When I was a young boy, I asked my parents about the biblical teaching not to judge others. I think that I was puzzled because I regularly observed plenty of judgment from people in the church. They had firm beliefs that particular actions were wrong, and they weren’t at all reluctant to pronounce the people who did these things guilty. My parents told me that the biblical text wasn’t about all kinds of judgment; it meant not to judge whether someone else was saved. I don’t know where they got their answer. Most likely, it was something they had heard from a pastor. But it strikes me now as not only obviously wrong, but the kind of interpretation that lets us off the hook with regard to the teaching in question.
To be clear, the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-2 does not say that judging is never permitted. It says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” So, rather than a prohibition on judging, what we are given sounds like a caution that tells us to refrain from judging others unless we are ready to have the same kind of judgment directed our way. To the general caution an example is added that illustrates a reason why we should be cautious. We tend to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye, but don’t notice the log in our own eye. In other words, we tend to be excessive in the faults we find in others, but less aware of or even oblivious to our own faults. In religious communities this tendency is often exacerbated by the assumption that the judgments we are making coincide with God’s judgments and that God is especially displeased with behaviors that people like us don’t engage in.
So, what should we do about our built-in biases? I think that the passage is best understood as a warning that our capacity for judgment easily gets out of control. In that sense it resembles the kind of warning Jesus gives about anger. The point is not to eliminate judgment; doing so would neither be realistically possible nor desirable. The problem with judging arises from the fact that we are too quick to find fault with others and too harsh in our judgments.
The remark about the speck and the log suggests a way that our tendency to find fault with others might be restrained. Typically, people are resistant to admitting their own faults. They are quick to come up with justifications, and they seek to construe their own acts in the most charitable light. What if we did the same with others? What if we looked for ways to think about how what seems wrong or blameworthy might appear less so if we took into account all the relevant considerations? What if we made a real effort to understand what was going on from the other person’s perspective? What if we were as willing to give the other person the benefit of the doubt as we typically are when it comes to our own actions?
If finding fault was not our default mode for dealing with others, our relations with them might go more smoothly. Generally, people don’t react well when we approach them with an accusing mentality. They dig in their heels and become defensive, and often they go on the offense, making their own accusations. Additionally, our fault-finding is often accompanied by an implied superiority that the other person finds obnoxious. When we set ourselves up to make judgments on another person, we are typically presuming that we can occupy a perspective in which their fault is clear-cut and our judgments are motivated by the desire to set things right. Often, however, our motives are more mixed. We may be trying to claim the moral high ground for ourselves and to put the other person down a peg. Or we may be trying to strike a blow that we know will hurt the other person.
As a result, our tendency to assume the role of judge over another often gets in the way of more fruitful relationships. Learning to temper our tendency to judge by reminding ourselves of our own fallibility, our own failures, and our own capacity for self-righteousness can help us to avoid judgments that are unnecessary or unhelpful or insensitive. Learning to empathize with the other person’s situation can make us less willing to jump in with criticisms. Restraining the urge to judge can be a first step toward behaving in a more loving way.
But it doesn’t follow that we should never judge acts wrong or judge people blameworthy. Even if we have learned to question our own tendency to excessive judgment and to restrain it, sometimes we should call out wrongdoing. But in cases where it is appropriate to pronounce judgment, another teaching of Jesus is often relevant. He taught that when someone else has wronged you the response of those who follow him should be forgiveness. Forgiving another person actually presupposes that you have judged that person to have done wrong.
We shouldn’t confuse forgiveness with papering over the misdeed or pretending that it didn’t happen, and forgiving another doesn’t require that you give that person a free pass to continue to abuse you or someone else. But it does involve letting go of the urge to hurt the one who has wronged you and genuinely seeking that person’s good. I don’t want to pretend that either restraining our fault-finding or taking a forgiving attitude is easy. But both are part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
For a fuller discussion of this issue see chapter 17 (Learning to Love) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.