How (not) to judge my neighbor
Topic: judging Scripture: James 4:11–4:12
How (not) to Judge your Neighbor
Rev. Stuart Strachan Jr
Well we are continuing in our series in the book of James. This is our second to last week in the sermon series. And James is back doing what he has done for most of this letter, giving advice to a group of Christians.
And this week we are going to look at just a few verses because they constitute really one single subject matter, and that is topic of judging. So with that said, let us turn to James chapter 4 verses 11-12.
11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister[a] or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 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?
Have you ever struggled with judging?
I mean not just in terms of you judging others, because I know you’ve struggled with that, that’s just human. What I mean is, have you ever had a hard time defining what it means to judge someone anyway.
Sometimes its obvious when someone is being judgmental. But other times, it seems a bit more blurry.
For example, you oversee a man yelling at a cashier for giving wrong change and the woman next in line tells him he is over-reacting…he responds by saying, “quit being so judgmental!”
Is he right? Is she wrong? Is there a place to call out sin or is that being judgmental too?
Our culture is no help in this matter, generally speaking whenever there is a “religious” person on screen their de facto role is to be as judgmental as possible, which makes those of us who are “religious” uncomfortable, and perhaps even cautious to judge anything.
We’re also told by our culture that “if it isn’t hurting anyone else, than it’s no one else’s business to judge”.
So there are a couple reasons why we struggle with exactly what “judging is”.
On the other hand, we make judgments all the time. We make judgments about the weather, who to vote for in an election, who to trust with our mortgages or our children. Each of these decisions requires a judgment call on whether or not the people we interact with are trustworthy.
And the truth is, we as human beings not only have to make judgment calls on a regular basis, we actually enjoy judging other people.
And how do I know that you enjoy judging other people?
Two words: “Reality Television”.
Reality television for the most part, is a half-hour or hour opportunity to judge others.
For example, please don’t tell me you watch the “bachelor” because first and foremost you are interested in whomever the latest host ends up proposing to…
you watch it first and foremost because its an opportunity to watch all of the ridiculousness of human behavior…and you get to sit back and talk about how weird or pathetic or gross or psychologically damaged these people are”
And a part of us loves to do this. We love to look at other people and think to ourselves, well, “as difficult, and confusing, and dramatic as my life is, at least I’m not them.”
Now that at least a few of you are reconsidering your reality television consumption, what else can we say about judging, and its impact on our lives?
But let’s take a step back real quick and define what we mean by being judgmental, and hopefully that will help us set a course.
After we do that, we are going to set some guidelines for what is and isn’t judging, and then finally, what sort of solution do we have for those of us who sincerely want to follow Jesus with our whole lives.
Now, at the core of a judgmental heart is the attempt to put someone down while simultaneously lifting yourself up.
We tend to, as fallen human beings, make critical judgments about other people’s faults, without, and this is important, without legitimate or sufficient reasons.
And over time we decide “I don’t like that person,”
And it all starts with a judgment, which oftentimes isn’t even accurate.
It reminds me of a story about a young couple who moved into a new neighborhood.
The next morning while they were eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging the washing outside.
“That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.”
Her husband looked on, remaining silent.
Every time her neighbor hung her washing out to dry, the young woman made the same comments.
A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?”
The husband replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”
So wash your windows, otherwise you might look silly!
But isn’t that an apt metaphor? When our perspective is off, our judgment is off.
And the problem is, because we are sinners, we tend to judge through dirty windows.
We assume we see correctly, because, well, it’s what we see, after all, and we trust our sight above all the other senses.
But oftentimes, because of our sin, we are actually looking with a distorted picture of reality.
What often ends up happening is we look at someone’s life and we weaknesses, and we focus on their limitations, we see their mistakes. And we think to ourselves, “at least I’m better than them!”
We can judge words and actions but never motives.
Now, it’s important for us to acknowledge that sometimes, especially in our postmodern culture where “my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth” and what is right for me is what I say it is, and not what you say it is” that we often lump all judgment, including sound judgment, into the category of being judgmental.
And that is not what James is talking about here. If that were the case than James couldn’t make this judgment in this text right?
He couldn’t call them judgmental because if he did, he would be judging right?
And this is the trap that I think so many Christians find themselves in, where they see someone doing or saying destructive things, maybe they are gossiping or they are drinking too much, and we see it and maybe we say something and they say, “You’re being judgmental! You can’t do that, that’s a sin”
But again, if that were the case, than James couldn’t have made his statement about their judging behavior in the first place.
And that is why we have to draw a distinction between judging words and actions, but never motivations. We can judge words, we can judge actions, but never motivations.
But, and again this is so important, when we do judge actions and behaviors, we are supposed to do it first of all from the place of love. And if we can’t do that, then we have no place speaking into another person’s life.
So for instance, if you hear someone say something mean or nasty about another, which James describes as slander in verse 11, there is nothing wrong with calling that person to account.
