Like most of us, pastor John Burke (pastor of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas) assumed that he was not a judgmental person. But just in case he was wrong, he tried an experiment: for a whole week he kept track of his judgments about other people. Here’s what he discovered:
Judging is fun! Judging others makes you feel good, and I’m not sure I’ve gone a single day without this sin. In any given week, I might condemn my son numerous times for a messy room; judge my daughter for being moody – which especially bothers me when I’m being moody (but I have a good reason!) …. even my dog gets the hammer of condemnation for his bad breath ….
Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, are you saying that correcting my kids for a messy room is judging?” NO! But there’s correction that values with mercy and there’s correction that devalues with judgment.
I watch the news and condemn those “idiotic people” who do such things. Most reality TV shows are full of people I can judge as sinful, ignorant, stupid, arrogant, or childish. I get in my car and drive and find a host of inept drivers who should have flunked their driving test – and I throw in a little condemnation on our Department of Public Safety for good measure! At the store, I complain to myself about the lack of organization that makes it impossible to find what I’m looking for, all the while being tortured with Muzak – who picks that music anyway? I stand in the shortest line, which I judge is way too long because – “LOOK PEOPLE – it says ‘10 items or less,’ and 1 count more than that in three of your baskets – what’s wrong with you people?” And why can’t that teenage checker – what IS she wearing? – focus and work so we can get out of here?”
Judging is our favorite pastime, if we’re honest – but we’re not! We’re great at judging the world around us by standards we would highly resent being held to! Judging makes us feel good because it puts us in a better light than others.[i]
St. Paul ends Romans 1 with a fairly lengthy, detailed, and dark description of the state of humanity in the world apart from Christ. Remember the uncomfortable sermon from last weekend? Remember these words? (Read 1:28-32). And remember I said that before talking about the incredible, indescribable, unfathomable grace of God, which is Paul’s theme in this letter, and in everything he wrote, he has do make sure that we understand that we NEED that grace. That’s what makes grace beautiful. The word “gospel” means “good news,” and for there to be good news, we have to have received some really bad news first, right? Good news isn’t good news without bad news. So Paul spends quite a bit of time here going into detail with the bad news SO THAT we’ll understand that the gospel, the grace of God, really is good news.
So after painting this really dark, depressing picture of the state of humanity apart from Christ, he turns his attention to another group of people – those of us who are certainly convinced that THOSE people are really bad, but compared to them I look pretty good, so I’m in good shape. Look at the words Paul uses at the end of chapter 1: “THEY did not see fit,” “THEY were filled,” “THEY are full,” “Though THEY know.” It’s like he’s standing in the door of the church looking out from the inside, talking about all of the bad things THOSE people do. And we all stand and clap, saying, “YEAH! Our culture, our society is all messed up. Look at all the things THOSE people OUT THERE are doing. It’s NUTS. We’re going to hell in a handbasket.” But there’s a radical shift at the start of chapter 2. Turn to Romans 2. Look at V. 1. It’s like he suddenly spins around, looks US in the eye, and says … (V. 1).
The phrase “O man” here is actually a part of a literary device called “diatribe.” He isn’t talking just to man or being sexist. He’s imagining someone arguing with him and he’s responding as if that person were real. He continues this style through chapter 3. And the person arguing with him isn’t one of those people “out there” that he has just described. It’s those of us “in here.” One of my favorite Christian bands growing up was a band called “Petra.” Their song “Rose-Colored Stained Glass Windows” goes like this:
Another sleepy Sunday, safe within the walls
Outside a dying world in desperation calls
But no one hears the cries, or knows what they’re about
The doors are locked within, or is it from, without
Looking through rose colored stained glass windows
Never allowing the world to come in
Seeing no evil and feeling no pain
Making the light as it comes from within, so dim, so dim…
Out on the doorstep lay the masses in decay
Ignore them long enough, maybe they’ll go away
When you have so much you think, you have so much to lose
You think you have no lack, when you’re really destitute
Looking through rose colored stained glass windows
Never allowing the world to come in
Seeing no evil and feeling no pain
Making the light as it comes from within, so dim, so dim!
