One of the most difficult sayings Jesus ever uttered was his warning against condemning other people. He said: “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7.1).
If you think about it, that simple verse bears the entire weight of the Lord’s framework for how we should treat others – a context in which Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, decreed other seemingly-impossible things, such as “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5.44), “forgive others” (6.14), and “treat people the way you want them to treat you” (7.12).
As in English, the Greek verb for judge (transliterated krinó) is neutral. The word is sometimes used to convey something positive, such as exercising discernment: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7.24). Here, however, Jesus is describing a negative form of judgment, warning us that the act of deprecating others cuts both ways. “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7.2).
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of someone’s dismissive judgment, you know how it feels. You wish the critic would hear your story, consider your motives or walk in your shoes – if only for an hour.
A good argument could be made that wrongful judgment arises from three basic character flaws with which we all wrestle – hatred, impulse, and fear.
Of the first, Jesus warned his followers, “you will be hated by all nations because of my name” (Matt. 24.9). But Jesus calls us to resist hating them back and to love them in spite of their hatred or disrespect of the Lord or his followers.
The second character flaw describes perhaps the chief reason we wrongfully judge others. It’s easier to trust our impulse to dismiss than to take time to love, listen or empathize. But much of what Jesus expects from his followers demands exactly those qualities. He calls us to consider others with a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Co. 13.7).
The third character flaw behind our human inclination to judge others involves our innate distrust of God. We tend to fear things we don’t understand. We lend our impressions to things we hear others describe. “Wrongdoers eagerly listen to gossip; liars pay close attention to slander,” Proverbs 17:4 says. But James, expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, calls us instead to fear the Lord alone. “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
To discern is to consider the heart. “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7b).
That was certainly true with the thief on the cross, a man whom society judged as hell-bound. But in his final moments of life, Jesus promised him paradise!