Sunday, March 31, 2024

Judgment and Humility

“In humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

We are living in times when almost everyone seems to have a major gripe with large numbers of believers in their church: the one they attend, the one they don’t attend, the one they used to attend, or maybe just all Christians generally. We are to blame, or so they opine, for the stultifying atmosphere of off-putting antiquity in many local fellowships and the dearth of young people in the pews. Our critical spirit and quickness to impose our opinions on every generation from Gen-X on have driven them out to greener pastures.

Is all this our fault? I suppose it’s not impossible. We could all be jerks. I’m just not sure that’s always the case.

More Significant

The quotation above from Philippians 2 reminds us to consider others “more significant” than ourselves. The Greek word for “significant” in that verse simply means to surpass in authority or intrinsic value. We are to estimate that our fellow believers are actually worth more than we are. Naturally, this may or may not be true in the present moment. These Christian “others” we are to value may have all kinds of glaring flaws. Nevertheless, our job as followers of Christ is to treat them as if they were greater than we are even if they are not. Who knows? Perhaps our valuation of them as super-significant to the Head of the Church is one of the things intended by the Lord to spur them to greater spiritual heights.

Part of esteeming you better than me is that I need to be very careful about coming to unwarranted conclusions about your motives. For one, I can’t see them even if I think I can. “Man looks on the outward appearance.” I have observed that the motives Christians attribute to one another frequently tell me far more about the critic than the one criticized. The psychological term is projection. It means we tend to assume that other people doing the same things we are doing are doing them for precisely the same reasons. If we fight the tendency to be bitter, harsh, judgmental and grudge-bearing, then surely others do the same with us — or so we may reason. That makes it awfully easy to write them off when they offend us, and to take ourselves off down the road where someone else will shortly do much the same thing.

But what looks to us like a judgmental spirit may be something else entirely.

What Looks Like a Judgmental Spirit May Be Generational

When you are dealing with anyone Boomer-aged or older, what looks like an unreasonably critical spirit may simply be a generational difference of approach. When I was growing up, other people’s parents actually dared to voice their opinions about the choices you made. It wasn’t a racial thing, a social hierarchy thing or a character defect; they all did it. A neighbor would freely correct your noisy children when they acted out in the grocery store, and nobody took offense at it. We were a community, not a bunch of individuals with all kinds of mostly-imaginary rights nobody had ever heard of, like the right to behave like a goof with impunity, the right to wear ridiculous clothes without being called ridiculous, or the right to voice stupid, uninformed opinions without being called out for it.

As a teenager, I remember staying over at a friend’s place just after buzzing my scalp like a budding Neo-Nazi. My friend’s very Scottish father, meeting me for the first time, took one look at my head and bluntly inquired, “Did ye do that tae yerself?” I replied in the affirmative. “Well, don’t,” he advised gruffly, before offering me a cup of tea. “It looks horrible.”

It was useful advice, if delivered a tad more assuredly than we might hear from parents today. I didn’t have the noggin for that haircut. But somebody needed to say it to me, and in those days, such unsolicited advice was commonplace. If I find myself getting offended by older folks at church, the problem may not be that they have a hyper-critical spirit that needs to be curbed; rather, it may be that I have a hyper-individualistic spirit that has no place in the church, and no tolerance for attitudes and habits that are merely generational and unimportant to the Lord.

What Looks Like a Judgmental Spirit May Be Youthful Enthusiasm

But let’s not harp on the Boomers. Back in the eighties, I had two younger Christian friends who came from High Church backgrounds where the priest’s homily every week was a fifteen-minute social justice rant with no discernable connection to the teaching of the Bible in any way, shape or form. They attended out of respect for their parents and hated every minute of it. They were starved for the pure milk of the Word, even the powdered skim I was offering in the Friday night Bible studies they started attending. Upon discovering that the Bible actually had something meaningful to say about their lives and a coherent structure and narrative that they could understand, every new revelation from the pages of scripture became an occasion for greater outbursts of immature enthusiasm and zeal for the truth of God as they perceived it.

A friend who met one of them for the first time during this period said he came up to her, shook her hand and introduced himself with the words, “I’m _____, and I hate pastors.” Agreed, that sounds unbelievably judgmental and weird. She hadn’t the slightest idea what to think about this guy. Not only that, he didn’t “hate” pastors at all. He was telling her, far too enthusiastically and hyperbolically, that he had discovered the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers for the first time, and absolutely loved it and wanted to share it with everyone. But you’d never know it if you didn’t take the time to get to know him first.

Five years later, with a little Christian maturity, he had learned to moderate his delivery considerably, and begun to figure out what was effective and what wasn’t in brand new interpersonal relations. Thankfully, in the meantime, his fellow Christians esteemed him more significant than themselves rather than running for the hills every time he showed up at church.

What Looks Like a Judgmental Spirit May Be Awkwardness

This last one is me. I have always struggled with social awkwardness, and I know dozens of fellow believers in the same boat. We are introverts placing ourselves in social situations for the love of Christ notwithstanding a built-in instinct to flee that is sometimes so intense no naturally sociable person can ever understand it, and a tendency to overanalyze every word that comes out of other’s mouths that invariably leaves us several conversational steps behind the people we are talking to. That, in turn, makes us prone to blurting out things we haven’t thought through.

I have said some of the weirdest, most unfortunate things when put on the spot. I make personal remarks that presume far greater familiarity than is warranted, and take liberties I don’t mean to take. If I get through an evening without a “Did I really just say that?” moment, it’s exceptional. I didn’t mean them. I wish I could have rephrased them, but sometimes that just draws even more attention to the original offense and makes it more glaring. I’ve had people think me arrogant, holier-than-thou or unreasonably self-confident in situations where nothing was further from the truth. Once you get to know me a little, and we’ve been in each others homes and come to understand a little about each other’s backgrounds and life experiences, you’ll hear me blurt out something that sounds intolerant, insensitive, overly personal or just plain weird, and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh, that’s just Tom.”

Amazingly, sometimes introverts actually enjoy our encounters with others in spite of ourselves, but they are always exhausting for us, and nothing about carrying on a lengthy conversation with you on any subject comes easily. But if you don’t know me well, who knows what you may think?

The Benefit of the Doubt

These days, we often think a judgmental spirit is the worst thing that exists. It’s certainly the easiest motive to attribute to a person we think is speaking inappropriately. And, to be fair, some people in your local church may well turn out to be nasty pieces of work when observed over many years. Christians have no reason to expect that everyone who takes the name of the Lord is equally wise, mature, well taught or socially graceful. Many in the New Testament certainly were not.

But a humble spirit that counts others more significant than ourselves also learns to give the benefit of the doubt rather than ascribing malevolence where it may not apply at all. When Christians refuse to have fellowship with other believers over motives they have assumed without evidence or face-to-face discussion about perceived offenses, I tend to think the problem is with the one sitting home sulking rather than the poor oblivious soul who is as much a work in progress as all of us.

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