Judging or Discerning?

Posted by on Apr 2, 2023 in Blog | 0 comments

brown wooden gavel on brown wooden table

In Matthew 7:1 Jesus challengingly instructs: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” It is an oft quoted sentiment from the Sermon on the Mount, and is sometimes used as a get out of jail free card by those who know they have erred badly, “If you listen to Jesus you won’t judge me.” Even if you challenge back, “That sounds pretty manipulative” the retort is going to be, “Manipulative! There you go, judging me again!”

Realistically, Jesus didn’t seem to expect us to obey this command. A few verses along he says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt 7:6). So tell me, how do we decide if someone is a dog or a pig without passing some form of judgement?

I guess there are different kinds of judgement.

There is the judgement that condemns someone as being inferior and worthy only of contempt. I don’t doubt that Jesus is warning us against making this kind of judgement. Trouble is we often do. No we don’t say it out loud, but we treat some people as invisible and not really counting. When we do this we show that a prior ruling has been made in our mind. It is often a quick and superficial one, sometimes based on trivial data like appearance and dress code, but we allow it to shape our actions and miss out on many relationships which could have been rich and transforming. It also overlooks the fact that all people (and all means ALL) have been made in the image of God. Fallen image bearers we may be, but we are still ALL image bearers, and worthy of the respect and dignity that confers.

Then there is the final judgement. It is up to God alone to make this decision, and when we act as though we know what the verdict will be, we are usurping God’s position. Best to remain agnostic about such matters. What is up to God is up to God. We intrude at our peril. That is not to say that we should not have a deep and abiding confidence in the grace, mercy and forgiveness found at the Cross of Jesus. It is the source of our hope. But we shouldn’t assume we know the limits of this grace, and are able to calmly proclaim who has not found it. What is up to God is up to God, and I suspect God’s grace is wider and deeper than any of us imagine.

Somewhere between the condemnatory dismissal of those we consider beneath us and the final judgement of God there is another kind of judgement. Perhaps it is better called discernment, which has a different motivation behind it. Let me give an example…

In what now seems a lifetime ago, I trained to be a social worker. One of my student placements was with an agency working with released prisoners. I had many fascinating clients. A common problem for newly released offenders is finding work and Jack (naturally not his actual name) was finding promising job interviews came to nothing once his criminal record was noted. Then came the breakthrough. The agency found a company happy to give ex-convicts a chance. They had an opening for a cashier at a check out point in one of their stores. They offered Jack the job.

To my surprise, Jack was less than enthusiastic about it. He kept saying to me, “But I will have to work the till.” Taking this as lack of confidence, I quickly reassured him, “Yeah, it’s actually not difficult. You’ll get the hang of it quickly. And even if you don’t, they provide training so there will be others who can help. It’s just a matter of time. You will catch on.” But he simply said, “But I will have to work the till.” When motivated I can be a reasonably patient person so I ran through my reassurance again – and again – and again. And Jack kept saying “But I will have to work the till.” After about a dozen of my “Yeah, It’s actually not that difficult – you’ll be fine,” Jack agreed to take the post.

Being a student, I was closely supervised and had to write up full transcripts of all my interviews. I dutifully recorded all the details of the conversation. I still remember my supervisor looking up from my notes. “So he said at least a dozen times ‘But I will have to work the till’? Why do you think he said that?”

“Yeah, it’s so interesting,” I replied. “It shows how prison knocks the confidence out of you. I mean it’s such an easy thing to do, and Jack is very capable. He will get on top of it in no time.”

“Hmmm…” said my supervisor. “You think that’s all it is?” The way she said it made it abundantly clear that she didn’t.

“Why? What do you think he meant?” I asked a little defensively.

“You want my opinion?” she asked. “You know that’s not how it works. I’m asking you to think more deeply.”

And then the flash of insight. Why had Jack been in and out of prison? A long string of convictions for opportunistic cash grabs. Snatching a purse lying on a table and running. Grabbing cash out of a cash register left open, and fleeing. He never pinched a watch or jewellery or sporting equipment. It was always cash that was lying in front of him. And here I was telling him he would be fine working the cash register day after day with large bundles of money lying in front of him and begging to be stuffed into his pockets.

He had been in the post for less than a week before he was arrested for confusing mine with thine, and walking away with the money in his till. I felt a little responsible, and when I visited while he was waiting trail he said, “I told you I had to work the till. I know I can’t do that. Just can’t do it.” Naturally he had meant “I can’t do that without helping myself to what’s in the till” but sadly I hadn’t picked that up. Not that Jack was blaming me. He was a philosophical prisoner and seemed more happy in prison than out. Some people find life overwhelming and easier to manage when decision making is out of their hands.

If I had said “Jack is not yet ready to have a post that requires him to work directly with money” that would not have been judging him. It would have been taking him seriously and interacting with a major issue he faced in a discerning way. To take people seriously and interact with their struggles in a meaningful way is a loving thing to do. We shouldn’t confuse that with judging or being judgemental.

Perhaps the test is the one of dismissiveness. When I am being judgemental I have a wonderful excuse to stop taking you seriously. You are wrong and its your fault and there is nothing for me to do. When I genuinely care, I see you and hear you – and both see and hear at a deep level. Rather than dismiss you, I care enough to journey with you. Naturally I must respect you as the one who makes the decisions about your life, but if I really care I will be willing to risk challenging you to be a better version of yourself, and will allow you to do the same back to me.

So let’s stop judging each other, and let’s be curiously creative and ask the “why?” of each other in a way that sets us both free. Genuine curiosity and care might sometimes seem intrusive, but it is very different to being judgemental, and can be a wonderful gift, especially when we use it with discernment, knowing that as Ecc 3:7 says, “There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent.”

As always, nice chatting…

Photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA on Pexels.com

Reproduce post with acknowledgment of source. Please forward to those who might find this helpful.

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