“Judge Not Lest You Be Judged” The Vital Difference Between Judgment and Discernment
Discernment is crucial to everyday life. We discern art and literature by way of critical evaluation. We discern the health of relationships with rubrics like trust, boundaries, behavior patterns, and beliefs. We discern the weather to decide what to wear. We discern the words of newscasters and celebrities to decide if they should remain in their current position of authority. I have lamented in the past my confusion over the unquestioned and unconditional support of Donald Trump by Christians. I was looking for this same type of discernment. I was met with statements like “Judge not, lest you be judged,” or, “Look at the plank in your own eye,” or, “Everyone makes mistakes, we all fall short, who am I to judge?” or, “Trump was appointed by God.” The resistance to critically evaluate the good and the bad is dangerous. I am concerned about the damage it is doing to the gospel, to the Christian witness, and to the church as a whole.
People are not all good or all bad. We are a mix of the two. The act of discernment in-and-of-itself does not relegate a person to either all good or all bad so we should not be afraid of this tool. Rather, it is in the grasping and comprehending that we obtain the full picture so that wisdom can be applied. If we do not properly discern—that is, to acknowledge the fullness of Donald Trump’s words—we are not able to see the pain and oppression being felt by those he speaks against. And what does our silence say to these communities if we do not stand up and fight for them the way we fight for unborn babies? That God doesn’t think they are important enough to fight for? That God is fine with words of contempt?
We desperately need discernment to deal wisely with a man who supports one people group while disparaging another. There is not division in the Bible. All human beings are created equal in the image of God. There are over 300 verses in the Bible that discuss poverty, social justice, and equality. For the world. Not just white people in the United States. So how do we judge this current climate? What does it look like to have proper discernment? Let’s start with some basic definitions.
“Everyone makes mistakes, we all fall short, so who am I to judge?’
It is important to understand the difference between a mistake and a pattern of behavior.
A mistake is an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.; a misunderstanding or misconception (Dictionary.com)
Based on this definition, a mistake is a one-time deal in a given topic. There is new information involved that we have not yet encountered, or didn’t take serious enough, and the decision we made based on an incorrect calculation caused damage of some sort. In this sense, “everyone makes mistakes” is an accurate statement.
A pattern of behavior is a recurrent way of acting by an individual or group toward a given object or in a given situation. (Dictionary.com)
However, the behavior is no longer a mistake once the insufficient knowledge is presented. We can only claim naivete’ the first time around. If the details of the damage have been uncovered and the person chooses to make the same decision the second time, third time, and fourth time, knowing full-well the damage being caused, this is no longer a mistake. It is a choice. It is a character deficit. It is a pattern of behavior.
Is “I’m sorry” adequate to restore a relationship?
There is a difference between “I’m sorry” and “I repent.” If I make a decision to manipulate information or call people names, and you call me out on it, I have two options to restore the relationship. I can make it about me or I can make it about us.
An apology is about me relieving myself of looking guilty.
If I make it about me, I will apologize. “Oh, I’m sorry please forgive me.” In the heat of the moment, this turns the spotlight off of my bad behavior and makes me look infinitely better. I’m apologizing! Isn’t that nice? Now I don’t look so bad. The secret sauce is that as long as I keep apologizing, I get to keep on doing what I’m doing. This is selfish.
The second option is to make it about us. I do this by repenting.
Repentance is the recognition that my pattern of behavior is causing you pain and I choose to walk away from that behavior.
To repent literally means to turn away from the hurtful behavior. It means that I see the pain I have caused you. I feel horrible that you are in pain because of me. I want to end your pain by stopping the behavior that is hurting you. Not only do I apologize, but I do whatever it takes to stop the behavior all together. Maybe I need to go to counseling, or take a class, or hire a mentor, or join a support group. Out of my love and respect for you, I will change the way I have behaved in order to save and strengthen the relationship.
“Some evangelicals will acknowledge Trump had a problem with adultery, but now they consider that a thing of the past. They bring up King David, but the difference is King David repented! Donald Trump has not done that.” (Galli)
A third option, after a well-trodden pattern of behavior, would be to not care about the relationship at all and keep doing what I’m doing without apology. This is narcissistic.
