do a good thing.  Because if we go to our brother or sister and say “I’m worried you’re doing something harmful” and they know and experience the love of God, we’re giving them a loving opportunity to lead a better life.  I’ve experienced both kinds of judgment against myself and I know which one changed me.  I’ve been guilty of making both and I know which one hurt and which one healed.

I also know that it’s impossible to tell, from who people are today, who they are capable of becoming.  One of the people most formative in my early faith was a convicted felon and murderer.  If my parents had judged him as unworthy of their friendship (an assumption many Christians would feel totally justified) I would have missed out on a tremendous opportunity to witness the extent to which God’s love can redeem a fallen man.

If we judge people by the same measure that we judge actions, labeling some people as “good” and others as “bad”, we do perhaps one of the most evil things that any Christian can.  The people we label as “good” get to experience our love and forgiveness, at times even when they reject conviction.  But the people labeled as “bad” don’t ever receive love at all.  We are only justified in such behavior if we feel we know with total certainty that God doesn’t love the “bad” people or want them to experience his forgiveness at all.  It is love, not rejection, that births repentance.

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you.  (Proverbs 25:21-22)

The metaphorical burning coals being a sign of mourning and repentance.  Note that the verses don’t say “picket your enemy and call him a heathen and a godless blight on your society, and in that way you heap burning coals on his head.”  The solution is the most simple in the history of man:  community.  Bring him into your home, feed him and clothe him, and he’ll learn to mourn the error of his ways.  If that is the way we are to treat our enemies, then, how our we to treat our brethren?

We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen,cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.  (1 John 4:19-21)

Love, love, love.  There is no excuse for anything else.  So discern what is good and evil- apply it to your own life and speak it to your brothers and sisters in Christ with love.  Everyone else, treat as beloved community.  Offer food and drink and solace, express God’s love with your hands and mind and tongue.  It doesn’t matter who someone is, if they are homeless or a felon or gay or just look strange or a tattooed punk or if they are wearing one of those oh so cute “God is Dead” t-shirts, God loves them.  They deserve to experience his love.  It is that love, and that love alone that can birth understanding and repentance.  If you withhold that love from them, you do grievous harm not just to them but more so to yourself.

Love, first and foremost and the most strongly.  There is no excuse for anything less.

Shared pain, shared experience

Pain is a gift.

I realize saying that may make a few people stare at me oddly.  And people currently in the throes of pain may resent me, but it’s a topic worth addressing.  We need to get past the stage of suffering where we eagle-eye focus in on ourselves.  We need to get to the point where we think of our pain in relation to each other.  Think about what pain really does in our lives- not simply the part where we feel our pain, but the part where we open up to each other, learn to depend on each other, and learn to hold others who are crying.

Without the pain, none of these experiences would be possible.  If Billy couldn’t feel physical pain, and then a friend of his scraped a knee, how do you think that Billy might respond?  I can only imagine the conversation:

Billy:  Why are you crying?

Timmy:  Because I scraped my knee.

Billy:  But it’s not even bleeding.  Why would you cry?

Timmy:  It hurts.

Billy:  Hurts?

Timmy:  (pinches Billy) Hurts.

Billy:  Why did you do that?

And so on, and so on…  Because Billy’s lack of pain bars him from imagining his friends pain, and that lack of imagination bars him from sympathy.  He may intellectually rationalize that his friend is reasonable, and therefore must have a reason for expressing agony, but he cannot truly empathize.

Our pasts are our gifts to our future friends and family.  All of our shared experiences bind us together in a way we could not be bound if it weren’t for mutual suffering and mutual love.  Every blah day and every dreary evening make up part of a bigger global picture, one in which we are part of a universal community.  Our microwaved lunches and lemonades on the porch, or tearful arguments and celebrations are all part of the picture that makes up humanity.

Cherish it.  Cherish the heartache and the bliss.  Cherish the doldrums and the excitement.  Cherish even the pain and agony, as that pain reminds you of your humanity.  And it reminds you of something greater, of the Son of Man come down to earth to walk in our skin, to share in our humanity, and even to suffer.

The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us…

Pain, Ephemeral

The problem isn’t pain, my mother once said, the problem is our belief that it needs to be managed.  At first listen that seems like such a cold statement.  But, in truth, it’s not.  It’s simply an acknowledgment of a condition.

Pain is our body telling us that something is wrong.  By over-managing pain, we silence our bodies and thus push into the background the message we should have heard.  A woman ignores the pain and ignores the lump until her cancer is no longer treatable, a man ignores the twinge until the tendon tears so badly surgery is necessary.  The lesson there is do not manage- treat the cause.

Emotional pain is much the same.  We like to say, “I’m feeling blue,” when in reality we are two steps from the edge.  We like to pretend that depression, anxiety and all other manner of mental ills just need to be managed the way we manage our physical pain.  I’m not saying that there is no such thing as mental illness, pure and simple, no question- there is, there definitely is.  The question I ask myself is how much of this real illness is birthed from our ignoring the source until it is too great.

I think we ignore because we fear.  We fear that our blues and blahs are too much for us to handle, so we shove them back until they are in fact enormous.  We fear that our anxiety is ruling us, which makes us anxious, so we tune it out.  We fear our hyperactivity and distraction would need medication that would deaden us, so we sit on our hands.  In the meantime, think of how much good we could do simply by naming our problems, by confronting them, by giving them shape and color and tone.

I have a theory.  My theory is that our pain starts out as ephemeral.  It is a shadow, a smear on our consciousness.  It clouds our vision and tricks us into thinking it is bigger and more unmanageable than it truly is.  So we ignore it, and grant it power.  If we could just focus on it, scrape it together, find it’s true shape and color, we wouldn’t be so afraid.

We need to stop letting it be like a fingerprint on the lens of our vision, and see clearly.  See what is really out there, what is really bogging us down.  See that it’s just the world, the world we know and love.  We can deal with this.  We can be here, together.  We can squeegee  each other’s consciousness if need be.