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.

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Act out the Gospel, not a Battle.

“I have come into the world as a light,  so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.  If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.”  (John 12: 46-47)

I once heard someone say that anyone who lives in the United States and does not follow Christ’s teaching has chosen a life of sin over God’s love with no excuse, because no one who lives in this fair country could possibly have missed hearing the Gospel.  I wonder at that kind of attitude.  For one, the Bible is clear that it is nobody’s business judging those outside of the church, they are subject only to the laws of man and should not be judged by God’s law.  Second, the simple fact that they live in this country does not mean they ever experienced God’s extravagant love at the hands of one of His children.  The “gospel” that they’ve been exposed to is likely the sort of contemptful attitude that birthed the judgment now being heaped over them.  No thank you, ma’am!  If that were my primary knowledge of God I’d be an atheist, too.  Third, do you think that God has ever stopped loving them and desiring to express His love to them?  Do you think that God Himself has judged them as unworthy?  Do you think God takes their rejection of the consumerist, judgmental, and self-involved face of American Christianity personally?  Honestly, most of the time when I speak with people who have rejected the American church I hear their words not as an offense against God but as a pretty righteous condemnation of all of the behaviors which the Bible itself warns against.  Should we have church leaders with private jets while there aren’t enough shelters to take in the homeless?  Should we be picketing gay rights?  Should we be judgmental of single mothers, of the poor?  Should we be glossing over the pain that humanity experiences with hyperbolic praise songs?  Should the music we put out in God’s name be so homogenized, bland, and stripped of multi-cultural influences?  Should we be so uninterested in protecting our planet, which we claim God gave to us as a good gift?  And on, and on.

As Christians, we should hear the argument against the church not as an attack by enemy combatants who need to be neutralized immediately by any means necessary, but as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Too often we label anyone who reacts with skepticism as an “enemy of the faith”, sometimes going as far as to name them as an agent of Satan.  Who benefits from this?  The Bible does not command us to destroy our enemies with words, but instead:

Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.  (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

Even if you do believe that anyone who speaks against your beliefs is an agent of the devil, the Bible still doesn’t justify the kind of hateful rhetoric that colors Christian debates.  (Especially debates with non-Christians.)  We are commanded to gentleness and love, and prayerful consideration.  Always.  We are to lead people to a place where God grants them repentance, not to hammer it into their faces with the Bible.

I am frankly appalled at the tone of some of the discussions going on in the church.  Gay people, poor people, and people of different ethnicities are metaphorically strung up as if they were terrorists who need to be tortured into submission before a metaphorical bomb explodes and destroys our society.  What is the defense for this?  Are they not also Gods children?  Are they not also people who are capable of recieving God’s conviction?  Are they not also desired and loved?  This is the Gospel, not warfare.

It is to be spread through love, not with fists.

 

Yes, I call that judging.

I was recently asked “when did disagreeing with a lifestyle become being judgmental?” I think this is an important question, and one that I want to give the best possible response to. I respect the fact that Christians need to honor their convictions, and that many Christians believe that the Bible is clear that homosexual acts are sinful. I have no desire to tell people with that conviction that they are wrong. So I will ask that as this post is read that anyone with that conviction keep in mind that I will honor it, and don’t simply respond, “but it’s sin.”

Let’s look at a not-so-hypothetical situation. “Jim” has an anger problem, and everyone knows about it. Jim often goes off in rages, to the point that it embarasses his wife and children. He’ll scold his kids loudly in church and he’ll admonish his wife to the point of tears in front of others. It seems fair to make a judgment that Jim needs to deal with his anger, right? In that situation a lot of people would say it would be appropriate for the pastor of Jim’s church to call on Jim and offer him up a big heaping helping of conviction.