Judgement vs. Discernment
“Judge not, lest you be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
“Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:20)
The way to distinguish between a mistake and a pattern of behavior, or between an apology and actual repentance, is to judge with discernment; not with condemnation or hypocrisy. In the above two verses, Jesus did not tell us to abandon all types of judgment. Rather, he was delineating the types of judgment.
According to GotAnswers.org, “In these passages, [Matthew 7:15-20], Jesus gives us permission to tell right from wrong…[Earlier in chapter 7, verse 1] when Jesus said to not judge others, He did not mean that no one can identify sin for what it is, based on God’s definition of sin…The modern judicial system, including its judges, is a necessary part of society. In saying, ‘Do not judge,’ Jesus was not saying ‘anything goes.’… [On the contrary,] he gave a direct command to judge along with a clue as to the right type of judgment versus the wrong type of judgment:”
‘Stop judging by mere appearances [superficially and arrogantly], but instead judge correctly.’” John 7:24
The author then delineated three types of wrong judgment: hypocritical, harsh, and self-righteous.
Hypocritical judgment: “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:4
“Therefore, you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.” Romans 2:1
“He among you who is without sin, let him throw the first stone.” John 8:7
The hypocrisy in this verse is that the men in the crowd were condemning the woman but not the man. Some of the men in the crowd may even have committed adultery with her in the past, and yet she was the only one being called out.
Harsh unforgiving judgment: “…to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another…But avoid foolish disputes…Reject a divisive man after first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned.” Titus 3:2, 3, 9, 10
In these verses, if a person is repentant (not just apologizing), we are to forgive as we have been forgiven when we are repentant. But if a person is unrepentant and divisive, don’t argue with him; he is self-condemned.
Self-righteous judgment: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” James 4:6
“Two men went up to the temple to pray…The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice per week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ The tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, the tax collector went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:11-12
These verses are about arrogance, thinking of one’s self as better than those “beneath him” and being grateful for the superior position.
It is important to remember that these three types of judgment come from a lack of awareness about one’s own behaviors. There is no realization of their own hypocrisy, their own hard heart, or their own pride. These three types of judgment are shameful and condemning in nature.
Discernment, on the other hand, critiques a person or situation wisely for the purpose of knowing right from wrong or to weigh the pros and cons in order to render a decision.
Discernment: The ability to judge well; to grasp and comprehend what is obscure; sharpen perceptions (Merriam-Webster)
“But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.” James 1:5
“Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to judge your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.” 1 Kings 3:9-11
“Beware of false prophets [teachers], who come to you in sheep’s clothing [appearing gentle and innocent], but inwardly they are ravenous wolves….A good tree cannot bear bad fruit [lying, contentiousness, arrogance], nor can a bad tree bear good fruit [love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control]…Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Matthew 7:15,18, 20
These verses call for a type of judgment that discerns people’s character and behavior. Not to shame or condemn, but to comprehend the healthy kind of teaching, the healthy kind of governing, the healthy kind of relationships to enter into. Jesus tells us, “…by their fruit you will know them.” This is to remind us that a person’s inner character is visible in their outer words and behaviors. We can see this and use this evidence to understand their true values. Once discerned, we can decide how close of a relationship we feel comfortable with.
“Trump was appointed by God.”
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Romans 13:1
There is much debate about the meaning of this verse. I looked at several commentaries; most say that this verse is taken out of context in modern day uses, that Paul was exhorting the Jews of his day to not leave the temple. Others say that, “God appoints a nation’s leaders, but not always to bless the people. Sometimes it is to judge the people or ripen the nation for judgment. We remember that Paul wrote to the Romans during the reign of Nero, the meanest, deadliest aggressor toward the Christians of that day. ‘Yet neither our Lord nor Paul denied or reviled the authority.’” (David Guzik, Newell)
Another commentator puts it this way: “Paul gives the state authorities a modest role in God’s salvific drama, but certainly not a major part. Christ’s rule, for Paul is reflected and embodied in the church, not in the political rulers of his day. This can be frustrating for us, who would like to see Kingdom values directly promoted by political agents, whether they are conservative or progressive. Especially when it comes to politics there is a danger that different Christians just squeeze their own party preferences out of Paul and Scripture in general. Theological traditions teach us to dig deeper, to reflect systematically on central issues such as how state and church are meant to interact, how God’s power is mediated and reflected, what is the purpose of all this and how to live in the tension of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’.” (Bertschmann)
“They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval. With their silver and gold they make idols for themselves to their own destruction.” Hosea 8:4
This verse seems to highlight the free will we have at our disposal, to make our own decisions. It indicates that God is not making all the decisions.
