“As we interact with other people, we must constantly make judgments about their words and actions so that we can respond to them appropriately. But the Bible warns that we are prone to look for the worst in people at times, and we judge them more critically than they deserve. This article by Ken Sande provides practical ways to guard against this tendency and to follow Jesus’ example of making accurate and charitable judgments about others.” (i)
There Are Limits to Charitable Judgments
Like all principles taught in Scripture, the call to make charitable judgments does not stand against reason. It does not operate apart from other biblical commands to notice and confront wrongdoing, to protect the weak, and to promote righteousness and justice. In other words, Scripture itself teaches that there are limits to making charitable judgments.
First, God’s command to be charitable does not require us to believe that an action is good when there is significant evidence to the contrary. Although we should always give people the benefit of the doubt, we should not ignore clear indications that things are not as they should be. In fact, excessive charity can lead to denial and blind us to issues that need to be faced. Ignoring these symptoms only delays dealing with a problem in its early stages. This can lead to disastrous results, as David discovered when he ignored indications that Absalom was turning the people of Israel against the king (see 2 Sam. 15:1-6).
Therefore, if you see signs of a significant problem, it is appropriate to investigate the matter, ask questions, gather reliable information, and draw necessary conclusions (Prov. 18:17). If it appears that someone has done something wrong, and if that wrong is too serious to overlook (Prov. 19:11), you should go to that person and find out whether you are assessing the situation accurately (Matt. 18:15; Luke 17:3). As you approach him, you should speak tentatively instead of conclusively. For example, instead of saying, “You lied about why I was not at the meeting last night,” you might say, “Perhaps I misunderstood what you said, but it sounded like you accused me of deliberately missing the meeting last night.”
As you talk with the other person, you should give every opportunity for a reasonable explanation. If you did misunderstand the situation, you will have avoided needless offense. Conversely, if your concerns prove to be legitimate, God can use your loving confrontation to help the person face up to and overcome harmful actions (Gal. 6:1-2; James 5:19-20).
Second, charity does not require that we accept without question everything people tell us. Nor does it require that we naively entrust ourselves to people who do not have legitimate authority or have not proven themselves to be worthy of our trust. Since we live in a fallen world, charity must always walk hand-in-hand with discernment and wisdom (Phil. 1:9-10; James 3:14-17).
Third, the call for charitable judgments should not be used to stifle appropriate discussion, questioning, and debate. If people have sincere concerns about a matter, they should not be brushed aside with, “Just trust us.” Instead, their concerns should be reasonably explored, and a genuine effort should be made to find a just and mutually agreeable solution (1 Pet. 5:2-3). At the same time, once a matter has been examined and those in authority have reached a biblically valid decision, others should respect that decision and trust that God will work through it, even if it is not the course they would have preferred (Heb. 13:17).
Finally, charity does not prevent the exercise of redemptive church discipline. When the leaders of a church believe a member is caught in a sin, they have a responsibility to seek after him, like shepherds looking for a straying sheep (Matt. 18:12-14; Gal. 6:1). If he will not repent, the church should continue to confront him lovingly and bring to bear whatever discipline is necessary to help him see the seriousness of his sin and be restored to the Lord (Matt. 18:15-20).
Even these limitations on charitable judgments are to be guided by love. Whether we are believing the best about others, or discussing problems between us, our goal should always be the same: to treat them with the same charitable concern that God always shows to us.
Three Judgments to Avoid
As we seek to obey God’s command to make charitable judgments, we should become alert to three ways that we judge critically. First, we think negatively of the qualities of others. When we develop a critical attitude toward others, we start a subtle but steady process of selective data gathering. We easily overlook or minimize others’ good qualities, while at the same time we search for and magnify any unfavorable qualities. As we find faults that reinforce opinions we have already formed, we seize them eagerly, saying to ourselves (and sometimes others), “See, I told you so!” One critical judgment looks for and feeds on another, and the person’s character is steadily diminished and ultimately destroyed in our minds.
The second way we judge others wrongly is to think the worst of their words and actions. We hear rumors of conversations or observe fragments of an opponent’s behavior. Instead of searching for a favorable interpretation of their actions, or giving them a chance to explain what happened (Prov. 18:13), we prefer to put the worst construction on what they have done. We overlook things that are in the person’s favor and focus on the things that seem to be against him. To top it off, we fill in the gaps with assumptions and finally judge the person to have done wrong.
