“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)
God Is Eager to Help Us Change
Jesus Christ came to earth to deliver us from our sins, and judgmentalism is a prime sin. By dying on the cross, He purchased forgiveness and eternal life for all who believe in Him (John 3:16, 6:47; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 4:15). Therefore, the first step in being delivered from this sin is to confess that you are a sinner who commits this sin. Believe that Jesus bore the punishment you deserve. Trust that His resurrection secured forgiveness and eternal life for you. Thank Him for judging you with mercy rather than fairness.
Jesus does even more. He will deliver you from the sinful thoughts and behavior that plague your life and damage your relationships today (Phil. 1:6). This process is called “sanctification.” It is carried out by the Holy Spirit, who works in you daily to change your heart steadily. He will help you to develop attitudes and habits that are pleasing to God and make you a blessing to those around you (Phil. 2:12-13; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19, 5:22-26). He personally teaches us to form and express charitable judgments.
Sanctification is primarily a work of the Holy Spirit within you. It also involves your full and active cooperation. In order to grow, draw on God’s grace. Strive earnestly to “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your mind, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24).
This “put off, put on” process provides the road to freedom from making critical judgments. You can begin to put off this habit by confessing your tendency to look for the worst in others and asking God to forgive you for dishonoring Him, hurting other people, and weakening the witness of His church. Then you can take hold of the wonderful promise: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The next step in this process is to prayerfully identify and confess the particular attitudes that feed your critical spirit. As we saw earlier, these may include selfishness, pride, self-righteousness, insecurity, jealousy, self-pity, prejudice, unforgiveness, or a lack of love. Jesus’ death on the cross provides the key to putting off these sinful attitudes. When you unite yourself to Jesus through faith, he enables you to put your sinful desires to death. He also gives you power to put on the attitudes and character of Christ (Rom. 6:1-14; Col. 3:12-14).
This replacement process can be applied to each sinful attitude that leads you to judge wrongly. For example, as you ask God to help you put pride to death, focus on and ask God to give you the humility of Jesus (Phil. 2:1-11). In the same way, ask him to help you replace self-righteousness with a greater dependence on Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17), insecurity with godly confidence (Phil. 4:13), self-pity with contentment (Phil. 4:12), prejudice with open-mindedness (Acts 10:27-28), unforgiveness with forgiveness (Eph. 4:32), and a lack of love with a love for others, regardless of how they treat you (Luke 23:34).
Finally, ask God specifically to help you put on the habit of charitable judging. “Father, help me to acknowledge others’ virtues, delight in their successes, overlook their faults, defend their reputation, seek to understand their perspective, and believe the best about them until I have facts to prove otherwise. Help me to deal honestly, humbly, and constructively with others’ true failings.” As you draw on His grace and use the normal interactions of daily life to practice making charitable judgments, these attitudes and habits can become more consistent and characteristic of whom you are becoming.
In some situations you will also need to seek forgiveness from the people whom you have misjudged. If your critical judgments have led you to treat them disrespectfully or to speak critically about them to others, you should go to them, confess your sin, and ask for their forgiveness (Prov. 28:13). True repentance will be revealed if you also go to those who heard your judgments and seek to set the record straight.
Another way to demonstrate repentance is to break the cycle of spreading critical reports. If someone comes to you and begins to speak critically about another person, you can promptly interrupt her and say, “Have you talked to the other person about this?” If she says no, you can respond, “Then it’s not right for you to be talking about him to me or anyone else. Jesus says you should go and talk to him in private, and if that doesn’t work, you can ask another believer to meet with you both to try to resolve the problem” (see Matt. 18:15-20).
Similarly, if someone speaks critically of another person or group for no constructive purpose, you can say what a friend once said to me. “I’m also concerned about what they are doing. But talking about it won’t do any good. Could we pray for them right now?”
As you strive to break free from the habit of making critical judgments, it is helpful to make yourself accountable to godly people who observe your life on a daily basis. Ask them to pray for you in this area and to come talk with you when it seems you are sliding back into old habits. As these people spur you on in your growth, some of them may even be inspired to follow your example and develop the habit of making charitable judgments themselves.
What about People Who Did Wrong in the Past?
When someone has undeniably done something wrong in the past, it is difficult not to jump to the conclusion that they are doing the same thing all over again. So how can we judge them charitably? In some cases, we may be able to talk with them about their past conduct and receive assurance that they really do want to change. But such conversations are not always possible, and even when they are, we may still doubt their sincerity. What then?