If God truly appointed Trump to save the unborn American babies via conservative Judge appointments on the Court, and to stop the “evil, global, sex-trafficking ring,” and to put money in our pockets via a strong economy, then do we also conclude that God knew, in his infinite wisdom, that Trump would spew immoral words against the black and brown communities, the low income people, women, immigrants, and refugees at the same time? Are we saying that God is ok appointing a man that saves one group while oppressing and degrading another?
“…Seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
How do we discern the heart of a man?
Words and actions on the outside reveal what is truly going on in the heart. We can judge with discernment a person’s character. “By their fruits you will know them.”
“[Trump’s] Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”(Galli)
“Why do we want all these people from Africa [and Haiti] here? They’re shithole countries … We should have more people from Norway.” (President Trump, via AP Reuters)
“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood … Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!” (Trump tweet)
We use discernment everyday to evaluate everything from the police department to music to potential mates to world events to TV networks to candidates in the opposing political party. Why is it so difficult to use discernment on our own candidate? What is the fear of admitting both the pros and the cons? As Christians, we are doing a huge disservice to our witness, to the gospel, and to the church when we remain silent on issues of morality and contempt. We lose credibility when our pro-life stance fights for unborn babies but not the people in poverty, the black and brown communities, the refugees, the immigrants, women, the disabled, etc. God is for all people, not just the unborn. And when we excuse, dismiss, or remain silent towards language that shames, condemns, demeans, labels—the type of language that comes from hypocritical, unforgiving, or self-righteous judgment—from a politician, a news outlet, a person in authority, or a friend while at the same time espousing Biblical values, we ourselves not only become hypocrites, but we perpetuate the culture of contempt and ridicule against our brothers and sisters.
“This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry buses don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?…Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats…Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings…not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” (James 3:7-18)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
The following passage is from Mark Galli, Retired Editor from Christianity Today. I will give him the final word:
“To give credit to my fellow evangelicals — their reasons, their rational reasons for supporting the president — there is something to be said there. That is to say, you know, evangelicals in general are fiercely pro-life, and the president has attempted to appoint judges that will defend that point of view. He may not be a defender of all religious freedom, but he’s certainly stood by Christians, at least verbally in many instances, when he feels like they’re not getting a fair shake. And there’s other reasons that they support him for practical policy reasons. What I think they’re blind to, if I can use such strong language, is they don’t seem to recognize that the very demeanor of the president and the language he uses to talk about his opponents, and the cavalier way in which he thinks about — and talks about — his moral life.
“They pass this off, when they do respond … many pass it off, and say, ‘Well, he’s fighting for the causes we care about. And if he has a few rough edges, we can live with that.’ And they don’t seem to recognize that a man who calls his political enemies crazy, and lying, and disgraced, and losers, and crooked, and phony and fake — and does this day in and day out, often many times a day — they don’t seem to recognize that he is exacerbating the culture of contempt, which was already well under way before he became president. I mean, Hillary Clinton called many Americans a basket of deplorables. But it’s no question that President Trump has taken that to a new level. And the fact that they don’t connect that with the biblical verses about holding one’s tongue — and how dangerous the tongue can be, and how powerful words are, and how we have to be guarded in our speaking — they seem to have completely made a disconnect between those things. And to call that type of language ‘rough edges’ is to miss the gravity of what’s going on.
“To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?
“To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern.” (Galli)
Tara Hoke Schiro is a Los Angeles based author, podcaster, blogger, and designer for Wear Your Character. All can be found at www.TaraSchiro.com