To say, however, to that person because that they must hate the person in question and wish they were no longer alive, well, then, you’ve crossed over into judging motives, and judging motives is what often gets us in trouble.
As Proverbs 16:2 says, All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.
But what about a more common experience, where someone says something to you that you find hurtful.
It could be that they were trying to offend you, to upset you. They said what they did in just an ambiguous way so that you couldn’t prove they were being mean, but oh man, you are pretty sure they were trying to hurt you.
As I was writing this sermon I was trying to think of an example of something that you could take either to be an intentional affront, or just something said innocently.
And the example I came up with from my own life is a line I’ve heard from quite a few people, probably a few of you, and it’s this: “your preaching has gotten so much better!”
Now, you could take that a couple different ways right?
I could think, “Oh that’s a nice thing to say, I’m glad he or she thinks my preaching has improved”, or, I could go the negative route right, ‘They think I was a terrible preacher when I got here”. They are just trying to remind me that I am an amateur at this preaching thing”
You see what I mean…what ends up happening, is that we begin to judge motivations, and we find ourselves making things up about the other person that are often not the case at all.
But the problem is, the more we do this, the more our negative views of people turn into bitterness, and we can’t see clearly what the other person is really like.
And truthfully, it’s very isolating. It’s isolating when you determine that those around you are there to put you down, trying to defeat you, to make you hurt.
Now that’s not to try and be naïve and to say that we’re all good people trying to do the right thing. No, there are some people that do have evil intentions, but more often than not, and I’m convinced of this, especially in the church, we form these hardened opinions of other people based not on the others’ malicious intent, but on misunderstandings and communication breakdowns.
We miss each other, and we misrepresent what the other is trying to accomplish and it leads to conflict and unless that conflict is resolved, it can turn to alienation.
But this isn’t the only problem that happens when we judge others. James puts it this way in our text:
“Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister[a] or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.”
In other words, when you play the role of lawgiver, you attempt to take God’s place.
Again, James points out the problem: There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.
So what then, is the solution? How are we called to live in light of this seemingly never-ending propensity to judge?
The Solution: Charitable Judgments
The answer, surprisingly enough, comes from James’ older brother, Jesus.
In Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
In other words, if we judge others unfairly, we will be judged unfairly as well. If we judge fairly, we too will be judged fairly.
Ken Sande, the author and director of Peacemaker Ministries, puts it this way:
“How do you want others to judge you? Do you want them to believe good about you instead of evil?
To interpret your actions in the best possible way? To really try to understand your side of the story before drawing conclusions or talking to others about you? If so, Jesus commands that you do the same for others.
So the goal is to treat others in such a way that we want to be treated, to be fair-minded.
But fairness isn’t really the bar is it? As followers of Jesus, we are called to judge based on love, Christian love.
And the word that has often been used as a synonym for love in the Christian tradition is the word charity or charitable.
So if we want others to judge us as we are judged, than our goal should be to judge charitably.
Again, Ken Sande is helpful here: “making a charitable judgment means that out of love for God, you strive to believe the best about others until you have facts to prove otherwise.
In other words, if you can reasonably interpret facts in two possible ways, God calls you to embrace the positive interpretation over the negative, or at least to postpone making any judgment at all until you can acquire conclusive facts.
So to go back to my example from just a moment ago, when someone says, “Your preaching has really improved!” my calling is to assume they mean that in the best possible light, and they are trying to encourage me as I develop the craft of preaching.
And this idea about charitable judgments can also be found in the Apostle Paul’s teaching, especially in his famous teaching about love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Now think about charitable judging in light of that last verse:
Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
In other words, love does its best to guard the human heart from falling into the deadly sin of judging our neighbor.
It keeps us from misinterpreting messages that we would otherwise assume were meant to hurt us. And love, true Christian love, enables us to protect the reputation and the credibility of those we come across.
That is what charitable judgment looks like, and that is what Christian love looks like.
So the truth, my brothers and sisters, is that we are judging creatures. We are born with this innate ability to judge all sorts of things. Some of those judgments are necessary, but some of them lead us down a path of anger, bitterness, and alienation.
And so we are called as followers of Jesus to give the benefit of the doubt, to assume not the worst, but the best, and to judge our neighbors charitably, favorably, instead of negatively.
I want to close with a written prayer that I hope will help us become known for our charitable judgments and not our critical judgments. So let’s go now to our Lord in prayer.
“Father, help me to acknowledge others’ virtues, delight in their successes, overlook their faults, defend their reputation, seek to understand their perspective, and believe the best about them until I have facts to prove otherwise.
Help me to deal honestly, humbly, and constructively with others’ true failings.” As you draw on his grace and use the normal interactions of daily life to practice making charitable judgments, these attitudes and habits can become more consistent with and characteristic of the person you are becoming.”