They seem to be the centerpiece of the worship service at church, no matter how long they are or what they’re called: sermons, teachings, messages, homilies.

I’m not sure they should be, but they kind of are by default for almost a couple thousand years now.

I would vote for the eucharist, the Lord’s supper, to take that honor and let Him host and be the center of worship, honor and praise.

But, hey, nobody asked me.

So we surround the sermon with all our other acts of worship (singing, prayers, reading of scripture, etc.), and — like I said — it becomes the centerpiece of the table we surround by default.

And what do we hear?

I attended church from before the time I could think or speak until just a couple of years ago. I think I can fairly say I’ve heard about every kind of sermon imaginable, from the very best to the very worst.

I learned a lot, I’m sure; and some of what I learned, I had to later unlearn — because what I heard was not valid, or helpful, or sometimes just wasn’t true. Occasionally it didn’t even conform to what scripture said, and even rarely contradicted and defied it.

But looking back, I think the very best sermons I heard gave me insight into the life, teachings, example and nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

They conveyed His humanity and divinity, His winsome appeal, His unflagging love for all, and His refusal to judge people while being unflinchingly judgmental about how to speak, act and relate to others in a world that God made and God cares about and God watches over all the time.

Sermons like that made me crave that nature and yearn for that living grace; they challenged me to imitate it in what I do and say with the goal of making it my nature.

I genuinely don’t know how you can preach a gospel sermon without talking about Jesus; He is the very best of all the good news in scripture. I tried preaching for several years, but it is not my gift. When I did preach, I genuinely tried to draw my listeners to the grace of Christ.

To the cross, yes, sometimes; even to the empty tomb. But, you see, that’s what the Lord’s table is for; that’s largely His story to tell in His inimitable way — by living it to death and then living it forever.

I can’t do better than that.

And you see, if that were all there is to His story, we would miss out on the part that makes it whole and full and complete: the incredible life of love and compassion that He lived. That, as much as anything else, is what proves He was/is/will always be the Son of God.

God could have raised anyone from the dead — it’s not like He’d never done it before! But who else but His very own Son could have lived such an exemplary life, seen and communicated the loving grace of heaven so clearly, had the unalterable faith to let mankind do its worst and still speak words of forgiveness?

Sermons come and go. A million every Sunday, maybe, all around the world.

But they are only heard by the people who listen to them; and if those people don’t leave that church inspired to live what they’ve heard, then only words have been spoken. Not The Word, the living Logos, the meaning of what God spoke into existence, the why of being, the purpose of living, the joy of loving, the embodiment of grace.

Well, I’ve rattled on here long enough. If I could live like that, I could still try preaching. But I know there is no credibility in what you say if you don’t practice what you preach.

So I’ve chosen to leave that to others of better qualifications, and just do my best to live up to some poor semblance of the One that I most admire.

They say that’s a sermon too.

Judging Others by What We Don’t Know

Micah 6:8Dismiss these as the ramblings of a deeply troubled man who is too weary to sleep if you will; I’m okay with that. You may be right.

But just in case I’m not, please take a moment to consider them.

I have offered on these pages and elsewhere my judgment that we should judge words and actions, but not judge others. By that I mean that we have no right, authority or ability to pronounce judgment on others: make broad statements about their motives and their character; absolve or condemn their souls. We are to judge actions and words — of others, as well as our own — and lovingly, humbly, and personally (privately at first) attempt to persuade the one who strays to amend and make amends.

I’ve proposed that we have no ability to make accurate moral judgments of others’ motives and character because:

  • Our own may be suspect; not pure.
  • We do not have complete knowledge of their circumstances in life, influences and pressures on them.
  • We do not have infallible knowledge of another’s heart. It’s difficult enough, at times, to know our own hearts. God, however, knows them better than we know ourselves.

Let me propose yet another reason we do not have this ability:

  • We don’t know the complete physical condition of another person.