In their book UnChristian, author David Kinnaman highlights a number of troubling statistics from an extensive study of those born between 1965 and 2002. Included are two statistics that show how those outside the church view those within: Nearly nine out of ten young outsiders—87 percent—said that the term “judgmental” accurately describes present-day Christianity. Of the non-Christians surveyed, 84 percent said they personally know at least one committed Christian. Yet just 15 percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ-followers were significantly different from the norm.[ii]
And that is exactly what Paul turns his attention to here. Our judgmental hearts. Carlyle Marney said, “Many Christians define sin as the sum total of acts which they themselves do not commit.”[iii] Jesus spoke about the very same tendency in the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see 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,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:1-5).
Now, neither Jesus nor Paul say that we can’t or shouldn’t correct. The issue is the manner in which we go about it. Sometimes we as human beings have to use judgment. Having “good judgment” is seen as a positive character trait. But there is a difference between having good judgment and being judgmental. I call the former being discerning, and differentiate between our need to be wise and discerning of the thoughts and intentions of others. Leaders everywhere need to be discerning about whether someone is a good fit for a role or position, whether they’re trustworthy and reliable. Whether they have the skill and passion necessary for the role. We do the same thing with the people we choose as our friends too, don’t we. We can be friendly with everyone, but we choose our friends a little more carefully. This summer, starting at the end of June and running through Labor Day, we’ll be talking a break from Romans and doing a series from Proverbs, and the book of Proverbs is FULL of wise advice about choosing friends carefully; to show discernment. And to be discerning, sometimes we have to use good judgment. But that doesn’t mean we are to be judgmental. There’s a difference.
And we have to recognize that the judgment, the discernment we as human beings show, even in our best moments, can be flawed. One person said, “Human judgment is often necessary, sometimes helpful, occasionally correct, and fundamentally inconsistent.” Even at our best, we get it wrong. We make assumptions about people that are wrong. We assume the worst about the intentions of others and the best about our own intentions, even if our behaviors are on the surface the same. If Becky snaps at me, I think, “Wow, she’s mean. She’s grumpy. She’s cranky,” right? But if I snap at her, I’m not a mean or grumpy person, “I’m tired. I had a long day at work. I had to deal with that Steve Sisco again. Of course I’m grumpy!” But Paul makes it very clear, “When I judge someone else, when I judge not actions but their character, their intentions which I can’t even see, when I pass judgment on someone else, I condemn myself, because I do the very same things.”
But one thing is certain – we will all be judged – by Christ himself. Look at the end of this passage, at V. 16. The wording in English is awkward here, but what Paul says is that God will judge use all by having Christ judge us, and that isn’t an image of Christ that we tend to have. The babe in the manger. The one who healed the sick. The one who welcomed children. The one who taught with wisdom. The one who was silent when he was being judged. The victim on the cross. These are all pictures of Christ that resonate with us in some way. But Christ as our judge? We don’t have that image of Christ. But that’s exactly what Scripture teaches. Acts 17:31 says, “because he (God) has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” The one who God raised from the dead will judge the world in righteousness. And who is that? Jesus, the Christ.
Now, look at V. 6. We will be judged by Christ according to our works. Wait, what? Does that mean that we have to be good people? Well, yes, and no. You see, those who place their faith in Christ, Savior, Lord, and Judge, will be judged according to what he has done for us. And those who have not done so will have their own good works laid on the scale opposite the righteousness of God to be judged. And I don’t care how good you are. How often you go to church. How much you give to the church. How many meals you serve to the hungry. Your good works won’t measure up. And yet, when we accept God’s gift of grace, when we place our faith in Christ as our Savior (meaning we admit our failures and accept his forgiveness when we fail) and as our Lord (meaning he is in charge, we seek to do his will), his goodness is placed on the scale in our place and it does measure up. And we do begin to do all of those things and more because the Spirit of God begins to live in us and through us. We will be judged by our deeds, but we cannot be saved by them.