One day a small church was expecting a guest preacher. He arrived early and sat in his car writing additional thoughts in his notes. He periodically put his short, white pencil in his mouth so he could free a hand to turn to a verse in his Bible. A deacon pulled in beside him, watched him for a moment, and then went inside. When the guest preacher walked into the church a few minutes later, he sensed antagonism from the entire group of deacons. He asked if he had done something wrong. The head deacon replied, “We find it very offensive that you would sit in our church parking lot smoking a cigarette, especially when you were about to preach God’s Word from our pulpit.” You can imagine the deacons’ embarrassment when the man pulled the pencil from his pocket and explained that he had only been working on his sermon.
The third and most insidious type of critical judgment is to assume the worst about others’ motives. Some people are habitually cynical (distrustful or suspicious of others’ nature or motives); others assume the worst only in certain people. In either case, the effect is the same: they are quick to attribute others’ actions to an unworthy motive, such as pride, greed, selfishness, control, rebellion, stubbornness, or favoritism.
When doing this, they think of or say things like, “All he cares about is money.” “She likes to go first so she can impress everyone.” “They are too proud to listen to advice.” “What he really wants is to force us out of the group.” “She is just too stubborn to admit she is wrong.” Although these appraisals may be true on some occasions, in many cases they will be false.
So, is there ever a time that we can properly form a firm opinion about someone’s motives? Yes, we may do so whenever the other person expressly admits to such motives, or when there is a pattern of incontrovertible facts that can lead to no other reasonable conclusion.
But when such clear proof is not present, it is wrong to presume we can look into others’ hearts and judge the motives for their actions. Scripture teaches that God alone can see into the heart and discern a person’s motives (see 1 Sam. 16:7; Ps. 44:21; Prov. 16:2). When we believe that we also are able to do this, we are guilty of sinful presumption.
All three types of critical judgments violate God’s will. Scripture sternly warns against those who indulge evil suspicions against their brothers and fail to give them a chance to explain themselves (1 Tim. 6:4; Ps. 15:3, 50:19-20). Our sin is compounded if we develop the habit of receiving or circulating evil reports about others (2 Cor. 12:20; Eph. 4:31). Jonathan Edwards likens our believing and spreading of a critical judgment to “feeding on it, as carrion birds do on the worst of flesh.” (ii) That is what we are doing when we receive and circulate bad reports about others: it is like passing around rotting flesh.
These kinds of critical judgments also violate God’s command in James 4:11-12: Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
The answer to James’s question is obvious. When we set ourselves up to judge critically the qualities, words, actions, or motives of others, we are doing nothing less than playing God. Just think how such behavior grieves our Lord! When we judge others in this way, we are imitating and serving the enemy of our souls. Satan is the master accuser, the father of lies, and the presumptuous judge of the saints (John 8:44; Rev. 12:10). We should be loath to do anything that imitates his ways or advances his schemes.
Critical Judgments Are Destructive and Costly
Critical judgments can do great damage to relationships and to the kingdom of God. If you assume the worst about others, you will often misjudge them and jump to conclusions. This can cause deep hurt, bring you great embarrassment, and eventually destroy relationships. A critical attitude also leads us to exaggerate others’ wrongs and overlook their virtues, which distorts reality. This perspective will increasingly rob you of objectivity and often lead to decisions you later regret.
Critical judgments can also be highly contagious. Our comments influence the attitudes of those around us. Furthermore, people usually treat us as we treat them, so when we judge others harshly, it is only a matter of time before they do the same with us. Soon we are “biting and devouring each other” (Gal. 5:15).
This behavior grieves the Holy Spirit and inhibits His work in us (Eph. 4:30-32; Isa. 59:1-2). Like spiritual cholesterol in the arteries of our soul, it slows the flow of grace and can eventually lead to “heart attacks” that leave us spiritually crippled and our relationships in ruins. Critical judgments can even cripple a church. As we individual Christians judge one another critically, we undermine the unity of the church, sap its spiritual resources, and diminish its credibility and evangelistic witness to those who are watching how we treat one another (John 13:34-35).
If you critically judge others even occasionally, you will experience many of these effects. It will be far worse if you develop a habit or disposition to judge others critically. Scripture warns us that the longer a person indulges in negative attitudes toward others, the more habitual these attitudes become. As Psalm 109:18-19 teaches, “He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil. May it be like a cloak wrapped about him, like a belt tied forever around him” (see also Prov. 11:27; 2 Tim. 2:16). What a dreadful judgment! If you do not flee from the habit of being uncharitable, this attitude will enslave you more and more and do increasing harm to those around you.