Millions of people suffer from health challenges ranging from depression to schizophrenia to hormonal/chemical imbalances of the body and brain. Sometimes — many times — they are not even aware of them, and these conditions go undiagnosed and untreated.

These conditions affect judgment and behavior. The laws of many lands recognize this, and shelter those who may be guilty for these reasons once diagnosed.

You can’t tell by looking at a person — or even at their acts, or hearing their words — if they are so affected. You may suspect it, but some of these conditions will stump medical doctors trying to accurately diagnose them.

Oh, it’s easy to just regard someone in their misery and think “crazy person” or “they made their own bed; now they have to lie in it.” Anyone can do that. And we all do.

In doing so, we disqualify ourselves as accurate judges of others’ motives and character.

We would not want to be judged in that way.

So for that reason, Jesus says “Don’t judge.”

In the past three weeks, I have seen enough of the inside of waiting rooms, emergency rooms, examination rooms and recovery rooms to last me for the rest of my life. Not one of them is fully private. You hear and see people in all kinds of misery. You have no idea the depth to which it takes their souls.

Sometimes, all you can do is respect what little privacy they have … withhold your judgment out of your awareness of your completely insufficient comprehension of the human condition … and silently pray.

Break Free

I’ve become convinced that one of the most enslaving temptations is the one to judge. It just leads to all kinds of harm to others and self under the pretense of making you feel better about yourself by comparing yourself favorably to others.

As if we were somehow better.

What bullarkey.

The year is new. The opportunity is before us. It’s time to break free.

Judge the rightness of words and actions for yourself (Luke 12:57).

Don’t judge other people (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37; Romans 14:4-10).

Jesus didn’t (John 8:15) but will (Acts 10:42; 17:31).

Then again, He has an advantage we don’t have (John 8:16).

So leave it to the Expert (Romans 2:3).

Your time will come (1 Corinthians 6:3).

Do yourself and others a favor. Try the Greg Boyd shopping mall experiment:* Stop judging people around you and just love them today.

Then repeat 365 times.

You’ll have a full year of freedom from the terrible burden of judging others, and the freedom to love others sans judgment.

Keep trying. Chances are, with experience, we’ll all get better at it.

Take a stand for freedom in 2013.


*Click on the link to “Look Inside,” then on the one for “First Pages.”

Jesus, Syro-Phoenicians and Dogs

ImageI just got in from walking my dog Roadie, and I’m sure that had some bearing on this topic leaping to my mind.

A few days ago, I made the apparently outrageous suggestion in the comments of a Facebook post that Jesus didn’t call people “dogs” in a prejudicial, insulting way in Matthew 7:6 or 15:25-27; rather that He was quoting a maxim of that era to illustrate the pervasiveness of judging others and how wrong it is.

I was immediately shut down with a chorus of “of-course-He-dids” and didn’t have time to defend my contention right then, and the moment passed. So I will now.

First of all, to call someone a “dog” who is of a different ethnicity is completely foreign to the nature of God, who created all men and all ethnicities. To say differently of Jesus — through Whom and for Whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16) — is to declare that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were less bigoted than the Lord when they declared “all men are created equal.” Preposterous.

Secondly, it is not possible for Jesus to have been prejudicial. He could be judicial, because He knew men’s thoughts (Matthew 9:4; Luke 9:47), but not pre-judicial. He could call certain people “a brood of snakes” (Matthew 23:33) because they were children of the great serpent Satan when they were plotting to kill Him (John 8:39-47). It wasn’t like He didn’t know; He did. We don’t have that knowledge, and we are not equipped to judge. He was. But that wasn’t His purpose in coming (John 12:47); that is His purpose when the day set for it comes (Acts 17:37).

Third: “Dogs” was a term of derision in the first century. See Philippians 3:2 and 2 Peter 2:22 and Revelation 22:15. Don’t miss whom these verses talk about, and what they have done or are doing.

They are not about ethnicity. They are about sin.