But there’s something we need to understand about the judgment of God. It is very different than our own human judgment, which is often wrong. For starters, unlike me, God cannot be fooled. Look at Vv. 2-4. Someone can fool me, leading me to think they are better than they are. And I can certainly fool myself into thinking that I am in better shape that I really am. But I cannot fool God. We tend to view other people through lenses – their position in our community, the good things they do, or the bad things they do, our first impressions of them. Sometimes our view of other people is impacted by subconscious things that we aren’t even aware of – a semblance to someone who hurt or helped us. But God doesn’t see people that way. He sees us perfectly. We can’t fool him.
And God’s judgment is unbiased. God doesn’t play favorites. I am easily biased. I can play favorites. My perspective can be altered by how someone looks, by what kind of car they drive, by how they dress, by where they work, by the size and beauty of their home. But look at Vv. 5-11. This was news to the Jewish Christians in the Roman church. They had this idea that because they were members of the Jewish race, God’s chosen people, they didn’t have to have any faith, and their lives didn’t need to be transformed by God. Trypho, an ancient Jewish leader, in a debate with Justin Martyr, said “They who are the seed of Abraham according to the flesh shall in any case, even if they be sinners and unbelieving and disobedient towards God, share in the eternal kingdom.” The Jews saw themselves as philosophically, morally, and spiritually superior to the gentile world.
There is an incipient, deadly condition that exists in the hearts and minds of many who have grown up cultured, good people who have always gone to church, and are members of rotary, and have never really gotten into trouble. People of privilege. It’s a condition that says “I’m better than you. I go to church. I don’t cuss and smoke and chew. I don’t do those nasty things. I’m better than you.” And to that St. Paul shouts an adamant “NO!” That’s like saying, “Well, you owe $1,000,000, and I only owe $500,000. That’s like half as much, so I’m not in debt. I don’t have any debt.” No, you have plenty of debt. Your accounts might look better than mine, but we both owe plenty. When we say, “I’m better than you,” we start to disassociate from anyone who might tarnish our reputation or hurt our position in our circle of friends, or in the community.”
Now, it’s easy to read a passage like this and think that Paul is condemning anything less than perfect discipleship to Jesus Christ, and that isn’t what Paul is doing at all. He’s calling out a lifestyle of complacency, of persistent and consistent hypocrisy in which I constantly judge and condemn others while never, ever taking a good hard look inside. He isn’t condemning those who are engaged in a real battle with some sin in their lives. He isn’t condemning shaky discipleship. He’s condemning self-righteous, judgmental discipleship.
And some of us might be saying, “I’m not really comfortable with all of this talk about Christ judging me. I don’t like all of this talk about God’s judgment. I’d much rather talk about the love of God, not wrath and judgment.” But it’s because God loves that God judges. If God didn’t judge, it would be tantamount to God saying, “Evil doesn’t matter” and “Your actions don’t matter.” If our actions don’t matter, life is meaningless and empty. It is because God, in love, judges that our lives have meaning. Our behavior matters. Our words matter. Our lives matter.
“In passing judgment on one another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We will be judged. By God. We are not to judge one another, or anyone out there. Doesn’t mean we can’t confront, or seek to be discerning, or call someone out. But we do so because of love, and in love, with THEIR best interests at heart. And we do so in kindness, in a way that they can receive it. And we do so only as we practice the discipline of Holy Spirit enlightened self-examination and repentance. And if I find in myself the same thing I seek to judge in you, I don’t say a word to you until I have begun to work on the very same issue in my own life.
In reflecting on our experience in various churches throughout our lives, and on this church, Becky came up with this description of who we are, and I love it: “We are a beautifully diverse group of people who are all some kind of mess and, because of our identity in Christ, are unified in our love for each other.”[iv]
[i] John Burke, Mud and the Masterpiece (Baker Books, 2013), pp. 60-61
[ii] David Kinnaman, UnChristian (Baker, 2007), pp. 48, 182
[iii] Carlyle Marney
[iv] Becky Goodwin