This essay was motivated by a sermon given by Jim Abrahamson at the Chapel Hill Bible Church, during which he described a monologue that he gave in front of a multi-religion panel that took place several years ago. The quoted Bible verses are from several different translations.
For some reason this is very hard for me to remember: although there will come a time when justice is meted out to each person for their actions, it is very seldom the case that I will be called on to judge anyone's actions but my own. I would do well to remember this, because the fewer times I am called on to judge, the better it will be for me in the end.
We are told in Matthew 7:2 that "For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you." Using my own standards, I have failed many times over. God has often been kind to me by showing me immediately and clearly when this is the case: I recall once when I was still grumbling about some idiot driver who had made an incautious turn at a past intersection when I realized that I had just done the same to another driver at the present intersection. There are far more serious examples that I carry, to my shame.
James tells us in 4:11 "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge." 1 Peter 4:8 echoes this with "Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins." Jesus gives perhaps the sternest rebuke to this behavior, as described in Matthew 18:35:
21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. 28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took [him] by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? 34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (King James translation)
Nonetheless, it seems to by in my nature to criticize and to attempt to correct the behavior of others. Like the wicked servant, I have been forgiven of much (the more serious examples referred to above form a large portion of this) but I am still quick to complain when I feel slighted by my fellow Christian. I continue to pray that my heart will be conformed so that my first thought is how to lift my brother or sister up. Ephesians 4:29 exhorts us to "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear." Slowly, God has been working on my spirit to bring this about. Much of this work has been aimed at removing the barriers placed by my pride and arrogance.
Some Christians seem to feel called to judge the poor behavior of those outside the Christian community. I myself worry that doing so puts me in the wrong shoes in Jesus' parable told in Luke 18:10-14:
10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 'I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' 13 "And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise [his] eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' 14 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (New King James translation)
Having realized that I do not want to be judged on my own record of behavior (but rather accepting the gift of Christ's righteousness as my own), I am uncomfortable holding myself up as an example. At the same time, the salvation offered to me by Christ is also offered to the tax collector, and it is only to the good if he accepts the gift as well!
If television portrayals are to be believed, most Christians would deal with a person outside of the Christian community by first correcting that person's improper behaviors. Recent legal actions taken by groups calling themselves Christian seems to indicate that they advocate the creation of laws that require "good Christian behavior" on the part of those outside the church. Prohibitionists took this to the extreme, advocating the enforcement of a narrow view (unsupported by the Biblical record) of "good behavior" on the part of everyone, regardless of their religion.
I am convinced that such actions put the cart before the horse, serving only to drive the cart in the wrong direction. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis (because I cannot locate the quote): "What we need are better people, not better rules. With better people, there is not need for rules, and better rules won't get us better people." It may have the opposite effect: eliciting the response "Keep your laws off my body!" coupled with a repulsion from a relationship with God in the heart of the non-Christian. For that matter, I viewed such attempts as intrusion into my rights before I was a Christian. It is only my growing relationship with God and the Holy Spirit's power within me that leads me to follow more closely, that leads me to have a humble heart and be willing to serve.
Rather than attempting to impose "Christian" morals on those outside the church, I feel that my first calling is to live in such a way as to invite those outside the church to come into a relationship with God through Jesus. Then He can deal with them, as He has dealt with me, through the power of the Holy Spirit and as a loving father in close personal relationship. This means that I try to avoid the behavior of the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, but rather delight with the Father when a wanderer comes home. This is made easier by the fact that I've been a wanderer and also when I am able to keep in mind that everyone is made in the image of God (not just me, and not just Christians).
God respects their free will, and so should I.
The Bible tells us that there is a judge, and a date set for each of us to be judged. The bad news is that we will be judged fairly, and that if we stand on our own merits, then all but one of us will be found guilty. The good news is that the Judge (who is also the one that passed on his own merits) has himself paid a fine so steep that it covers all of our crimes, and he invites each of us to be judged on his merits, with his fee covering our fines.
If this were a myth, or a legend, or some other kind of more-or-less fictional story, then it would be a strange one among many. After studying the evidence, I've come to see that it is in fact true. True like gravity. I summarize why in another essay. Its truth makes the decision of whose merits to rely on the most important decision that each of us will make. It also means that we desperately need to get to know the judge before we appear before him.
I've had enough mathematical education that I really can't stand it when someone makes an absolute statement like: "I'm not the judge." Immediately, my mind races to find a counterexample, to show that there is at least one case in which the statement is not true. In this instance, it quickly came up with "paper reviewer, grant proposal reviewer, and teacher." There are cases where I am called upon to judge, and these I must take very seriously. For the rest, I'm trying to learn to take C.S. Lewis' advice:
Abstain from thinking about other people's faults, unless your duties as a teacher or parent make it necessary to think about them. Whenever the thoughts come unnecessarily into one's mind, why not simply shove them away? And think of one's own faults instead? For there, with God's help, one can do something. Of all the awkward people in your house or your job there is only one whom you can improve very much... The job has to be tackled some day: and every day we put it off will make it harder to begin. -- God in the Dock, pp. 154.
He's not my god.
True like gravity.
Version 2. Copyright 2004, Russell M. Taylor II