Here’s the problem: Let’s say that the pastor takes Jim out for lunch and tells Jim exactly how his rage issue goes against God’s plan for his life and that it needs to change. What happens then? Let’s imagine for a minute that his rage stems from something far beneath the surface. Jim is addicted to pornography and has for years been neglecting his wife and even his responsibilities to his children to feed his habit. He has a hunger that is not sated by anything and his rage stems from that need that he seeks to meet through porn- but porn isn’t enough. So he rages at the world, and as he digs himself deeper into the cycle the explosions of his hurt and need and anger become more intense.

So the pastor meets with Jim. Jim doesn’t respond in brokeness and repentance, he responds in even deeper rage. Because his rage is just an expression of something else, a far deeper chasm between he and his Savior. By judging Jim, the people in his life neglected to discover the true place of need in his life. They cut themselves off from God’s heart for Jim and made Jim’s alienation even worse. Imagine a different situation, one in which the pastor simply acknowledged that Jim needed to feel God’s love in order to be convicted. One in which the pastor pulled Jim aside and lovingly stated “things seem awful rough for you, want to talk about it?” One in which Jim’s deeper need, the need for intimacy and regard, was met. One in which Jim was made safe enough that he could open up about the true wounds that drove his rage. What could happen, in that situation? Who could Jim become?

This is the problem with saying, “gay people live in sin” or “poor people are lazy and deserve it”. You make yourself their judge, you simply do. While in essence your statement may be truthful, at least in your own eyes, you still aren’t justified in making it. There is simply no way to make such a statement without the inference of motive. If you want to say, “gay people live in sin”, you infer that they know and understand that their actions offend God and don’t care. I don’t know of any gay people for whom such is the case, many of them express an intimate relationship with God that I am frankly jealous of, and feel a deepness of love and acceptance I am in awe of. Many of them state, and I believe them wholeheartedly, that if they had even the slightest inkling that expressing their sexuality offended God they would set it aside in the second. The problem with saying, “they are sinning” is that it implies your own personal knowledge that they need to stop. That comment is often followed by a second comment that we are meant to judge the behaviors of our brethren. That likely comes from verses like these:

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)

Context: those verses follow a statement that it is known that one of the members of the church is having an affair with his father’s wife. Paul calls it something “even a pagan would not tolerate”. While I will admit that in some extreme cases where the actions of one person are so extreme, they ought to be expelled so that they, as Paul said, “hand him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved.” But that was a case of incest, not a case of gay. While there are some verses that caution Christians to judge the actions of each other, the Bible is far more full of verses that caution against it. Such judgments are only to be made, as 1 Corinthians 5 stated, in mourning. Jesus himself said, “You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.” (John 8:15) If God’s own son was reluctant to judge, how much more reluctant should we, as sinful humans, be?

We can’t just idly judge entire subsets of our population and feel that we are justified in doing so. We must seek after God’s heart first and foremost. We must take on a mantle of mourning when we are called to judge, knowing that seperation from the Church brings destruction. If your heart, reader, is for the destruction of the gays or the poor then you bring condemnation on your own head. I, for one, withhold any judgment. I will speak God’s love until my dying breath, knowing that in my own life more conviction has been birthed from love than from judgment.

There if not but for the grace of God, go I.

Otherwise known as: we all sin.  Don’t we?

My dad has a great philosophy about judgment.  He says that judgment is any time a person looks at another person’s choices and says “if I were given the same set of circumstances, I’d do better.”  It’s easy to judge in that kind of way when you know you’d never have the same sort of circumstances.  Actually, it’s easy even when you’ve got the same set of circumstances and you make the same bad choices.  I can’t count the amount of times that I, as a mother of toddlers, have winced when I witness a mom going through a store ignoring her child’s tantrum when I myself have been that mother a week before.  When given the choice between leaving (and not getting the groceries I need to make that night’s meal) or taking my child into the bathroom to calm down (knowing that they will just start screaming for cookies again) or just ignoring the behavior and hoping that at some point they wise up to the fact that it’s not effective, I choose option C.  Not because I’m a bad mother, but because of the fact that at some point I had to accept the fact that no matter how well I do my job, my kids are still free to make their own bad choices.  And sometimes kids behave badly.

