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Leave the Judging to God

  • 2002 7 Feb
Leave the Judging to God
Few activities in life rival the thrill of passing judgment on another human being. I don't believe I can go a day on God's green earth without in some way indulging in this forbidden art. ...

In a small part of an average day, I might condemn my daughter numerous times for a messy room; my son, for laziness; my wife, for working too hard (and raising my standard); even my dog, for his bad odor. (Of course I am responsible for his bad odor because I haven't given him a bath-he's just a dog.) I pick up the newspaper in the morning (after condemning the paperboy for throwing it so that half the front page is torn) and find it full of people I can judge as being sinful, ignorant, stupid, arrogant, or childish. Lumping large groups of people together and at once dispatching the whole lot of them is especially effective. The world always seems to cooperate with my assessment of it as long as I remain distant from a personal knowledge of any of these individuals. ...

Why do we like judging so much?
The act of judging gives us a subjective means of affirming ourselves. No matter what I've done or how bad I am, I can always comfort myself by finding someone out there who is "worse" than I am. I can also bring down those who appear to be more worthy than me by finding or manufacturing some flaw in their character that allows me to be better than they are in my mind. This is the means by which we establish a pharisaical sense of self-worth. If I can show that I am better than someone else-anyone else-then I can think of myself as being worthy based on that assessment alone. I can place a value on myself that can be confirmed by repeatedly finding someone further down the moral ladder, or something afoul with those further up. ...

Jesus caught the Pharisees at this trick, even read into their private prayers what was really going on in their minds. He knew the condition of their hearts, and his Father had heard plenty of these prayers, if indeed any of them ever made it to his place in heaven. ...

The purpose of this judgment is not the real betterment of anyone, nor is it to find the truth-to know what the real standard of judgment is and to put oneself under its scrutiny. Its purpose is only to establish a self-defined superiority over others.

We call the shots. We make the rules. We draw the line in the sand and then step over it, leaving everyone else on the other side. It's a foolproof way to feel good about ourselves.

It's all about control.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to" (Matthew 23:13). ...

It's the Pharisee in us that wants control, and more than anything we want control over the rules of the game. (This is common to all religions.) When we follow this pattern, it works to our supposed advantage in the following way: We set a standard that some, but not all, are capable of achieving. This standard usually has the weight of an acceptable authority behind it (in the Pharisee's case it was the law of Moses; with today's Christians it can be the Bible) and yet it is conveniently reinterpreted and reduced to some nitpicky list of do's and don'ts that some people can't do and others simply don't care about, with good reason.

For the original Pharisees this amounted to things like washing hands before eating, observing the Sabbath by not lifting a finger, fasting twice a week, and giving a tenth of all they had to the temple. Each one of these was done with great display since, as Jesus pointed out, everything the Pharisees did was for show (Matthew 23:5).

For today's Pharisee, certain cultural taboos serve the same purpose, such as smoking, drinking, dancing, and attending R-rated movies, for instance. Abstaining from these things appears sacrificial, but most modern-day Pharisees don't want to do any of these things anyway. This system cleverly enables us to follow the law perfectly (as we have reinterpreted it) while passing judgment on all those who don't follow it, can't follow it, or who simply could care less about our little charade.

And behind this penchant to trivialize holiness by sacrificing what is really no great sacrifice can be hidden many deeper, more important matters of the heart. Jesus said, "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!" (Mark 7:9). And what are these commands? "The more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness" (Matthew 23:23).

Justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
If they would have gone after the more important matters that Jesus suggested, all the silly little games of the Pharisees would have ceased to exist.

For instance, the pursuit of justice would have forced them to admit their own guilt, for Jesus redefined lawlessness in such a way as to leave no one righteous-not one. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount he says, "You have heard that it was said..." and six times he follows with "but I tell you...." Each time what the Pharisees heard was a familiar definition of a law redefined by Jesus as to its formidable essence. In each case the Pharisee version is doable, while the Jesus version is not. "Do not murder" becomes "do not become angry with anyone." "Do not commit adultery" becomes "do not look upon a woman lustfully." "Divorce only with a certificate" becomes "divorce equals adultery." "Do not break your oath" becomes "do not swear at all." And "return an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" becomes "do not resist an evil person, but return good for evil." With justice thus redefined, who can escape condemnation? No one.