“Dog” was an insult. In the centuries before, especially in the books titled “Samuel,” the term “dog” is a term of self-deprecation as well as an insult to others, and I believe it is always used as an insult about peoples outside of Israel. Several translators insist that Jesus even softened the term to “puppies” or “little dogs” when speaking to the Syro-Phoenician woman — perhaps lest she imagine real judgment in His tone.

In speaking to this woman and granting the miracle she desires, He refutes what He has said in Matthew 7: He gives a holy gift to someone He has called a “puppy.” How could this not be an object lesson to His entourage, to help prepare them for the idea of the total giving of Himself for all mankind?

Fourth: In Matthew 7:1-6, when Jesus — I believe — quotes this maxim about giving dogs what is holy and giving pearls to pigs, it immediately follows what He has just said about not judging people. If He is not quoting a common proverb as a bad example, then it follows (immediately!) that He was violating the principle He has just given them — how credible is that?

How can we escape the conclusion that prejudice and judging and insulting other people is not Christ-like, and is never something that His followers should participate in?

Finally: Let’s face it. It’s easy to create God in our own image — and doing the same to Jesus is no exception for us. We sometimes want to justify things we want to do by maintaining that He did them in this flesh, in this world. But that doesn’t mean He did them, or said them because it gets us off the hook for wanting to say or do them. We all judge, and we all should not judge. Using the excuse of being like Jesus is no excuse because we do not have all of the authority or capability of Jesus to do so.

Okay. It’s not a Q.E.D., but it is a simpler explanation to me than Jesus saying one thing and then immediately contradicting Himself, and if you respect Occam’s Razor as a sound principle of logic, then I think you’d agree that William would shave with it.

And it certainly is preferable to the theology of a God who called people dogs based on the ethnicity He gave them.

The Thrill of the Kill

Lily Sloane had no difficulty speaking truth to power when she upbraided Jean-Luc Picard in the 1996 film, Star Trek: First Contact:

“Oh, come on, Captain. You’re not the first man to get a thrill out of murdering someone! I see it all the time.”

I have to take it on the word of others that there is such a thrill when murdering. That, and the fascination that young men seem to have with movies and video games which, I suppose, let them vicariously kill.

But I’m afraid I do understand the “thrill” part of the equation.

I’ve never been sure whether my martial-arts-trained friend and college roommate John Caplinger was joking, telling the truth, or both when he said that the best translation for one of the ninja attack shrieks is “I will only kill you a little.”

If you’ll forgive me for conflating the two concepts, I’m acquainted with the thrill of only killing a little. It’s what people do when they correct, criticize, belittle and berate others. Like Lily of the movie’s savage twenty-second century, I see it all the time.

I see it in the internet bulletin boards. In the chat rooms. In the comments of the blogs, and the blogs themselves. In the Facebook groups, open and closed. In the concise 140-character-or-less tweets of Twitter. Words meant to kill.

Just a little.

Oh, yes, I understand the thrill. Beating someone up verbally feels awesome. It makes you feel powerful because they’ve lost and you’ve won. It makes you feel right because they’re wrong. It makes you feel good because they’re evil. It makes you feel better than someone else, because after all, you are.

“Becauses” that are all bull-puckey, of course.

At their root is your judgment, and your judgment is just as flawed as theirs and it is just as flawed as mine. It is human. It is not perfect.

And no one should understand that better than a follower of Christ.

Which is why it should perplex me that I see it so unforgivably often in the bulletin boards, chat rooms, groups, comments and tweets of fellow believers. “Should,” I say. It “would,” if I had not experienced it myself so damnably many times.

I keep repenting of it. I don’t know how many times I have tried to blog my deepest intention to stop judging others, only to get sucked back into the festering muck of it again by some thrill-seeker in the comments of the very same post.

This week it has been with a few folks on a Facebook group who — to my way of perceiving it — want to justify doing what Jesus forbids in Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37 by trying to make the case that it is absolutely required to judge others in order to correct others, which is the loving thing to do. What they are called to do. I can’t even begin to comprehend the screwed-up priorities of that kind of thinking. It has called forth more patience in me than I have within to try to respond in kindness rather than in kind, until I finally ran out of it and had to quit before keying in something that Facebook’s Timeline might never let me forget.

