Did you know there is a Bible verse which every non-believer can quote? It’s Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Used by many to reject any moral obligations, this verse continues to be greatly abused in secular culture. If, as a Christian, you claim someone shouldn’t act a certain way or practice a particular habit—whether it is premarital sex, gossip, drunkenness—the immediate response is, “Don’t judge me!” And, while we wouldn’t agree with this particular interpretation, there is a certain grain of truth to it.
That is, while we are to make moral judgments as Christians, they should always be secondary to the personal judgment we make of ourselves. Notice that Jesus teaches, prior to helping our brother remove the “speck” from his own eye (that is, some minor, moral failing), we should first seek to pursue personal renovation (i.e. remove the plank from our own eye, 7:5). In other words, we should judge ourselves before we judge others so that we can “see clearly.”
There is a certain clarity and humility that grows from self-examination, reflection, and discipline. Our past failures become bridges to facilitate greater growth and maturity for our family of faith. By first submitting to the difficult practice of self-judgment we guard against our baser habits of cynicism, hypocrisy, bitterness, and pride. It isn’t that we are neglecting the need to make firm statements of morality, but rather the censures we make against another’s failings should be seasoned with grace, mercy, and forgiveness—for we often extend these when we practice judgment of self.
Think, for example, how often you forgive yourself, assuming you have the best intentions, acting on what you believe to be true. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “There is someone I love, even though I don’t approve of what he does. There is someone I accept, though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me. There is someone I forgive, though he hurts the people I love the most. That person is me.” Of course, this should take our minds to just a few short verses down in Matthew 7: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (v. 12). Do you want others to assume the best when you make a questionable comment at a party? Would you like others to be patient with your weaknesses? Don’t you appreciate it when people take your circumstances into account before they pass judgment? If so, then we should give what we hope to receive.
The reason we must guard against such a critical spirit is seen within the text: nothing blinds us more to our personal need for holiness than the constant critique of others. When driving, have you ever been so frustrated with a fellow motorist and their bad habits, only to almost rear end the person in front of you? You’re so focused on the mistakes of another you can’t see your own. This is why the most legalistic churches are often the ones with the greatest moral failings and why some of the greatest moral advocates of Christianity often fall the hardest. Taking a strong stance on moral issues is important, but never at the expense of personal integrity—and personal integrity demands a gracious spirit as we engage others on such issues. As Paul noted to Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). So Christian, judge thyself!