Jesus caught the Pharisees at the heart of their evil scheme just as he catches us at the heart of ours. There's a delicate balance here. The pharisaical goal is to make the commands of righteousness just easy enough for me to follow, but too difficult (or irrelevant) for almost everyone else. That will allow me to look pretty good while leaving me plenty of people to judge.

Too bad the Pharisees couldn't have seen that Jesus was also giving them a chance to know something wonderful-the mercy of God. Only when justice has forced someone to realize their guilt can the mercy of God can come into play. God sets us up for his kindness by hitting us hard with his impartiality. We are all guilty; we can all have mercy. Or as Paul states it, "The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more" (Romans 5:20).

Yet here's the rub: even after hearing about God's mercy, I still err by choosing mercy for me and justice for everyone else. I like the idea of God having mercy on me because I am an exceptionally nice guy. I deserve mercy. But all those scoundrels out there who cheat on their way! It's justice for them!

I can't have it both ways.

This is actually pretty easy to understand, and it brings clarity to other warnings of Jesus about casting judgment. If anyone else gets justice, I must get justice too. On the other hand, if I get mercy, everyone else gets mercy; I can't be partial to myself in either case. And this is where the Pharisees went astray. They were partial, and in their partiality, they condemned themselves before God.

It's clear to see why Jesus doesn't want us to judge others: We don't stand a chance. If I judge even one person, I announce that judgment is the basis upon which I want everyone evaluated-myself included (Matthew 7:1). This is the law of impartiality. You want to judge? Fine, get ready to face the Judge.

In the same way, if I want mercy for me, then I have to allow it for everyone else, even those who, in my estimation, are "worse" sinners than I. This is the big picture that we all need to see: Justice for all; condemnation for all. A cross and an empty tomb for all; mercy for all.

This leaves us with faithfulness-the one ongoing quality God asks of us. He is willing to justify us; he is willing to grant us mercy instead of the condemnation we deserve, but he does ask for a life of faithfulness.

Faithfulness here is in contrast to perfection. Being faithful is a far cry from being perfect. Faithfulness means being authentic, devoted, consistent, loyal. An alcoholic who regularly shows up at A.A. meetings is faithful. She may slip and fall, but she is faithful to get up again. She may lie to her supervisor, but she is faithful to tell the truth when confronted. Faithfulness allows for failure; perfection does not.

When God calls for perfection, it is assumed that I cannot perform it. It's the demand for perfection that keeps me relying on God's mercy and grace. But the call to faithfulness is a call I can answer. Faithful to follow, faithful to confess, faithful to obey, faithful to repent, faithful to believe, faithful to pray and seek God-all these are the requirements of faithfulness. All of them are doable and are, in fact, my responsibility and my joy, having been the unexpected recipient of so great a mercy.

The Pharisees could have had it all if they would have been willing to admit their hypocrisy and join the rest of the human race, on their knees before a merciful Lord. "God have mercy on me, a sinner," cried the publican in the parable of Jesus (Luke 18:13). Imagine, if you will, a Pharisee in his long robe, his phylacteries, and his ornate turban, down on his knees next to the tax collector in tears of repentance and joy. Imagine these two embracing, both overwhelmed at the mercy of God in hearing and answering the same prayer. There you have a true picture of the kingdom of God. It's hard to imagine the Pharisee standing up after such an experience and judging anyone.

Remember the words of Jesus:


Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:36-38).

What an incredible proposition. Want love? Give love. Want mercy? Give mercy. Want acceptance? Give acceptance. Want to judge? Get ready to be judged. Want to escape judgment? Don't judge at all. Don't do it. Find a group of folks who want to get over this problem and hold each other accountable.

Excerpted by permission from 12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee (Like Me), copyright 2000 by John Fischer. All rights reserved. Published by Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minn.,, 1-800-328-6109.

John Fischer is an award-winning author of several books, including Saint Ben. He is a regular writer for CCM Magazine. A graduate of Wheaton College, John and his family live in Laguna Beach, California.

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