O Lord, Open My Lips and My Eyes
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
Judge not, that you be not judged. Matthew 7:1-5
While this word of Our Lord, often used as a theological sound bite, sounds prudent practice for all people—why take your sharpened ax to swing with a menacing spirit at your neighbor’s trunk—with these words in this context the Holy Spirit offers no generic moral advice. (But we will not deny that the words may be used in other contexts.) Our Lord speaks to specific circumstances that His disciples face, for He describes the situation as between brothers, a common term for those in the fellowship of Christ Jesus.
First, in His “Sermon on the Mount” the Lord instructs us regarding life in His kingdom, the divine reign of grace and not a rule by a righteousness of man. So the Lord of the Church is not teaching His people to be naive and gullible in the world; nowhere does the Holy Spirit instruct us to believe whatever we hear and read from whatever source; for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge and not a spirit of ignorance. The Lord has granted to us the Spirit in order to discern whether the fruit (doctrine) offered to us is good or bad—we should not eat whatever is served on a homiletical or didactical plate. St. John the Evangelist and Apostle sets forth similar counsel: test the spirits (1 John 4). What our Lord forbids is a spirit of condemnation, a mouth that despises another Christian for not following the practices by which one presumes a righteousness, and a heart that shows contempt for others for not attaining to the level of our righteousness in our practices. When we eye each other, does the look become a stare to find fault or the friendly gaze of a brother who serves? Shall we be disciples with an arrogant spirit, blind to personal faults, yet willing to pass judgment on fellow disciples or willing to reject them? By no means.
Consider the context. Jesus is warning us about imitating the practice of the Pharisees, who by their public prayer and trumpeted offerings elevated their practices to the standard of righteousness and scoffed at the lack of those practices among others as unrighteousness. Such a spirit of condemnation, proceeding from a righteousness derived and sustained by works (whether defined by God or by man), boasts of superiority and parades snobbery: “If any one would be righteous, let him take up my works and follow me. For though my yoke is heavy, by carrying it you can attain my righteousness. For I proud of heart am qualified to judge your spirituality and I will inform you when fail to hit my mark.” That spirit demands a righteousness produced by external imposition of rules and mandates. One might call this a weaponizing of personal practices and virtues. Christians must not exercise a spirit of condemnation against one another because it usurps God’s prerogative. The examination of the lives of other Christians for the purpose of judging them must not be our preoccupation. We must not ordain ourselves to the position of judge. Am I God’s tool for His judgment now?
We do not judge so that we are not judged … avoiding judging another in order to avoid a judgment rendered against us … as if the fewer times we judge, the less severe we will be judged. Rather we do not judge with the result that we will not be judged. To wield the measure for judgment against others means that we are able to wield the measure as God Himself does, perfectly and without prejudice. Hear this word of the Scriptures: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, He who is able to save and to destroy” (James 4:11,12). Only our Father’s understanding is complete, for we cannot see the heart from which the act and word have flowed. God alone can judge a man, peeling him open and leaving him exposed (Hebrews 4) because He alone is holy and cannot be bribed or dissuaded of His righteousness. To some His ways, when He delves into the recesses of a person’s heart, are judgmental (2 Samuel 22:26,27). Should we examine all things through a lens of righteousness that we have ground for ourselves, and demand others see through our prescription? Might it be that we tolerate our own sins but act harshly (judge) toward others? Such a posture emphasizes our own righteousness at the expense of another’s reputation.
In order to draw attention to the absurdity of man’s ability to discern and then to condemn Jesus employs hyperbole (see also other examples of hyperbole in His radical call to repentance in Matthew 5:29,30 and the incomprehensible debt of the servant to the master in Matthew 18:23). Jesus fabulizes a memorable image, decrying the utterly ridiculous premise of one Christian presuming to judge with an arrogant spirit: how would it even be possible to put a roof beam in your eye? How ridiculous; that cannot be done! But if it could … would you have even a chance of being able to see? No way! Then why even presume to look for splinter or speck?
Repent … acknowledge your own blindness and confess that you can only see by the light of the Scriptures, and that the fellow Christian can only see by the light of the same Scriptures. Paul’s words to the Galatians are suitable for us: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual [the Galatian context suggests that some were presuming that they were truly “spiritual” above others in the congregation] should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. [how is your eyesight according to the Scriptures?] Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. [the arrogance of spirit of condemnation] But let each one test his own work [get rid of the plank!], and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:1-5, comments added)
And if we judge harshly, then have we assumed that God acts in the same way or should act in the same way toward us? See Matthew 25:24-30. But those who see the Father for who He is, merciful, are led by His Spirit as His children to be merciful; and they shall as His children receive mercy. Mercy bestowed does not earn God’s mercy; mercy revealed exemplifies the faith in the mercy of God at the judgment.
Shall we criticize or reject another Christian while being blind to our own falling short? By no means. And on the other hand, this does not mean that whenever we do recognize our shortcomings, then we are permitted to investigate and judge harshly the lives of others. If I do not realize that I have sinned and have many faults, can I approach another, to admonish and to call to repentance? No, because I have placed myself under law and live not under grace. Sinners who live by mercy thus show mercy, looking for vindication from the Lord at the last day. If any one were to live by the law, that one would flirt with disaster; usurping God’s throne of judgment will be condemned at the last day. Thus a Christian, speaking the truth with love, may admonish and rebuke and correct now in the spirit of mercy, a kindness leading to repentance. If God has decided to wait for the judgment - His kindness leads to repentance - should we not also exercise the same patience and carry the Christian that is weak (Galatians 5-6)? Let us put the best construction on what we know for much may be hidden from us.
Our Lord is not forbidding a negative opinion; He is not asking that we reject critical thinking regarding doctrine. Since we are to “beware of false prophets” (Matthew 7:15), then we must determine who such teachers are and what their fruit is. And taught by the Scriptures, we must take a decisive stand on doctrinal and moral issues (1 Corinthians 5:4,5; 2 John 8-11). And it is not wrong to correct other Christians in error (Matthew 18:15ff.; Galatians 2:11ff.), for the Scriptures have that purpose (2 Timothy 3:16)—yet not with the intent to destroy but to call to repent that the false may be cut away and true growth occur. As iron sharpens iron, faithful wise friends sharpen each other (Proverbs 27:7,17).
Thus recognizing our limited understanding of another’s life, knowing that the other is frail and faith can be injured, and living under the mercy of God, we are quick to listen and slow to speak. and especially reticent and slow to rebuke and correct, approaching with humility and love.