Don’t we all?  I may not be two anymore, but there are still times where I figuratively see the cookies, know there’s not the money for the cookies, still want the cookies, and have to whine “but I wanted COOKIES” all the way home.  Truthfully in my case it’s usually not really cookies but the strawberries and blueberries I want to plant, or the new clothes I could really use, or the extravagant meal I want to cook, or just the success that other people seem to have that I crave no matter how successful I am in my own ventures.  Let’s be honest, dear readers:  no matter how much older we get, in some ways we never grow.  I look at my daughter looking at the other child screaming in the cart, I see the glint in her eyes and I know what she’s going to say.  “Mom,” she says, “why can’t he just stop screaming?  He’s loud.  It’s rude.”  I have to keep my smirk to myself as I quietly remind her that last week she was the loud child, and sometimes when we’re tired and hungry we make poor choices.

And then I go to church the next Sunday, and I think about all the times I’ve seen people ready to throw some poor soul out because of the bad choices they’ve made, and I wonder when we’ll all learn.  We’ve all thrown tantrums.  We’ve all disobeyed out of selfishness and silly motivations.  We’ve all had our moments where we didn’t care that we were sinning because we felt it was our right, or it would hurt too hard to quit. We all want sympathy for our own failings, grace and compassion, understanding and temperance.  But when it comes to the failings of others we’re all too quick to stamp “failure” on their foreheads and send them away.

There if not for the grace of God, right?

I think we hear that saying and we miss the real meaning.  We look at it as proof of God’s devotion to ourselves, because we’re the ones that got the grace.  But that’s not the point.  We need to fully realize our own responsibility to pay out the grace we’ve been given, to live it out in full.  Grace offered is grace lost if we don’t give it away.

So don’t keep it for yourself.

Blind faith is folly

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.

Though it cost all you have, get understanding  – (Proverbs 4:7)

*

My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;

they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.  – (Proverbs 3:21-22)

The entire book of Proverbs is like a love letter to Wisdom, whom the author personifies as a woman of endless worth. It’s a good book of the Bible.  I still prefer Ecclesiastes, but Proverbs has it’s high points as well.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  I’ve been spending a lot of my time in meditation about the things that really, really bothered me about church as a teen.  This and the book of Proverbs walk hand in hand.

I hate the whole principal of “faith by formula”.  I hate the idea that we think we can boil the mysteries of God down to simple equations.  I hate the fact that so many pastors and youth leaders  buy in to the concept that the journey to God is a set path with predictable markers- because it often means that people who are truly seeking God have their faith killed in the crossfire when they stray off of what people expect their path to be.  A kid who realizes he is gay is told that he has a secret sin and his sexuality is a judgment for said sin.  A girl who likes dark music is told that she does so because of demonic opression.  A boy who feels the spirit of God filling him and comforting him in love is told that he won’t have TRULY felt God until he speaks in tongues.  A single mother is told that God doesn’t want her children to be raised without a father- she then feels betrayed by God when relationship after relationship fall apart, and judged horribly when she’s told that she won’t be “allowed” into a relationship until she fixes some sin in herself.

Time and time again hearts are broken and faith is tested not by God, but by God’s people.  As the bumper-sticker sarcastically says “I love Jesus- it’s his WIFE that’s the PROBLEM!”.

We are taught that we are to have a “childlike” faith.  I don’t believe that childlike faith and blind faith are the same thing.  A child believes because it is natural to believe.  They expect the best, they are unashamed in their love, they glimmer and glow over the simplest things.  To love Jesus as a child would love him means to love fearlessly, with abandon.  But a child is not blind or stupid- they will stop to question if they see someone getting hurt.  When I punish my son, my daughter will come and try to intercede on his behalf.  She asks me why he is crying, if I wanted him to cry, she says she doesn’t care that he hit her, she forgives him, why can’t I forgive him?  That is the love of a child- not unquestioning, but DESPERATELY wanting the best for all, happiness for all.