(If there is one thing I have learned about folks who really like to argue, it’s that they feel they have won if they get the last word. If there is no response, then their arguments must be irrefutable, and therefore irrefutably right.)

My LIFE Group and I have spent several months studying Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion. He makes a strong case for the original sin of Eden being judgment: judgment of two people that God was not trustworthy; judgment that they should take matters into their own, more capable hands and eat the fruit and know for sure instead of having any more truck with this faith stuff.

Boyd builds on this premise of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to propose that the greater part of religion has long been and currently is little more than judgmentalism disguised as righteousness (which is really self-righteousness), rather than religion mirroring the love of God by (in his words) “ascribing unsurpassable worth to others.”

So I’ll just close this one with a question. I’ve already described above the number one reason I believe Christians immerse themselves into the unholy culture of judgment, criticism, abuse and condemnation of others: Self.

What do you believe contributes to it?

What Is Sin?

It’s two a.m. and I can’t sleep tonight.

I can’t sleep because I’ve latched onto a question that absolutely, positively must be answered.

My blogging buddy Kinney Mabry asked it in his recent post “Sin,” and he is not the first and will not be the last. It’s the first question in his post. There are lots more that go with it. Kinney is full of good questions.

Every living person wrestles with this question and the ones that accompany it at one point or another in our lives, I’m convinced. When we shrug it off as inconsequential, that says something about our character (or lack thereof). Because I’m also convinced that God has placed within each of us a rudimentary, genetically-encoded moral compass; that’s part of what Romans 1 is communicating as well as our predeliction for ignoring it.

So I’m going to take a stab at defining sin, and then I’ll let y’all whale away at it:

Sin is what we think, say and/or do (or fail to say/do) which exalts self at the expense of God (and often, others).

It is what we think because that’s where it gets started. It’s what we say and do because that’s how it comes out.

It’s what exalts self at the expense of God because we buy into the lie — just as Adam and Eve did — that we know better than God. We know what’s best for our sweet selves, and He’s trying to keep us from it.

It comes at the expense of God because it cost Him the life of His Son.

It often comes at the expense of others because they have to bear the consequences of our selfishness, too.

It includes “fail to say/do” because we can know to do good and not do it – and leave others suffering.

And a fat lot we care about it.

There, I’ve said it. Obviously I’ve thought it. Perhaps not so obviously, I’ve lived it out in what I’ve said and done. Over and over and over again. So have you. So has everyone else.

We all stand between the two trees in the garden east of Eden, folks. We could choose Life, or the knowledge of good and evil. But the only way to know what good and evil are is to experience the difference between them, and that means disobeying what God has told us right down in the deepest place of our hearts. Life sounds pretty good, but we already have it, and He gave it to us and that must mean that He can’t be telling the truth when He says we’ll die if we eat from the other tree because He planted that garden and He loves us and He wants us to have life.

Yup, we’ve got it all reasoned out. We know better than God. We know what we want. We know what He wants. And He just doesn’t want us to have something that must be really good because He’s keeping it all for Himself and denying it to us.

So we betray each other out of what we profess to be love for each other, but at the root it’s the completely selfish fear that if the other one eats, he/she will have what I want and I won’t and we’ll be different. And we take the bite. And then we know.

We know what God didn’t want us to know that way. We know what He would have taught us out of love if we had trusted Him. But we don’t trust Him. We judge Him. We judge each other.

Yes, sin is rebellion against God and falling short of the mark and all of those other Sunday-school terms that we heard and pretended to understand but really didn’t because they don’t begin to get to the root of what sin is.

Sin is what we think, say and/or do (or fail to say/do) which exalts self at the expense of God (and often, others).

The other tree is Life, which is who Jesus was, is and will be … and what He came to give and to give more abundantly and what He gives through His Spirit and what God gives us in the first place. He does this because He loves us; it is not just His nature but His identity: God is love.

