Judge not that you be not judged. (Matthew 7:1)
This might be the most frequently quoted passage of Scripture in contemporary America. At least, it’s habitually cited by people who rip it from context without any idea of what Jesus meant by this statement. It is a convenient verse to have in your back pocket to prove what you already want to believe. Accordingly, it is often used to advance moral relativism. “You live your lifestyle, and I’ll live mine. Don’t tell me how to live, and don’t try to impose your standards of morality on me.”
It seems that those who quote this verse the most are the very ones who understand it the least. It just happens to align with the tone and spirit of the times. We must understand that there is a difference between being judgmental and being discerning. Aesop’s fable of The Fox and The Sick Lion might help us understand the concept:
A Lion, unable from old age and infirmities to provide himself with food by force, resolved to do so by savvy or wit. He returned to his den, and lying down there, pretended to be sick, taking care that his sickness should be publicly known. The beasts expressed their sorrow, and came one by one to his den, where the Lion devoured them. After many of the beasts had thus disappeared, the Fox discovered the trick and presenting himself to the Lion, stood on the outside of the cave, at a respectful distance, and asked him how he was. “I am very sick,” replied the Lion, “but why do you stand without? Pray enter within to talk with me.” “No, thank you,” said the Fox. “I notice that there are many prints of feet entering your cave, but I see no trace of any returning.”
The fox was not being judgmental. He was discerning.
In this passage, Jesus is speaking about self-righteous, loveless, hypercritical judgment. He warns against ill-natured disapproval, hasty and half-formed opinions, and the conscious or unconscious assertion of our own superiority. It is not a teaching against discernment.
Jesus’ words are often misapplied to forbid all manner of judgment But in considering the immediate context of the passage, there are some cases where proper judgment must be made. Verse 6 implies judgment to distinguish the “dogs” from the “hogs” Otherwise how can we know when not to give dogs what is holy? How can we know when not to cast your pearls before swine?Matthew 7:15-20implies we must make judgments in determining who is a false teacher. Jesus says you will recognize them by their fruits. While he precludes us being prejudicial or judging people’s motives, Jesus does not forbid us from being “fruit inspectors”. You see, there are times when judgment must be made; Jesus even tells us to judge with righteous judgment(John 7:24).
If we read this text within its context, Jesus defined the kind of judgment he is condemning. He condemns those who judge and are blind to their own faults. He condemns judging without mercy and love. And he tells us why with a warning: For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:2) God will apply the same standard to us that we do to others. If we make judgments without showing mercy, then no mercy will shown when we are judged! Let mercy and love temper our judgments.
We must not let people keep us from discernment by playing this passage as a trump card. But I don’t want God nit-picking me to death. So I must not nit-pick others. We are not to be critical in our spirit but loving and merciful. When we try to lovingly tell others that they need to make changes in their lives, we must not let them use this passage as a way to make us feel we have no right to say anything to them. Yet, at the same time, we must make sure our attitude is kind and loving.
The next time you are ready to play the critical spirit card on someone, ask yourself: “Is this how I want to be judged?”