“Don’t judge me!” “Who are you to judge?” “You shouldn’t judge.”
It’s a pretty common sentiment in today’s relativistic, if-it-feels-good-it-must-be-right culture. And it even seems to be biblical, as Jesus Himself said “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” in Matthew 7:1. It’s one bit of Scripture that even non-Christians often have memorized, as it seems to give people a “get out of jail free” card whenever anyone wants to suggest that they’re wrong.
But does it, really?
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding that verse and the overall concept of “judge not.” To use another popular quote: “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What Judging Means
For starters, I sometimes hear people object to judgment when there’s actually no judging going on.
According to the dictionary, the verb “judge” means either “to pass sentence on,” “to form an opinion of,” or “to conclude about.” So, for example, if I were to say that people who smoke are 15-30 times more likely to get lung cancer than people who don’t smoke, all I’m doing is citing a statistic. If you do smoke, I’m not sentencing you to lung cancer, or concluding that you will get it. Within that statement, I’m not even necessarily saying it’s wrong to smoke. So if a smoker were to read that and feel like they’re being judged, ironically, the judgment is coming from them. They’re uncomfortable because they are coming to the conclusion that smoking is somehow wrong, and that they are harming themselves with it.
Judging and Love
Let’s stick with that example for a moment. Many people seem to equate judging with hate, and it’s true that Christians are called to love even our enemies.
But let’s say that, hypothetically, I knew two people who were both heavy smokers. And one of those people I actually did hate, strongly, while the other person I loved very much.
What would I say to the person I loved about their smoking habit? Well, I’d probably tell them the truth: that they are 15-30 times more likely to get lung cancer. Furthermore, I’d probably ask them to quit, and offer to help them break the habit in any way I could. I’d say that because I love them, and don’t want anything bad to happen to them.
And the person I (hypothetically) hated? Would I judge them about the dangers of smoking? No. I wouldn’t want to warn them. I might even buy them an extra pack, if I really wanted to be cruel.
Again, as a Christ-follower, I should obviously never try to harm someone. So the Christian response should be to lovingly point out the dangers, not to just ignore it (and definitely not encourage it!).
What “Do Not Judge” Means
But what about Matthew 7:1? What did Jesus mean?
First off, remember the different definitions of “judge.” It’s clear that Jesus isn’t saying we cannot form opinions or come to conclusions based on evidence, because in the same chapter He repeatedly asks us to do exactly that. See Matthew 7:15-20, for example, where He says to judge (tell the difference between) true and false teachings based on the evidence of their “fruit.” See also Luke 7:43, where He commends someone on “judging correctly” based on this definition. Bottom line, Jesus asks us to judge.
As with anything (biblical or otherwise), context is important. Read not just Matthew 7:1, but 7:1-5. (Actually, read all of Matthew. And then Mark, Luke, and John.) In Matthew 7, Jesus is talking about not being a hypocrite and faulting someone for something that you yourself do. He actually says you should “remove the speck from your brother’s eye,” but only after removing the plank from your own eye.
The verses above also do not say you can’t speak against a problem if you’ve been a part of that same problem in the past. It’s not like you can’t tell a toddler not to touch a hot stove just because you burned yourself as a child. On the contrary, once you’ve overcome a problem in your own life, that makes you more qualified to speak about it and help others find freedom from it.
1 Corinthians 5:12-6:6 actually calls us to judge matters between fellow believers—our brothers and sisters in Christ. And that includes the “pass sentence on,” court type of judgment.
Within those verses (1 Corinthians 5:12-13), it does say that we are not to judge (pass sentence on) unbelievers. In other words, we’re not the ones who decide whether someone is going to heaven or not. God decides that. We are, however, supposed to speak the truth in love and share the good news of how they can be saved. Telling someone the gospel isn’t judging; it’s loving.
There is one final point on judging, which is far more important than anything else I’ve said. Though we don’t determine who does or does not have eternal life, there is One who does. The standard for this judgment is perfection, which none of us live up to. Statistically you’re either 100% going to heaven or 100% not; you can’t beat the odds in this one area.
So if you really want to avoid judgment, there is one way. To quote Jesus again:
Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. – John 5:24
That’s good news.