Evangelical Christians are often told not to judge. If there is one verse non-Christians know (after, perhaps, some reference to the “least of these”) is that’s Jesus taught people, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). Of course, what the casual Christian critic misses is that Jesus was not calling for a moratorium on moral discernment or spiritual evaluation. After all, he assumes five verses later that his followers will have the wherewithal to tell what sort of people in the world are dogs and pigs (Matt. 7:6). Believing in the sinfulness of sin, the exclusivity of Christ, and moral absolutes does not make one judgmental. Just look at Jesus.
But this doesn’t mean Matthew 7:1 has nothing to teach conservative Christians. Like everyone else on the planet, we have a propensity to assume the worst about people, to happily pass on bad reports, and to size up individuals and situations without knowing all the facts (or even half the facts). I’m not talking about disciplining wayward church members, or having hard conversations about people caught in sin, or refusing to ever take someone’s past behavior into account, or being hopelessly naive about the way the world works, or refraining from the public exchange of ideas, or suspending all our powers of discernment until we understand something or someone with omniscience. I’m talking about the all too natural tendency to shoot first and ask questions later (or not at all).
Is there a piece of biblical wisdom more routinely ignored on the internet, not to mention in our own hearts, than Proverbs 18:17?—”The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” I’ve never been accused of serious misconduct that I knew to be patently false or horribly misunderstood. But if I am someday, I hope folks will remember the book of Proverbs. “”If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). Too often we are quick to speak and slow to listen. The world, the flesh, the devil, and the internet want us to rush to judgment, when the Bible urges us to suspend judgment until we’ve heard from both sides. It happens all the time: pastors sinfully judge parishoners based on hearsay, church members criticize pastors without knowing the whole story, citizen assume the worst about politicians whenever another Scandalgate emerges, kids attack their siblings at the first whiff of error.
Most of us go through life hearing dozens of reports and accusations about celebrities, athletes, pastors, and people we know, operating under the unwritten rule that where there’s smoke there must be a fire. And that’s often true. But arsonists also light fires. Sometimes the cloud of controversy conceals a raging inferno of wrongdoing. But sometimes the pungent smell of smoke turns out to be crumbs in the toaster. Best not to yell “Fire!” in a crowded building, only to find out later your neighbor likes crispy Eggos.
Some readers may wonder what has prompted this post. Nothing in particular. And everything. There is no fresh incident which inspired these thoughts. Rather, I’m writing because of the sin that I know lurks in my own heart and because of the way the blogosphere and twitterverse demand full scale denunciations the way rambunctious eight year-olds demand pixie sticks. Give them what they want and they will only ask for more.
As Christians we realize that sin deserves rebuke and the sinned against should have our deepest compassion. But we should also remember from the last days of our Lord that believing every accusation can be just as bad as making them. As long as there is Jesus, we have to allow that “controversial” and “accused” do not always mean “troublemaker” and “guilty.” We should use the same measure with others that we would want used with us, which means an open heart and an open mind. Do you want people assuming the worst about you? Do I want people passing along every bad report they hear about me? What if people talked about us the way we talk about others?
I’ve often been challenged in this regard by the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the ninth commandment:
God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause.
Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are devices the devil himself uses, and they would call down on my God’s intense anger. I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can do guard and advance my neighbor’s good name. (Q/A 112)
Think of your tweets (as I think of mine). Think of your posts. Think of your conversation with friends. Think of what you talk about with your husband. Or how you talk about your wife. Think of your emails and texts. Think of the speech pouring out of your heart. Are we doing all we can to guard and advance our neighbor’s good name? Or are we ready to believe the worst, eager to pass out failure, and happy to pile on when the pile gets popular? If the mere assertion of wrongdoing can ruin someone’s life–if that’s the moral universe we want to sustain, one where guilt is presumed and innocence is only declared after it’s too late–then you and I are only a whisper away from seeing it all go down the drain.
“Judge not, that you be not judged.”
It may not say what everyone wants it to say. But it still says a lot. Much more than many of us want to hear.