Sunday, April 17, 2022

Judgment and Discernment

Christ’s followers are forbidden to judge. He warned them against it, saying if they did they must expect the same measure would be used with reference to themselves. He then exposed the hypocrisy involved in professing concern about a speck in another person’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own.

I have a dear friend who I have every reason to believe is a devoted follower of Christ. Discussions with Rick have sometimes touched on the danger he believes is involved in coming to conclusions about other people, as to whether they are truly saved, merely church-goers, backsliders, adherents of a cult or whatever other pigeonhole we decide to place them in.

Rick thinks this too judgmental.

Now, it can be, of course, especially if folk come to conclusions swiftly or overreact on the basis of their own previous experience. What prompted similar actions or words in another context may be quite different. An associated danger is that those seeking to help others become cemented to their first impressions and unwilling to modify or change their opinions. People, especially believers, can change. The apostle Paul saw a weakness in John Mark that disqualified the younger man from being his helper on a mission, yet later spoke of him as profitable for such service.

Babies and Bathwater

My concern is that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater; that is, in seeking to avoid a judgmental spirit we overlook the need to retain a discerning one. The latter is of great value to us; believers are not encouraged to be gullible. Though we are told that “love believes all things”, it does not mean we should go around wearing a blindfold. William MacDonald understands that verse to mean “Love ... puts the best construction possible on actions and events.” No man or woman is equipped or authorized to pronounce a final word about people and so to judge them.

But even if we avoid putting people in a slot or labeling them prematurely, every meaningful social encounter with others has to result in us coming to an opinion about them, even if only a temporary one:

“Jane did not seem to be herself today, I wonder if there is something wrong?”

“Charlie is still the same old Charlie, dependable as ever.”

“Our new department boss has a cross tie pin, perhaps he’s a devout Roman Catholic?”

What we hear or see prepares us for the next encounter. We may then ask Jane how she is, thank Charlie for the way he helped us, and resolve not to get involved in the lunch-hour discussions provoked by the boss’s tie pin. These are natural, thoughtful private and temporary judgments; we are not necessarily approving or condemning people for what they are or do.

Discerning a Difference

But we must also learn from the immediate context of the charge at the beginning of Matthew 7 that disciples need to distinguish (discern) between those who will treat that which is sacred with respect and those who, like swine, will unthinkingly trample it underfoot. Some, like vicious dogs, will attack those wishing to share the truth. This is not ‘judging’ the people represented by these animals; as a matter of fact these enemies judge themselves.

The apostle Paul applied this principle in Acts 13:46 to those who opposed and blasphemed, saying, “Since you reject [the gospel], and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.” Further evidence of the need to use discernment is seen in Jude 1:22-23. After foretelling the opposition of mockers, the writer charges readers to “Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear.” The different methods in view require the believer to make distinctions, and therefore judgments.

Caring Christians

Whether one seeks to do the work of an evangelist, is gifted to teach, or may simply be described, as were many in Rome, as “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also admonish one another” — all are encouraged to have mutual care for other members of the body. The goodness which is spoken of in that verse is the fruit of the Spirit and the word admonish means “ ‘the training by word,’ whether of encouragement, or, if necessary, by reproof or remonstrance” [W.E. Vine].

This calls for believers to act as caregivers, seeking to sense the needs of others while remembering that they themselves must be open to accepting similar help when needed. We should be thankful for this loving activity; such is life in a healthy congregation. It involves appropriate use of the word of God by its members for it is the ultimate instrument for “discerning the thoughts and intents of the heart”.

A Typical Problem

Tony is 22 and was saved four years ago. He has been growing rapidly in his knowledge of the Lord. In his daily reading he has been struck by Philippians 1:8-9. He asks himself, How does this apply to my deepening attraction to Jan? (Tony has a good relationship with his parents and has shared this with them but feels they may not be as far along in the Christian path as he would wish.) Should he be encouraged by their suggestion to pursue this relationship with Jan? He does not want to lead Jan up the garden path ... she does seem to care for him and professes faith in Christ and has been baptized. What worries him is that Tony’s best friend (Jan’s brother) questions whether she is saved.

Is anyone being too judgmental in this scenario?

How may Tony discern Jan’s need, help her and become more settled about continuing or cooling the relationship without giving offense?

Any other advice?

— Colin Anderson, “Judgmental or Discerning?”, June 2016

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