And if we love, we do not judge Him or others. We give up self for Him, and them.

That, I believe, is the long and the short of it. I think it’s staring us in the face and has been all of our lives and it could not be any simpler than if it were tattooed on the backs of our hands and wired into the compass of our feet that would always keep us pointed toward Him.

But then we would realize that our path in life leads to a cross where sin pinioned His hands and feet.

It was on a tree in Eden that death hung disguised as the fruit of knowledge, and on a crosstree of death that Life bore the fruit of love.

Pick one.

Now there’s a thought that isn’t going to help me get to sleep at all.

What Constitutes Heresy?

At first glance, that might be hard to answer. You won’t find the word “heresy” in your Bible very often.

Unless, you have the King James Version; there, you will find it in Acts 24:14. There it’s used to describe what the pagans called “The Way” – Christianity.

Peter uses its plural, once, to warn:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. ~ 2 Peter 2:1

There are, however, plenty of false teachings and descriptions of false teachers and what they do outlined in New Testament scripture:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil. ~ Romans 16:17-19

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. . . . Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. ~ Colossians 2:8, 16-23

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. ~ 1 Timothy 4:1-5

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. ~ 1 Timothy 6:3-5

Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. ~ 2 Timothy 2:14-18

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone. ~ 2 Timothy 3:1-9

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. . . . They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. ~ Titus 1:10-11, 16

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. ~ Hebrews 13:9

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work. ~ 2 John 1:7-11

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. ~ 3 John 1:9

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. . . . These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. . . . These people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. ~ Jude 1:3-4, 12-13, 16

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. ~ Revelation 2:14 . . . Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. ~ Revelation 2:20

These are the false teachers and what they taught and did, whether out of Jewish exclusivity or pagan inclusivity … whether out of piety or selfishiness.

You learn a lot about these false teachers from those phrases I put in italics. They love to be first and call themselves prophets; they slip in secretly; they will lie, lie about where their teaching came from, flatter, cajole, take control of others, take over their homes, will not welcome others, and cause divisons and controversies. They are boastful, proud, arrogant, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, treacherous, rash … the adjectives go on and on. (You’ve got to admire Jude’s very poetic description of them!) They like to quarrel about words. They are control freaks. They must have their own way. And some of them hope to make money from teaching what they think they know. If that were the worst of it, one could teach them and ignore them – keep away from them; not associate with them – if they ignored the teaching, so that they would be shamed.

But it’s what they teach that makes it impossible for them to repent; they confidently assert the rightness of it; their consciences have been seared. And what they teach include these heresies: impose circumcision and kosher dietary laws; cause trouble over celebrating holidays; encourage participation in idolatry; teach myths and genealogies as crucial; add worship of angels; forbid marriages; that Christ has already come; deny that He is Lord; and deny that He came in the flesh.

All of these things stab at the very heart of Christian faith: the sufficiency of the blood of Jesus manifesting the love and grace of the one and only God. They contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These were no mere quibblings over what can or can’t be done in worship; who can or can’t preach Christ and Him crucified; or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

But hear me out on this, please.

When quibblings are elevated to a level that rivals the sufficiency of Christ to save, they become heresies. They don’t even have to produce the kind of personalities described above, although they can and probably will. Whatever empties the cross of its power and causes divisions (1 Corinthians 1:20) almost always is – or becomes – extricated with personalities and ego and personal preferences.

Those are the kinds of personalities Jesus had to deal with among the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had elevated their human teachings to the level of law and attributed them to God – even though some schools of human teaching didn’t agree with others (Matthew 2:22-23).

Quibbling matters are earthly things (Colossians 3:1-17); and when they become elevated to something more than they are, these teachings of men render worship vain (Matthew 15:9, Mark 7:7).

Ultimately, they bring swift destruction to the one who teaches them.

Judge. Mental.

We live in a society that puts the “mental” in “judgmental.”

