Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

‘Judge not’: Jesus said it, but what did he mean?

Is judging others an absolute no-no or not? - ("The Woman Caught in Adultery" by Isaak Asknaziy - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons -
Is judging others an absolute no-no or not? - ("The Woman Caught in Adultery" by Isaak Asknaziy - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons -

Is judging others an absolute no-no or not? – (“The Woman Caught in Adultery” by Isaak Asknaziy – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons –

One of Jesus most famous teachings is, “Do not judge or you too will be judged.” But in the very same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus also teaches that we should judge people by the “fruit” of their lives. What gives? Is judging others an absolute no-no or have we misunderstood Jesus’ teaching?

Author Hugh Halter explores the heart of this issue in his new book Brimstone: The Art and Act of Holy Nonjudgmentwhich may be one of the most helpful and practical books you’ll read in 2015. It is a fascinating and disruptive book, one that will bend you heart toward Jesus and help you understand how to live well in a rapidly changing world. Here we discuss his views on judgment and how Jesus-followers should or should not exercise it.

RNS: You say Jesus was the “most holy” and “least judgmental” person. But some would say that Jesus is actually portrayed as the great judge who sits at God’s right hand to judge us all. What am I missing?

HH: What is missing is simply Jesus’ human posture vs. his eschatological posture. Jesus as a man, walked among men and women who were constantly “‘in sin,” yet he postured himself as a friend, an advocate, and an insider to the outsiders. But as the final king of history, as the true messiah, the one every person will bow before when history comes to a close, he gets the final call. According to the Bible, Jesus will judge Satan, demonic forces, injustice, and men and women who reject him outright. It’s the difference between the final call vs. how he lived day to day as he walked in our world.

This is a critical difference. [tweetable]We are never told to be the final judge, but rather to live as Jesus lived.[/tweetable] Christians should stop trying to make the call of heaven or hell, in or out, dirty or clean, and instead model our humanity after Jesus’ humanity. If every Christian actually followed Jesus’ lead, the Christian movement would be the least judgmental but most influential movement the world has ever seen. 

Image courtesy of David C. Cook

Image courtesy of David C. Cook

RNS: Your book begins with a theoretical tale of a town with one bakery where Jesus is the baker. Two gay men walk into Jesus’ bakery and try to order a wedding cake. Tell us, Mr. Halter, would Jesus bake this couple’s cake?

HH: As any writer knows, you never give away the punch line so I’m holding my cards close until readers take the time to read the entirety of the story, but I will foreshadow the answer by asking the reader this question from the story of prodigal son. Does Jesus give the car keys to a son who he knows will use the keys for sin? Answer: Yes.

The ramifications of this for parenting, pastoring, politics, or being a friend seems to scream “let people make their own choices,” within reason, of course. Forcing judgment and therefore forcing behavior may be useful for 6-year-olds, but once a person chooses to exercise free will, the best way of influence is to keep the relationship and line of communication open. God in this story, really Jesus in this story, gave the keys away, and stayed on the porch waiting for the broken son to come home. He didn’t deny him the car keys or the money to go screw up his life. This is deeply informative for who we serve in our businesses and how we treat adults who make choices we don’t agree with. Jesus doesn’t care so much that we stick up for Him. He wants us to represent Him.

RNS: You say that Christians should get rid of the category of judgment from their lives altogether. But didn’t Jesus command that we judge “by their fruits”? Is there any time when being judgmental is a good thing? 

HH: This scripture in Matthew 7 is specifically about judging false prophets or people who are leading people spiritually. So having common sense, which is another way to say “sound judgment,” is good so that you don’t get led astray or away from sound teaching. But this is a completely different idea than simply looking at people in a moment and making a judgment against them. We’ve all known people who show good fruit and in the next month are a train wreck, and we’ve also all written people off who then change and become far healthier individuals. It is this type of snap judgment I think every person and especially every follower of Jesus should put behind them for good. You never know when or how God will move someone forward, so it makes no sense to claim that you know what is truly happening in their lives now.

RNS: What is the difference between “poor judgment” and “right judgment”?

HH: Poor judgment includes a judgement or opinion we craft without the context or full story of a person’s life. Right judgment, is the type of judgment Jesus had because he knew the full story, and the heart of every person. Before Adam’s sin, God gave humans the ability to make discernments over creation and people because we would see things as he did, but after sin, our knowledge, our wisdom, and our ability to see became severely limited. This is why Jesus asks us to love neighbors, and be a friend of sinners. It’s the only way we can get closer to the whole story or context of a person’s life. When we truly observe, listen, pray, listen some more, and talk as friends, God gives us a more helpful glimpse into how to help and heal. When conversations happen between friends, judgment decreases and compassion increases and we start moving closer to right judgment.

RNS: You talk about engaging the world instead of pointing fingers. But some might say that you have to point out sin to help sinners be less sinful. How would you respond?

HH: I don’t think the goal is to help people be less sinful. I think the goal is to draw people to Jesus, who is the only one who can truly help with sin. So the issue is really about how to persuade someone toward God. In my short, 50-year life, I have never seen someone persuaded by yelling at them or leveling judgments against them. So I may conclude that it would be better for our country if marriage remained between a man and women, and I can vote my conscience and hope that enough people agree with me, but if I lose the vote, which based on the recent Supreme Court ruling has in fact happened, we can either scream, rant, and repulse people by our black-and-white responses or we can look past the sin as Jesus did and try to draw the heart. You can’t win a soul unless you first draw a heart, and you don’t draw a heart by poking a finger in their chest.

RNS: What do you think about the phrase “Love the sinner, hate the sin”?

HH: I’ve always disliked this because we humans don’t seem to have the capacity to do it. We are terrible at separating the person from the behavior. And if we hate something someone does, I find we hate them. God says he hates divorce, and he hates lying lips, and he hates anything that is not as he originally designed it to be. That includes apathy, fear, self-centeredness, religiosity, self-righteousness, materialism, consumerism and an increasing growing list of all sorts of things the evangelical and mainline church is know for. A better way to nuance this may be to say, “Love the sinner cuz you are one too.”

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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