Whenever we deal with people who have done wrong in the past, we should realize that the foundation for charitable judgments is not a perfect track record, worldly optimism, or a blind hope in the fleeting goodness of man. Charitable judgments are rooted in the goodness and power of God, who promises to work graciously and unceasingly to bless His people and conform them to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:28-39). As Paul writes, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). Because this is true, we can and should expect to see increasing evidences of His grace in our own lives and the lives of others.
As we embrace this truth, we can live our lives with “expectant charity.” We can hope for the best in others and expect that we will eventually see God doing something good in them. But this is not to be a demanding expectation, one that has a predetermined pace and pattern. Rather it is to be a gentle expectation, one that patiently and joyfully waits for the next divinely scheduled evidence of God’s work in that person’s life.
For example, even though my children have repeatedly fallen short of my desires and instructions, God calls me to believe that He will be faithful to His promise to conform them steadily to the likeness of Christ. He gives me frequent opportunities to trust Him in this. I recently noticed my daughter, Megan, doing something that could reasonably have been interpreted in two possible ways: as being a repeat of an old pattern (not clearing the dinner table promptly), or as being a loving act (leaving the dishes for a few minutes for a good reason). Faith in God’s transforming promises enabled me to withhold my critical judgment and hope for the best. Moments later I discovered that Megan had been helping her grandmother get something out of her closet. How grateful I was that I had not jumped to a critical conclusion when my daughter was doing an act of love.
A powerful motivation for making charitable judgments—even of those who have done wrong in the past—is the desire to honor God by imitating His mercy and kindness towards us (Eph. 5:1; Luke 6:36). Because of our past sins, God has every right to judge us with lethal and eternal criticism. Yet, He is merciful, kind, patient, and gracious. He does not treat us as our sins deserve, and He always looks for the best in us (Ps. 130:3). If that is how He treats us, we should be eager to honor Him by doing the same with others (see also Rom. 12:9; Col. 3:12-13; 1 Pet. 4:8).
So, if you struggle with a critical spirit, remember the goodness of God and His power to change people. Cultivate a desire to bring Him praise by imitating His mercy and kindness to you. As you do so, you will find it increasingly natural to release people from their previous wrongs and judge their behavior today with the charity of Christ.
A Living Example
Carl is a living example of a man who has cultivated the habit of making charitable judgments. Although he is a long-time friend and we agree on most things, we have occasionally disagreed on significant issues. Yet, I have always felt completely free to speak frankly about my opinions, even when it is apparent that Carl holds a very different view. Why? I think it is because I have never once felt judged or condemned by Carl. Even when he thinks I hold a wrong view or am guilty of sin, he has never said a word, used a tone of voice, or given me a look that indicates he condemns me or thinks less of me.
On the contrary, I always feel that he makes an earnest effort to understand my views, to find any legitimacy in them, and to reexamine his own beliefs in the light of our disagreement. Even when he has confronted me about my sin, I have felt a pervading sense of love and encouragement, not condemnation. And more than once I have heard that he gave me the benefit of the doubt when others spoke ill of me. Nor does he limit his charity to me. Even when I judge or speak critically of others to Carl, he refuses to play the game, even if that person has made his life difficult.
Carl treats others with a remarkable uniformity. Whether people treat him well or poorly, whether they agree with him or not, whether they advance his goals or block them, he has a habit of believing the best about them and resisting the temptation to find fault in them. Instead of breathing judgment, like some people I know, Carl continually breathes grace. As a result, people are drawn to him. They feel safe sharing their opinions, questions, and weaknesses around him, without fear of being judged. As Carl looks for the best in people, many of them (including me) are inspired to live up to his charitable opinion of them. As a result, the more time people spend with him, the more they grow in faith and character.
By God’s grace, Carl is imitating the charitable attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, she was drawn to Him (John 4). Although she was guilty of great sin, she felt safe in His presence and did not fear condemnation. Jesus looked for the best in her, and she was inspired to change. As a result, she brought glory to God.
This is the effect I would like to have on people around me. I’m sure you would, also. If God can enable Carl to imitate Jesus by making charitable judgments, He can do it for us. Starting today, let’s ask Him to inspire us and enable us always to believe the best about others until we have facts to prove otherwise.
Help Me to Judge Rightly
Lord, help me to judge others
as I want them to judge me:
Charitably, not critically,
Privately, not publicly,
Gently, not harshly,
In humility, not pride.
Help me to believe the best about others,
until facts prove otherwise—
To assume nothing,
to seek all sides of the story,
And to judge no one until I’ve removed
the log from my own eye.
May I never bring only the Law,
to find fault and condemn.
Help me always to bring the Gospel,
to give hope and deliverance,
As you, my Judge and Friend,
have so graciously done for me.
* * * * *
(i) Website description of the booklet “Judging Others: The Danger of Playing God” by Ken Sande found at Peacemaker Ministries website.
“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