Getting to the Root of Critical Judgments
A key step in breaking free from the habit of making critical judgments is to trace them to their source and cut them off at the root. To do this you must deal with your heart. James 4:1-12 describes two of the most common sources of critical judgments. The first is selfishness. When others stand in the way of what we want, we strive to remove their opposition by tearing them down and diminishing their credibility and influence in any way we can (vv. 1-3).
Pride is another source of critical judgments. Thinking that we are better than others, we set ourselves up as their judges and begin to catalog their failings and condemn their actions. As we saw earlier, when we do this we are imitating Satan by trying to play God (vv. 7, 12). Pride can also reveal itself in the inclination to believe that “I alone understand the truth about things.” I think that my beliefs, convictions, theology, and doctrines are true, and I look down on anyone who disagrees with me (cf. Gal. 5:26).
Matthew 7:3-5 shows that self-righteousness is another root of critical judgments. When we have done something wrong but we do not want to admit it, one of the most natural things we do is to draw attention to and even magnify the failures of others.
Insecurity, which is a form of the fear of man, is a related root of this problem. When we lack confidence in our own beliefs and positions, and fear that they might be disproved, we often conclude that the best defense is a good offense. Therefore, we lash out at others’ views and judge them before they can judge us.
Jealousy can also lead to critical judgments. As we see in Genesis 37:11, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his close relationship with God and his father, and they repeatedly interpreted his motives and actions in the worst possible way. As their jealousy grew, it culminated in their selling him into slavery.
Another cause is self-pity. On occasion, many of us find a perverse pleasure in feeling sorry for ourselves. Therefore, we tend to interpret situations in a way that hurts us the most.
One of the best ways to do this is to interpret others’ actions as a form of betrayal.
Prejudice is frequently a cause of critical judgments. When we have preconceived, unfavorable opinions about others simply because of their race, religion, gender, or status in life, we will consistently seek to validate our views by interpreting their beliefs and actions negatively.
Unforgiveness can also lead us to look for the worst in others. If someone has hurt us, and we do not forgive him, we will look for ways to justify our unforgiveness. Finding more faults in the person who hurt us is a convenient way to conceal the hardness of our own heart.
Of course, the ultimate source of critical judgments is a lack of love. Where love is deficient, critical judgments will be the norm. Conversely, where love abounds, charitable judgments should abound (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Think for a moment of the wide spectrum of love you have for different people. There are probably some people in your life whom you love greatly. Usually these people have blessed you in some way. You appreciate and respect them so much that when others criticize them, you automatically think or say, “Oh, that could not be true!” No matter what they are accused of, you instinctively believe that there must be a good explanation for what they have done.
At the other end of the spectrum are people whom you love very little. They may have disappointed you, disagreed with you, hurt you, or blocked something you desired. If you are like most people, you are quick to find fault with them. You grab onto critical reports like Velcro and dismiss favorable reports like Teflon. No matter what these people do, it is difficult for you to acknowledge good in them.
What is it that separates these people in our hearts and minds? What is it that places them on the opposite ends of our rating system? Sometimes the difference arises from fundamental differences in their characters. Some people are simply more virtuous and likeable than others. But in many cases the difference is found not in these other people, but in our attitudes towards them. If someone has not benefited me, agreed with me, supported me, fulfilled me, satisfied me, or otherwise demonstrated love for me, I am not inclined to love him—or to judge him charitably.
Unless God does major surgery in our hearts, these attitudes will continue to control our judgments and destroy our relationships. The good news is that God is ready to operate.
(i) Website description of the booklet “Judging Others: The Danger of Playing God” by Ken Sande found at Peacemaker Ministries website.
(ii) Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits: Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1962; reprint of 1852 edition) p. 209.
“Judging Others: The Danger of Playing God” by Ken Sande was published in The Journal of Biblical Counseling in the Fall 2002 issue, Volume 21:1. It was originally published as a booklet in the Peacemaker Ministries’ Culture of Peace series ©2002. For more information, please contact Peacemaker Ministries: P.O. Box 81130, Billings, MT 59108; telephone: (406) 256-1583. www.peacemaker.net