“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)
I Knew It!
“I knew he was too proud to take criticism,” thought Anne, “and now I have proof!”
On the previous Sunday, Anne had dropped a prayer card in the offering plate asking her pastor to stop in and pray with her when she went to the hospital for some minor surgery. When he failed to come by, she called the church secretary and learned that her pastor had already been to the hospital that day to see another church member.
“So he has no excuse!” she thought. “He was in the building and knew I needed his support, but still he ignored me. He’s resented me ever since I told him his sermons lack practical application. Now he’s getting back at me by ignoring my spiritual needs. And he calls himself a shepherd!”
After brooding over his rejection for three days, Anne sat down Saturday evening and wrote a letter confronting her pastor about his pride, defensiveness and hypocrisy. As she sealed the envelope, she could not help thinking about the conviction he would feel when he opened his mail.
The moment she walked into church the next morning, one of the deacons hurried over to her. “Anne, I need to apologize to you. When I took the prayer cards out of the offering plates last week, I accidentally left your card with some pledge cards. I didn’t notice my mistake until last night when I was totaling the pledges. I am so sorry I didn’t get your request to the pastor!” Before Anne could reply to the deacon, her pastor approached her with a warm smile. “Anne, I was thinking about your comment about practical application as I finished my sermon yesterday. I hope you notice the difference in today’s message.”
Anne was speechless. All she could think about was the letter she had just dropped in a mailbox three blocks from church.
Judging Is Necessary but Dangerous
As Anne discovered, judging others can put us in embarrassing situations. Does this mean that we should never judge others? Not at all. As you interact with other people you must constantly interpret, evaluate, and form opinions regarding their qualities, words, and actions, so that you may respond to them appropriately (see Prov. 8:12-21, 9:1-6; Matt. 10:16; 1 Cor. 2:11-16).
For example, when you buy something, you need to decide whether the seller is being honest about its quality and value. If someone disregards your advice, you need to interpret her actions so you can approach her more effectively. And when someone is nominated to a church office, the congregation needs to evaluate whether he is qualified to serve.
Although judging is a normal and necessary part of life, Scripture warns us that we have a natural tendency to judge others in a wrong way. For example, Jesus says:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-6)
As this passage teaches, when we evaluate and judge other people, our natural inclination is to ignore our own faults and to make critical judgments of others. Jesus is not forbidding critical thinking in the positive sense, which means to evaluate others’ words and actions carefully so we can discriminate between truth and error, right and wrong (see Matt. 7:15-16).
What he is warning us about is our inclination to make critical judgments in the negative sense, which involves looking for others’ faults and, without valid and sufficient reason, forming unfavorable opinions of their qualities, words, actions, or motives. In simple terms, it means looking for the worst in others.
Critical Judgments Come Naturally
When Adam sinned, he corrupted the entire human race. Each of us has inherited from him an inherent tendency to sin, which includes a natural inclination towards mistaken, negative judgments. (ii)
This inclination is revealed throughout the Bible.
- After the Israelites conquered the promised land, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh returned to their allotted land and built an altar by the Jordan. When the other tribes heard about the altar, they assumed the worst and rashly assembled their troops to go to war against their brothers. Fortunately, before a battle began, those who had built the altar were able to explain its legitimate purpose and avoid bloodshed. (Joshua 22:10-34)
- In 1 Samuel, we read how the high priest made a hasty, critical judgment. When Eli saw Hannah praying in the temple, moving her lips but making no sound, he concluded that she was drunk. Only after harshly confronting her did he learn that she was communing with the Lord in a way that put Eli to shame. (1:12-17)
- Even King David made critical judgments. When he fled from his son Absalom, a man named Ziba brought David a critical report regarding Saul’s son, Mephibosheth, saying that he had turned against King David. Without waiting to hear Mephibosheth’s side of the story, David passed judgment against this innocent man and turned all of his property over to a false witness. (2 Sam. 16:1-4; 19:24-30)
- When Jesus was doing miracles and healing the blind, the Pharisees stubbornly closed their eyes to the good He was doing and interpreted His actions in the worst possible way, saying that He was actually serving the devil. (Matt. 12:22-24)
- In Acts 21:26-29, we see that Paul meticulously followed all of the Jewish customs as he prepared to come into the temple. Even so, the Jews assumed the worst, jumping to the conclusion that he had defiled the temple and should be stoned.
- As 1 Corinthians 10-11 reveals, the Apostle Paul repeatedly was condemned falsely, not only by the Jews, but also by people from within the Christian community. Like many church leaders today, he learned the hard lesson that servants of the Lord are often misunderstood, criticized, and judged by the very people they are trying to serve.
But we don’t need to look back thousands of years to see people making critical judgments of others. Just think how easily we ourselves believe the worst about others’ motives or actions.
- If someone delays answering a letter or fulfilling a commitment, we assume he is avoiding us or evading his responsibilities. Could it be that he’s been in the hospital recovering from a serious accident? Could he be overwhelmed by other responsibilities?
- If our children do not complete their chores on time, we conclude that they are being disobedient. Could it be that they are secretly wrapping a special present for their mom’s birthday? Could they have gotten distracted, and a simple reminder would help?