We’re crazy about the pleasure of judging other people. We watch denizens of Survivor vote each other off of the island; cheer or jeer the decisions made about the future careers of contestants on American Idol and The Apprentice; analyze the scheming and plotting affecting the artificially-induced love lives of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.

We love to watch the bad guys get theirs on Law and Order, N.C.I.S., 24 and any number of other television shows with increasingly shorter names and smaller concepts. If we can’t see them caught and judged in a courtroom, we’re happy to see Jack Bauer blow them away short of trial date, because, after all, they’re bad guys and we’re only going to spend 24 hours messing with them.

We hail and worship pundits who say the most outrageous things about elected officials and political candidates (as long as we agree with them) because we’ve already judged their targets as “bad guys.” We’ll permit vested interests with enough money to air any kind of advertisement against a candidate – even if it is wholly unfounded in fact or truth – because that’s just part of the political process in which we judge the character and capabilities of those whom we will elect and later villify. We’ll even repeat the unsubstantiated claims in our conversations and on our blogs and in our tweets and Facebook posts.

We lap up any religious controversy – whether an outright sin or a simple difference of interpretation – and eagerly seize the opportunity to self-righteously condemn the “sinner” involved to the hellfire he or she deserves, clucking and shaking our heads all the way to the gallows for that poor soul’s reptuation.

And here is what Jesus has to say about what we do:

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.” ~ Matthew 7:1-2

Which is a pretty frightening thought, when you lend it a few moments and a few brain cells.

It means I’m going to be judged by God in the same way that I judge other people. (We know Jesus is talking about God here because this method of judgment is fair, God is ultimately fair, and people are not fair. Especially when they judge each other.)

Why should we not judge others? (We enjoy it so much!)

“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.” ~ Matthew 7:3-5

We put the “mental” in “judgmental” because we are wholly unqualified to judge others. That’s because we are not even qualified to judge ourselves. We are not fair, objective, just, merciful or righteous. We do not see matters objectively; we see them subjectively, from our own viewpoints and not from outside of our own eyes, heads, prejudices, circumstances, environment, culture, experiences, and era. From the viewpoint of eternity, God can.

“Judge not lest ye be judged yourselves” is simply the application of the Golden Rule to the field of jurisprudence: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31

A few verses later, Luke records how Jesus expanded on the thought: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~ Luke 6:37

If there was ever a guilty pleasure we need to sacrifice on the altar of becoming more like Christ, giving up our “right” to judge would be a top priority.

We don’t need to worry that if we don’t handle judgment, then justice will never take place and the guilty will escape what is due them:

This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. ~ Romans 2:16

Assured of that, we can get back to the business of using our God-given power of judgment for the purpose He intended. We’ll be able to answer Jesus’ question about our petty squabbles and disagreements (as well as our self-centered sins):

“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” ~ Luke 12:57

And He will give us all the help we need in order to do so:

“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment:
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord
that he may instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” ~ 1 Corinthians 2:14-16

Then our passion for judging won’t head in a direction God doesn’t intend – a direction we are unqualified to take it.

A direction that will eventually drive us – and the others around us – completely mental.

Strike a blow for sanity.

Ask for His help.

How to 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.” ~ Matthew 7:2

Does that sound to you like God will judge me the way that I judge others?

Is that what it means?

That if I measure out wrath and condemnation, then wrath and condemnation will be measured out to me?

Because if that’s what it really means, I want to be as compassionate and gracious and non-judgmental to others as I can possibly be, so that when God judges me, that’s the way He exercises judgment on me.

I do not want to be condemnatory, insulting, and judgmental of people regarding things that I feel I understand but that they do not understand in the same way. Because I do not want God to be condemnatory, insulting and judgmental of me regarding things that He truly does understand and that I didn’t.

Truth will always be truth. Plain truth will always be plain. But when it comes to matters about which God has not specifically spoken, don’t I need to judge for myself what is right and rely on His grace … by showing it to others?

