The Difference Between Being Discerning and Being Judgmental
How often we hear people quote to us, 'Judge not, that you be not judged'! (Matthew 7:1). At times we are tempted to think that this is the only verse of Scripture that some people have ever heard. It is often taken to mean that we must not criticise any sin, however callous or selfish, for who are we to say what is right or wrong?
As we look at the context, however, we find that Jesus goes on to say that we are not to give what is holy to dogs nor cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). There are some people who reveal by their bitter, antagonistic attitude that they have forfeited their privilege of hearing God's Word. Then our Lord warns against false prophets who come in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15). We shall know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:20).
Clearly, we cannot obey these commands unless we exercise a measure of discernment. We have to be able to tell who is a dog, a pig or a false prophet! How then do we interpret, 'Judge not, that you be not judged'? It must mean, 'Do not be quick to condemn in a harsh and critical spirit. Think the best until you are obliged by the evidence to think the worst'.
Love 'believes all things' (1 Corinthians 13:7). This does not mean that love is naive, for 'The simple believes every word, but the prudent man considers well his steps' (Proverbs 14:15). We are called upon to be both loving and discerning. 'Test all things; hold fast what is good' wrote the apostle Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The apostle John tells us: 'Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world' (1 John 4:1). This is the same apostle who tells us to love the brethren (1 John 3:11, 14; 4:11).
The way Matthew 7:1 is commonly interpreted will not lead to greater love but a kind of moral anaemia. Could you imagine Christ walking mildly by the money-changers in the temple and saying to himself, 'Oh well, I must not judge'? No, he drove them out with a whip and overturned their tables. He was consumed by zeal for God's house (John 2:13-17). He was inflamed by moral indignation, at what human beings can stoop to in their sin. The painter Ruskin declared that it is 'quite one of the crowning wickednesses of this age that we have starved and chilled our faculty of indignation'. So we tolerate all kinds of evil, and hardly blink an eyelid at what would have aroused outrage in the hearts of the prophets and apostles.
God expects us to be discerning without being judgmental in a harsh or unkind way. To be unreasonably judgmental is to lose sight of love; to be completely uncritical is to lose sight of God's holiness and truth. As always, God calls upon us to 'speak the truth in love' (Ephesians 4:15).