Why judging another’s motives is wrong

You’ve been waiting all year for this. Admit it. It’s the July 4th weekend, and you’re headed for your favorite chili cook-off. You can already feel your taste-buds tingling. You see all the familiar faces lined up at the tables. But as you near the sample locations you don’t smell anything. As you look into the crock pots you don’t see anything. As the spoon goes to your mouth you don’t taste anything.

You head to the judge’s table to report the problem you’re having. They inform you that this year things are being done a bit differently. They have planned an invisible chili cook-off. You will need to judge what you can’t see, taste or smell.  

“I can’t do that,” you say. “I can’t judge the invisible. I need some empirical evidence.”

The coordinator looks at you confused. “Every day you judge the invisible,” she says,  “You’re quite good at it. Just use your imagination like you usually do.”

Motivations. Unspoken intentions. Why a person does what they do. All of these elements are invisible to you and to me, but we don’t have any problem judging them in another’s life—even if we have to use our imagination to do so. We don’t really think about it that way; because we’re convinced that we know this person well. Our picture of the things we can see is so complete that we assume we are the best judge of the things we can’t see.

I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged” (Matt. 7:1). You and I can’t judge the heart the person. Unless they tell you what they’re thinking, don’t assume you can tell them. Such judgment reveals one’s arrogance. Only God knows the heart (Jer. 17:9; 1 Sam. 16:7).

That is why the apostle Paul didn’t take it too personally when others were judgmental of him.  Hear the humility he offers in his defense. He admits he doesn’t really know his own motives that well, and this makes him pretty certain that no human evaluator does either.

As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. 4 My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. 5 So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due (1 Corinthians 4:5 NLT).

So if you wouldn’t feel comfortable judging an invisible chili cook off, maybe you should be a bit more cautious rushing to judgment on another’s unspoken motives and invisible intentions.

Taking off the judge’s robe…

The question “Has anyone ever felt judged by another?” resonates with nearly all of us. Perhaps that’s why most people are fond of quoting Jesus’ words: Judge not, that you be not judged (Matt. 7:1). We don’t want others to judge us, but we still want to maintain our own thoughts about others.

Jesus is not giving a blanketed statement that communicates we must tolerate theological error. Nor is he saying that we ought never to get involved in the life of another who is choosing sin.  Jesus’ statement about not judging has parameters. It is not all-inclusive. Consider, for instance, that we are told to judge the difference between truth and error (1 John 4:1), or that we are asked to judge a brother who is in rebellious, unrepentant sin in order that he may be restored to God (1 Cor. 6:5).

The verses that surround Jesus’ statement about judging help us understand what Jesus meant.

Judge not, that you be not judged . . . 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? 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? 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 (Matt. 7:1, 3-5).

Jesus wants us to understand this truth: We are forbidden to judge another without first evaluating our own sin.

In Luke 17 Jesus speaks about rebuking and restoring a brother, but he gives this advice with a strong warning: pay attention to yourself (Luke 17:3a)
Other translations capture it this way:

So watch yourselves! (New Living Translation).
Be on your guard! (New American Standard)
Take heed to yourselves (New King James Version)
Pay attention to yourselves! (English Standard Version)
Be concerned about yourselves! (Lexham English Bible)

No matter the translation, the message is clear. You better take a good look at your own heart before you begin to evaluate another person. Be on your guard. Make sure that repentance isn’t necessary on your part.

Perhaps such introspection would change how we address a conflict. What if, before you ever addressed another, you spent some time in personal reflection considering your part in the conflict? How might that change the outcome of the conversation?

What if we actually pulled the plank from our own eye, before we tried to help another with the speck of dirt they have in theirs?

Only when we’ve taken a good hard look at our own propensities to do wrong will we come to another with the humility necessary to move them along towards restoration. If we are unwilling to receive the Spirit’s correction, but we expect another to receive our correction, the Scripture calls us a hypocrite. A title that is well deserved (Matt. 7:5).