If I judge others, and do so harshly, what does that say about me? That I have the very same authority as Christ? That I have the very same understanding that God has? That I am qualified to write scripture as Paul did, or Peter, or Jude in condemnation of teachings and teachers that clearly diluted the very truth of the gospel? That I am big enough to endure God’s harsh judgment of me?

If I see my primary calling in life as one that must and should call down fire from on high upon each and every soul who does not welcome me or my viewpoints, do I do so to earn praise … or do I deserve a rebuke? Do I win souls by igniting internecine warfare? Is that what God has called me to do as my primary focus as a follower of Christ?

Whether or not one agrees with or likes the figures, The Barna Group has found that 87% of those who do not call themselves Christians perceive those who do as being judgmental. When I reinforce that perception with my behavior – especially toward other Christians – am I being winsome in spirit; attractive with the aroma of Christ in my life?

I don’t imagine that I have a reputation as a conservative Christian. But on this point, I am completely conservative. I take Jesus literally, at His word here. I think He means what He says. I believe His Spirit inspired Paul to write to Christians across Galatia: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (6:1). I think it’s possible that the temptation he’s talking about is not so much that a spiritual person will fall into the same sin as the one he/she is trying to restore, but to fall into completely different sins of pride, self-righteousness, anger and arrogant hypocrisy.

Being found guilty of that laundry list is not how I want to be judged. By others.

Nor by God.

Judge | Judge Not

One of my favorite performers is a multi-genre composer/singer/instrumentalist named Susan Werner. She’s ambivalent about church, but perceptive about faith. On her latest album – a foray into folk/gospel – she takes pulpit-pounders to task in the lyrics of Why Is Your Heaven So Small?:

You say you know; you say you’ve read
that Holy Bible up on the shelf.
Do you recall when Jesus said,
“Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself?”
For I know you’d damn me if you could,
but, my friend, it’s simply not your call.
If God is great and God is good,
why is your heaven so small?

I am awful about judging people. Awful about doing it. Awful in being qualified to do it. I can blame part of it on the “vote-’em-off-the-island” culture I’m in, but not completely. As Randy Harris is fond of saying, “We all think we’re right.” Too often, I think I’m righter than everyone else.

And more times than I like to remember, when I have tried (sometimes tactfully and lovingly; sometimes not) to remind someone of what Jesus said, I have been thoroughly trounced with all kinds of doctrine about the commands to correct the doctrinal heresies of others – even to the permissibility of being judicious, sarcastic and even insulting.

So let’s get to the bottom of it, shall we?

When should we judge and when should we abstain?

What should be the object of judging, and what should be the purpose for it?

What should we do with scriptures like Romans 14:10 and 1 Corinthians 5:12 which do not seem like they should fit in the same Bible, let alone flow from the same author’s pen?

I want to keep this brief rather than comprehensive, and I very much want to hear from you. So I’m going to bullet-point what I perceive about a few different scriptures – and I apologize that these are excerpts; I’ll let you be responsible for examining them in their respective contexts:

  • Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37 – “Don’t judge.” The unspoken word here is “others,” I believe. There are acts that we should judge; some we should condemn. Don’t judge others. We’re not qualified to determine their eternal destiny. Leave it to Someone who is.
  • Luke 12:57 – “Judge for yourselves what is right.” That’s an action, not a person; otherwise He would have said “who is right.” Right? Judge for yourselves – as a community, plural – not one for another; not one against another. This was spoken to a crowd, remember. The advice was to sort out disagreements without requiring the need for civil judging authority.
  • John 7:24 – “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” Jesus healed someone. It appeared that He was doing work on the Sabbath, and the conclusion was that He had therefore sinned. By healing someone, for goodness’ sake. How twisted and un-right was that judgment? In trying to judge Him, they ignored the significance of the act itself, which was righteous.
  • Acts 4:19 – “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (See comment directly before this bullet.)
  • Romans 14:1; also Colossians 2:16 – “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” There are disputable matters – matters of conscience. They cannot be limited to eating meats or celebrating holidays, for if logic were truly applied, matters of conscience would have to include any matter about which one strongly believes, but on which scripture is completely silent. On these matters we we are not to impose our beliefs on others as law, nor to judge them as if they could somehow violate our personal consciences!
  • 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.” Things, not people. And this is not a get-out-of-court-free verse. It simply says that the spiritual man recognizes that God judges him.
  • 1 Corinthians 4:3-6 Here Paul disdains the kind of judgment (favoritism) that Corinth was showing toward himself, Apollos and Christ. He reminds them not to judge before the appointed time, when “each will receive his praise from God.” And he adds, “Do not go beyond what is written,” so that they will not try to out-do each other in pride and side-taking. This is a question of judgment about who is better than whom – and it has no place in the family of Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 – Don’t miss the context of these verses: the whole chapter. We’re talking about grave, wicked sins within the church, committed with impenitent impunity: sexual immorality, greed, slander, idolatry, drunkenness, swindling. These are wicked acts. These verses are NOT about differences of opinion on how to win souls or worship God or when/how God is required to apply salvation. They are NOT about dining in the building, having a building, spending the church budget, having a paid full-time minister, or … you get the idea. But let’s get this right: neither a difference of opinion nor a conviction of conscience regarding a matter on which scripture is silent makes a person wicked in and of itself. Yet far too many have let their confidence in their conviction grow to arrogance and judgment of others that can result in their own destruction – and suck their target right down the same bitter hole. It’s how Satan works: Divide and conquer.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:2 – “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?” The phrase “will judge the world” is in future tense. Don’t jump the gun. The instruction here is the same that Jesus gave in Luke 12:57 – settle differences between brothers outside of civil court. Can it be any plainer?
  • 1 Corinthians 11:31-32 – “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” This is not talking about the judgment of favoritism (1 Corinthians 4:3-6), but of making self-assessments and looking after each other as well. Once again, “ourselves” is plural. We’re talking about the community of Christ. Jesus talked about how to look after each other’s souls many, many times (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-20; John 13:34-35; et al).
  • I Timothy 1:3 – “…command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer ….” And what were these false doctrines? Paul described them in the next verse as “myths and endless genealogies.” They were lies. Probably pre-Gnostic fables that some were trying to merge with the truth of Christ, diluting its power. They were not about the kind of things that so many folks have turned themselves inside-out (and scripture, too) in order to condemn as “false doctrine” – which, too frequently, is man’s doctrine and not God’s. Opinions, matters of conscience. Not scripture. Not the heart of Christ.
  • 1 Peter 2:1 – “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.” Not every difference of opinion is a heresy. Carousing in broad daylight – that’s heresy. Slandering celestial beings – that’s heresy. Denying the Lord – that’s heresy. A different style of worship; a different method of discipling; a different way of using material advantages to God’s glory – chances are good that these are not heresy. Do you see the difference in scale and size and scope? (See final remark in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 above.)
  • Galatians 5:12; Philippians 3:2; Matthew 23:33 – Sarcasm and insults had their place in the repertoire of God’s spokespersons who were dealing with those who directly opposed God, and did it in His name. Whether they were Pharisees insisting on the letter of the law devoid of its Spirit or sheep-in-wolves’-clothing among early Christians insisting on Jesus-plus-circumcision or Jesus-plus-secret-Gnostic-wisdom to be saved, Jesus and Paul let them have it – and so did others. If you can be as absolutely certain of your doctrinal perfection and personal piety and spiritual insight – and of the ultimate hypocrisy/moral depravity of your target – as they were, I say, let ‘er rip.

    Insult them and make snide comments about them and damn them to hell just as if you could.

    – But if you really want to reach souls, persuade hearts, turn sin-scorched people to God’s healing (as opposed to just changing their mind about your opinion or interpretation or item of conscience), maybe it’d be more productive to lovingly share a message of grace; a confession of having been seared by sin, too; an appeal to heart and soul as well as head and hands.

Otherwise, you may get bitten in the butt (as I have) by the lyrics of a Susan Werner song or two.