Christian Judgmentalism - Can We Know Someone Else's Heart?
Matt 7 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Have you ever complained that the church is full of people who are very judgmental? Or have you heard others make this claim? It would appear that the issue is at least 2000 years old, given Jesus's stern rebuke above. Has anyone ever called you judgmental?
I have pondered my own potential sin in this area and the potential hypocrisy of my actions and those of my fellow believers. I realized that I was far from clear on the very meaning of judgmentalism, much less the question of when it may or may not be appropriate to judge others. I began a deep study of the subject, and as so often happens, a few recent circumstances gave me an "aha" moment.
I write the following with a bit of trepidation. My thinking may be very flawed, and my scriptural scholarship might be far from what it should be. I look forward to getting your input, arguments, recommended readings, and any other additional information that might help me to broaden and deepen my understanding, and the understanding of those who read this blog.
On the other hand I have found that there is no definition of judgmentalism in most dictionaries, and even judgmental is not defined in the way most of us use the term. Moreover, in reading various articles and comments online, folks have a wide range of opinions regarding what the word means, and when and if it is appropriate to be judgmental.
Clearly it is sin to judge another. The question then is what does it mean to judge. If I see someone abusing a child, is it Okay to judge that action as being wrong? Depending on the nature of the abuse, should I take some kind of action? Of course. There is no place in the Bible that suggests we should look away from sin. There is no place that says we should not call sin what it is. In fact, we could be sinning if we fail to take action.
But, when we judge the heart of the person doing the sin, we have crossed the line. We cannot know the motive, the circumstances, or the background that led to the inappropriate action.
Here is my starting point. To avoid the likelihood of being judgmental, I want to make the assumption about everyone that crosses my path is doing the best they can. If I start with that assumption, then it becomes difficult to judge their heart or motives. I may overcome my starting assumption by finding out the details of some action which seems to be harmful to the individual or those around them. My thinking about their wrong heart might come from their own statements about their actions or from some self evident action that gives clarity.
Lets use smoking as an example. The culture has certainly decided that smoking is bad. Moreover many believe that one person's smoking habit may harm others around them through 2nd hand smoke. Clearly there are health issues for the smoker which may mean the smoker is robbing their closest family and friends by subtracting years from their life.
For these and other reasons, those who don't smoke, and even some who do, look down on smokers. They consider the action to be a negative action, but in many cases the attitude of the one doing the judging will see themselves as superior, and the one doing the smoking as foolish, a willful contributor to negative health consequences for others, and a unconcerned polluter of shared air. It doesn't matter that they have never met the person, they can see into their heart and determine their motives.
My thought is that to abhor the action is not judgmental. I might agree that smoking is a bad idea for any one of the reasons stated, or other reasons of my own. When I see someone smoking I might even think, how sad for them. Neither of those feelings is judgmental. I don't have enough information about them to form any judgment about their character or motives regarding smoking.
Change of scene. I am now watching a young mother. She is holding her toddler and smoking, or a dad is smoking in his car with his kids in the car and windows rolled up. Surely now I can judge the person to be a jerk or fool. Now I should be able to look down on them. Under my theory that they are doing the best that they can, I would say we can still see the action as wrong, dangerous, or even negligent, but I have no idea about the state of their heart in the matter.
Now we will add some more to the story. I know the man. He acknowledges that second hand smoke may be dangerous for his kids in the car. He makes excuses that he is only in the car with them once per week. Do I now know enough to find him guilty of sin?
Two things. 1. There but for the grace of God go I. 2. I can't even know my own heart, how can I know his.
When God tells us in the Bible in multiple places that we are not to judge others, He appears to have these two ideas in mind. You are very likely doing one or more things in your life that are equally worthy of being judged, some of which you may know about, and some about which you are not aware. You may be creating much more harm to yourself or others through your actions, so it is hypocritical for you to be mentally judgmental of the mom or dad.
This idea is easy to understand, and should be enough for us to stop being judgmental. But the second issue is a bit harder. Why do you do the sinful things you do? Why do you fail to do things you know you should do? In some cases, that failure to act is also sin. Can you honestly say that you never sin? Of course not.
Maybe your sin is gossip. You know that you sometimes talk about others for no other reason than to be popular, or sometimes you maliciously intend to hurt the persons reputation. You have tried to stop, but you still fall into the trap. Have you looked seriously at your motives? Why do you do it? Why can't you stop? I'm betting that you aren't really sure why.
Maybe your issue is anger, drinking too much, overeating, or sloth. The potential list is long. But here is the funny one: You may believe that someone you know is judgmental and is judging you. They have given you a rebuke because of some action, or maybe just a loving heads up about some sin in your life. But you have added motive. You have judged them to be judgmental, rather than having a pure heart of love, with the hope of helping you change your direction.
Maybe it was in their tone or in the way they told you about the issue. Maybe it was really just the way you heard it. Even if they did a bad job of telling you, you still can't know their motive. And this becomes the crux of the issue.
So, now we come full circle. Are Christians judgmental. Absolutely. Christians are not perfect. Are committed, church attending, Christians more judgmental than those who are not believers or not strong in their faith? It may appear so in that they have clear cut beliefs that are not subject to change. On the other hand, secular folks are judgmental about all kinds of things, even the fact that Christians may choose to forgo things like liquor, swearing, drugs, gambling, etc. They judge us to be goody two shoes or worse.
But it does come off as hypocritical if Christians are judging others. So, we should be careful to avoid doing so, just as we are careful to avoid other sin. The ironic thing is that if the entire body of Christ were 100% perfect at not judging the hearts and/or motives of others, it would not change the mind of many who are lost or wavering. Many will continue to judge us to be judgmental, because they will believe that they can see our motives, and that our motives are not pure in their estimation.
However, this is true regarding all sin. To the extent that we can have grace for our fellow beings, regardless of their actions, repudiating the action, but judging the person to be doing the best that they can until there is clear and uncontrovertible proof that their heart is impure, we will win some to Christ when they see that part of Jesus in us.
One last thought. The US system of criminal law is built on this principle. Motive is critical to reaching a verdict and must be determined beyond any reasonable doubt.