Our faith in God should be the same.  We SHOULD question, we SHOULD cry and beg and plead for the souls and happiness of our fellow man.  We should not snap to judgment or accept formulas that leave others out in the cold- we should wrestle and struggle with the formulas, we should test and test and test, we should attempt to perfect.

But most of all we should seek wisdom, good judgment and discernment.  We should learn to recognize what God’s spirit looks like when it manifests in a way we don’t expect.  When the gay man starts crying and professes that he feels God’s love and embrace, we shouldn’t say, “ah, but you won’t TRULY feel God until you stop being gay.”  When the single mother says that she is trying to provide a holy and stable life for her kids, we shouldn’t pressure her into marriage and claim we know what life God wants for her, we should walk at her side, protect her from danger, and help to seek and discern God’s individual voice for her life.  When the young girl shows her propensity for Gothic music and make-up, we shouldn’t scream “DEMON!”, we should seek to help her find the voice to describe what she’s really experiencing- and if all she’s showing is an artistic taste, let her have it.

The world would be a boring place if life were homogenized into predictable norms.

Like a child, we should crave the excitement that comes from difference and discovery.

And like the writer of Proverbs, we should hunger and thirst for Wisdom the way a young man hungers for a beautiful and perfect woman.

Judgment and Accountability

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

One question that seems to come up often is this: “If you never judge someone, how can you hold them accountable?” Firstly, I’d like to point out that while in many cases our English language does a poor job of representing what the Bible says in it’s original form, if you look up the words translated “judgment” and “accountable” in lexicons you’ll see that the English and Hebrew aren’t too terribly far apart. (Of course, some distance is created by how one ought to use the terms in relation to God and Godliness.)

So what is the difference between judgment and calling someone to account?

  • To Judge: to make a decision concerning the rightness or wrongness of an action; to sit in authority over a decision (I.E, to be judicial); to mete out a punishment or fine
  • To Hold Accountable: To call for an accounting of actions; to review; to have oversight over

So there is a clear difference- in judging the decision of whether or not a behavior is inherently good or bad is a decision being actively made by the judger. Whereas in holding accountable, that decision is less clear cut. I can hold a friend accountable for her spending habits without actively judging whether or not those habits are good or bad. That particular aspect can be left between my friend and God.

Something else worth discussing is the fact that we aren’t ordered not to judge others- at least not in so many terms. We are allowed to judge, and in some cases we’re even told to.

1 Corinthians 5:11-13 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

These verses can be a bit of a mind-bender, because the Corinthians are actually being quoted Old Testament law. One must, in this case, consider why they are being asked to judge amongst themselves. Let’s think about who they are being told to expel: someone who calls himself a brother (a disciple of Christ) but is sexually immoral, greedy, slanderous, etc. They aren’t being told not to eat with anyone who struggles with any one of those things- but rather someone who indulges their desires while claiming to be following Christ.

So we are asked to Judge amongst ourselves and expel the hypocrites from amongst us- but that order comes with a caution- that by the standard we judge others, we ourselves will be judged. So if we judge unfairly, if we cast out someone who is genuinely desirous of a relationship with God, we are putting ourselves in jeopardy.

This is when things get really, really interesting.

James 4: 10-12 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. 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?

We’re told to Judge, we’re told not to judge. We’re told to judge righteously on the one hand and then on the other told that when we Judge the law we are disobeying it. So what are we honestly to do?

I think the answer is clear- that with our trust in and knowledge of God, our own holiness will grow. And as our holiness and discernment grows, so will the ability to make fair judgments. The backhand of that is that the more our holiness and discernment grows, the more our knowledge of our own iniquity (past and present) grows, and the more loathe we are to cast judgment. This is a good thing, this is the way God designed it to work.

So yes, we can hold someone accountable without casting judgment. And yes- there are times when it is appropriate for us to judge. But remember that judgment is something we are only to do when necessary and not as a matter of course, and that the Bible is clear that we are not to judge those who don’t believe.

(So all of those people who troll around the internet calling all gay people iniquitous and bound for Hell, well, you are going against the Bible. Just sayin’.)