For some reason I was reflecting the other day on what subjects have most often landed me in the hottest of water among professing Christians. Since I’m not in any trouble that I know of at the moment it’s strange that I’d be tugging on the threads of these special memories but the mind wanders when it doesn’t have a sermon to write.
Using most of my fingers I counted up all the various games of “catch the flack” I’ve played over the years and the most exciting games have been played over the subject of judgment.
Just to be clear I should also mention that I don’t mean the subject of God’s judgment. And I don’t mean the subject of how Christians can be judgmental (everyone actually loves that subject – especially Christians). I’m talking about the biblical teaching that Christians should (gasp!) actually make judgments.
The flack catcher verse in this case is from Matthew 7:1-5
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
No one has any trouble with verses 1-4. We like those a lot. They help keep our Sunday school teacher’s concerns about our cannabis tattoo at bay. “Don’t judge me, lady! It’s all natural!”
What we have trouble accepting is that in v. 5, Jesus implies that there is a category for a Christian to rightly “take a speck out of his brother’s eye”, i.e., make a judgment and confront the brother.
How do we explain this?
First of all, we shouldn’t need a verse for this to make sense. We can all see quite clearly that there are two ways to understand the term judgment. There’s the one we’re more familiar with: judgment as condemnation. “Oh. You let your kid read the Magician’s Nephew before The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe? I didn’t know you were a terrible parent.” We all know this kind of judgment is bad (although you should always read “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” first. Obviously).
Then there’s the second kind of judgment that we all use and we are all right to use. We often call these “judgment calls”. Like, what kind of drink goes better with Italian food? Red wine or arsenic?
No one in their right mind would keep silent if their brother was about to make the wrong choice here. And that’s what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 7. He’s saying, that with a “log in your eye” you’re actually quite likely to be of no help to your brother. First, you can’t see clearly enough to tell if your brother is going for the arsenic or the red wine. And second, you don’t have the right to confront you brother for drinking the arsenic because you just drank a 55 gallon drum of anti-freeze through a crazy straw.
So, Jesus says, step away from the anti-freeze, ditch the crazy straw (i.e., honestly confess and repent at full speed) “AND THEN” you will have the capacity to slap that hot cup o’ arsenic right out of your friend’s face. You will have every right to do so and you will have the right motives for it.
Now, why is it that even Christians are often repulsed by this teaching?
I think that the answer depends on each person, but there is a generalization that could be made. It’s this: there’s an epidemic of “gospel amnesia” in many Christians today. And because we’re not actually strengthened by the news of how God’s judgment has been satisfied by Jesus we try to get out from under every confrontation as if we’re avoiding fire and brimstone. We can’t handle little righteous judgments because we don’t really believe God’s judgment has truly been settled for us at the cross. We’ve forgotten that, in Christ, we’re truly, actually, really, forgiven. And because we forget, we hide from well-meaning brothers in the faith who make good judgment calls.
And not only do we hide. We attack. C.S. Lewis explains it this way in his chapter on Judgment in “Reflections on the Psalms”.
“As Christians we must of course repent of all the anger, malice, and self-will which allowed [a] discussion to become, on our side, a quarrel at all. But there is also the question on a far lower level: ‘granted the quarrel…did you fight fair?” Or did we not quite unknowingly falsify the whole issue? Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause?
Did we pretend to be ‘hurt’ in our sensitive and tender feelings when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well, and that sleeping dog can be roused, that skeleton brought out of its cupboard, only at the cost of imperiling their whole relationship with us. [It’s an issue that] needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt. Indeed what is commonly called ‘sensitiveness’ is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny. How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearance in ourselves”
What Lewis describes here perfectly represents a “gospel amnesiac”. Someone who hides from his brother’s righteous judgments and even accuses and attacks his brother in order to take shelter in anything other than the good news of Jesus’ death for his forgiveness.
The two things we need in light of Jesus’ words are these: (1) We need Christians to honestly confess their badness, and take shelter in Christ’s forgiveness. They truly must back away from their sins with grateful and happy hearts. (2) We need these same Christians to have spines of grace so that they make clear-eyed judgments, calling others to the same freedom they’ve found.