We often hear that we shouldn’t judge others, but does this mean that we shouldn’t speak up if we notice sin or problems in someone else’s life?
David Wilkerson wrote about a small but jarring experience he once had in a bank. He’d walked in to make a withdrawal from his account. All was moving along as per usual until the teller handed him the cash he had requested.
Looking through it, he realized that she’d given him too much and her till would be off at the end of the day. He smiled at her, laid a bill back on the counter and quietly said, “Young lady, you made a little mistake. You gave me 10 dollars too much.”
Perhaps we shrug at that amount. With modern inflation, a 10 dollar bill isn’t worth much, but this was 1979. The value of 10 dollars then was around 50 dollars, and it was the principle of the matter anyway. David wouldn’t walk out with money that didn’t properly belong to him, even if it was only a dime.
The teller’s cheeks flushed bright red. She snatched the bill off the counter. “What do you want, a medal for honesty? Everybody makes mistakes.”
David nodded and left, letting the next person in line step up.
Later, he mused on the experience, noting, “That's just like so many of us. We don't like to be reminded of our mistakes, and those who remind us, even in love, receive a cold shoulder instead of thanks.”
“Rather than take an honest look at what that person is saying to us, we go into a long, involved explanation, justifying our actions. The closer our critics are to the truth, the less likely we are to forgive them for bringing it to our attention.
The Best-Known Verse in the Bible
The one verse that almost everyone seems to know, whether or not they ascribe to the Bible, is found in the gospel of Matthew. “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” (Matthew 7:1-2, ESV).
If they’re a Christian, they might also know the following verses. “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” (Matthew 7:3-5).
These verses are generally employed to deflect criticism rather than in any form of self-reflection. Matthew Henry explains in his commentaries, however, that this is a subtle misinterpretation of the verse.
“We must not sit in the judgment-seat,” he writes, “to make our word a law to every body. We must not judge our brother, that is, we must not speak evil of him, so it is explained, Jas. 4:11. We must not despise him, nor set him at nought, Rom. 14:10. We must not judge rashly, nor pass such a judgment upon our brother as has no ground, but is only the product of our own jealousy and ill nature. We must not make the worst of people, nor infer such invidious things from their words and actions as they will not bear….
“We must not judge the hearts of others, nor their intentions, for it is God’s prerogative to try the heart, and we must not step into his throne; nor must we judge of their eternal state, nor call them hypocrites, reprobates, and castaways; that is stretching beyond our line… Counsel him, and help him, but do not judge him.”
If we were never meant to evaluate or critique others, Christ probably would not have included instructions like “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
“But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
We should not judge — perhaps a better word would be ‘condemn’ — each other, but we are meant to be honest with one another.
Come Without an Ax to Grind
Jumping down other people’s throats for the least mistake is second nature for most of us, though, which Jesus knew very well. The caution he gives against denouncing others is stern. Before we confront anyone, we should carefully check our own heart and intentions.
R. T. Kendall illustrated this point very neatly in his book Total Forgiveness, “A few years ago two elders had the task of approaching a man in their church who was in an adulterous relationship. On their way to the man’s home, one elder said to the other, ‘Do you believe that you too could fall into this sin?’
“The reply was, ‘No.’
“The elder who asked the question then said, ‘You are not qualified to approach this man’ — and the visit was canceled.
“The essential qualification for a spiritual confrontation is the attitude required by Paul in Galatians 6:1, one of humility and self-searching. Here is a rule of thumb to follow: the one who is hardest on himself or herself will probably be the gentlest with others. Those who are most aware of their own weaknesses are most likely to be able to help others…. A qualified person will avoid becoming emotionally involved in the situation; he or she has no personal ax to grind.”
Some may read all of these warnings and qualifications and feel like it’s easier to ignore other people’s sins or see them and be silent.
The book of James, however, doesn’t let any of us off the hook. “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20, NIV).
It also states, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17, ESV).
Just because Christ told us not to slam one another and try to take his job as the judge of humanity doesn’t give people a free pass to silently watch other people fall into sin or make mistakes and dismissively think, “I won’t judge them (out loud), but God will sort them out. Their comeuppance is around the corner.”
We’re called to help our brothers and sisters with humility.
Learning to Have a Gentle Tongue
David Wilkerson’s observation that people rarely take criticism well, especially when it hits close to home, is more accurate than many of us would like. Poor performance or sin or mistakes are pointed out, and the one under the spotlight may feel like their personal value is being included in the critique.
The individual feeling the heat may try to deflect criticism by comparing themselves to others — “But I’m better than those people over there!” — like the young teller David encountered, or they may attack the character or actions of the people pointing out their failure in the classic “Well, you’re no better than me, so you have no right to talk to me.”
One of the hardest parts of good, godly confrontation is not responding to a negative reaction with pride, sarcasm or tit-for-tat rejoinders.
Combating this instinct within ourselves takes a lot of prayer and humbling before God. If, after spending time on our knees, we know that we’re too involved in the situation and won’t be able to remain impartial or gracious, we should find someone else who will be able to help us or even take over the confrontation.
The purpose of this is always to restore relationship and right wrongs. If the person receiving critique takes it badly, we should (if possible) continue to reach out to them and seek to bring the rapport back to a healthy place.
The only exemption that the Bible gives for this ‘after-care’ is if the person in question refuses to listen to correction from you then a group and finally the church as a whole.
Judgment and condemnation are intended to tear us apart, but correction is meant to reset our broken spiritual bones, to heal and protect us. It will hurt in the moment, but it has great value. The Bible says, “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. A fool despises his father's instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent” (Proverbs 15:4-5).