- If an employer fails to give us a raise, we assume she is unappreciative or greedy. Could she be struggling to keep the business going in the face of increasing competition and operating costs?
- If someone at church seems unfriendly, we assume she is proud or aloof. Could it be that she feels awkward and unsure of herself, and is hoping someone will reach out to her?
- If the elders do not accept a proposal we make, we conclude that they are narrow-minded and do not understand or appreciate our opinions or needs. Could it be that God is leading them to give priority to a different ministry?
- If church members raise questions about policies or new programs, church leaders may conclude that the members are stubbornly unwilling to consider new ideas or stretch themselves to grow. They may even be labeled as rebellious troublemakers. Could it be that they have legitimate insights and concerns that deserve a careful hearing?
Instead of judging others critically, God commands us to judge charitably. The church has historically used the word “charitable” as a synonym for the word “loving.” This has resulted in the expression, “charitable judgments.” Making a charitable judgment means that out of love for God, you strive to believe the best about others until you have facts to prove otherwise. In other words, if you can reasonably interpret facts in two possible ways, God calls you to embrace the positive interpretation over the negative, or at least to postpone making any judgment at all until you can acquire conclusive facts.
For example, when Anne’s pastor did not visit her in the hospital, she should have realized that there were at least two possible explanations. One was that he was deliberately slighting her. The other was that he had not received her note or had some other valid reason for not visiting her. If she had developed the habit of making charitable judgments, she would have believed the positive explanation until she received facts that showed otherwise. Believing the best about others is not simply a nice thing to do; it is not optional behavior. It is a way to imitate God Himself, and to show our appreciation for how He treats us. God knows everything and judges accurately. He has final say in criticism (and in commendation). Yet He judges charitably, even mercifully, passing over and putting up with many wrongs. He is kind to ungrateful and evil people (Luke 6:35).
Charitable judgments are also an act of obedience to God. As we saw in Matthew 7:1-6, Jesus Himself forbids us to judge others until we have done two things. First, we must take responsibility for any contribution we may have made to a problem. Second, we must make a diligent effort to “see clearly,” that is, to accurately understand what someone else has done and why he or she did it. Therefore, whenever we gloss over our own faults, assume facts, speculate on motives, or jump to conclusions about others, we have disobeyed our Lord.
Charitable judgments are also required by Jesus’ command in Matthew 7:12, where He sets forth the Golden Rule. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” How do you want others to judge you? Do you want them to believe good about you instead of evil? To interpret your actions in the best possible way? To really try to understand your side of the story before drawing conclusions or talking to others about you? If so, Jesus commands that you do the same for others.
Our responsibility to judge others charitably is reinforced by Jesus’ teaching on the second great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Just think of how quickly we judge ourselves favorably! When we are questioned or criticized, our natural response is to explain our actions in the best possible light and make excuses for any perceived wrong. If this is how we are inclined to love ourselves, it is also the way we should love others.
Charitable judgments are also implicit in the Apostle Paul’s teaching on love in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Pay special attention to the last sentence: Paul teaches that love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In other words, love always looks for reasonable ways to trust others, to hope that they are doing what is right, and to interpret their words and actions in a way that protects their reputation and credibility. This is the essence of charitable judgments.
Notice that I said we should look for “reasonable ways” to believe the best about others. We are not called to suspend critical thinking in the positive sense or to make judgments that are contrary to clear facts. If we hear someone say something that is patently false or vicious, we can conclude that it is wrong and legitimately confront the speaker. But if we only hear second-hand information or observe an act that could be interpreted in different ways, God calls us to withhold judgment and look for a reasonable explanation.
The call to judge others charitably is not something new or novel. It finds its roots in the Ten Commandments and is consistent with hundreds of years of church doctrine. In Exodus 20:16 God says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” The church has historically interpreted this commandment not only to forbid lying but also to require charitable judgments. Luther’s Small Catechism teaches that this commandment means, “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” (iii)
Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches that this commandment requires “preserving and promoting truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor,…a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocence; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them…” (iv)
Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest theologians, thoroughly discussed God’s call for charitable judgments in his superb book, Charity and Its Fruits (v). Drawing on the passages discussed above (Matt. 7; 1 Cor. 13), he shows that the Bible condemns censoriousness, which he defines as “a disposition to think evil of others, or to judge evil in them,” and commends charitable judgments, which he describes as “a disposition to think the best of others that the case will allow.” (vi)
The phrase “charitable judgments” may sound new to many of us today, but the concept itself is rooted deeply in the Word of God and the teaching of the church. Therefore, it should be rooted deeply in our hearts and displayed in our lives.
(i) Website description of the booklet “Judging Others: The Danger of Playing God” by Ken Sande found at Peacemaker Ministries website.
(ii) In fact, we also have a tendency to make mistaken positive assessments! We can be impressed by things we ought to criticize (2 Timothy 4:3, 2 Corinthians 11:4, Galatians 1:6-9, I Samuel 16:6f, Proverbs 7, etc.).
(iii) Luther’s Small Catechism, Question 61.
(iv) Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 145.
(v) 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).
(vi) Ibid., pp. 205, 204.
“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