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There are few topics relating to the Christian life that seem to elicit more self-doubt, tension, and anxiety than personal judgment and discernment. It’s a never-ending internal struggle that only seems to become more and more complicated. We constantly go back and forth in our minds over what it looks like to speak the truth in love. We desire to love others well, to be compassionate, and to be an example of Christlike humility and gentleness. At the same time, we know that we are called to be uncompromising and steadfast in our dedication to pursuing righteousness and proclaiming the truth of God and His Word. We know that this often means that we need to say hard things both to those to whom we are closest and to complete strangers. Each of these situations is incredibly difficult in its own unique ways.
You probably know this feeling well. One of the places I personally wrestled with this tension on a consistent basis was when I lived in central Florida and had the opportunity to serve every week alongside John Barros in his ministry out in front of the Orlando Women’s Center, a local abortion clinic. Every week I would see men and women of all ages—husbands, boyfriends, friends, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers—escorting young women into this clinic to see to the murder and disposal of the child they were carrying.
You can see it on each and every one of the faces of those who enter—pain, confusion, bitterness, anger. You strive to minister to them by acknowledging the desperation they must be feeling and offering them help in specific ways, while at the same time unequivocally calling them to see the wickedness of what they are about to do and to repent of it and preserve the life of their child. As we pleaded from the sidewalk, by far the most common response we received was this: “Why are you being so judgmental? You don’t know me. Only God can judge me.”
No matter how many times I heard that rebuttal and simply wanted to write it off as the defensive avoidance of an individual who was spiritually calloused, the words still stung. They stung because, as a Christian, I do not want to be seen by a watching world as someone who is judgmental. Those words also stung because as much as I might strive to push back against it, I still live in a cultural milieu that has impressed on me from early on that empathy and tolerance are prime virtues, and therefore it is insensitive or judgmental to speak words of conviction or challenge that would in any way cause hurt feelings or urge someone toward conformity to anything besides their own experience.
So, in a world of moral ambiguity, how can a Christian know, fully and confidently, how to properly live out the words of Jesus in John 7:24, where He says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment”? What does Jesus mean by “right judgment,” and how does He expect His hearers to apply it?
As we strive to answer these questions, the context of Jesus’ teaching is helpful. In John 7, Jesus is teaching openly in the temple during the Feast of Booths, and the Jews who hear Him marvel at how someone who has never studied could possess such learning. Jesus responds in verses 16–18:
“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.”
Jesus sets the terms for discussion here by specifically defining what is necessary for these Jews to be able to make a right judgment of Him and His teaching. In essence, He puts the following question to them: “Is your desire the glory of God or your own glory?” Jesus’ life and ministry radiantly demonstrated Him as One whose deepest desire was to do the will and seek the glory of His Father who had sent Him—to do righteously, to counsel wisely, and to speak the truth of God at all times. Truly, in Jesus there was no falsehood, which was clear to all those who had eyes to see.
But as the rest of the chapter demonstrates, Jesus’ opponents revealed the true intentions of their hearts as merely seeking their own glory, for they attempted to discredit Jesus according to what He appeared to be to them. These men exposed themselves as truly judgmental and hypocritical because they sought to gain honor for themselves by seeking to discredit and malign Jesus. They spoke on their own authority and sought their own glory and thus discredited themselves from judging with right judgment. They fell into judgmentalism.
The same call to self-examination is extended to us. Is my desire to see the name of God glorified? Am I being sanctified by the Spirit of Christ to grow in humility and dependence on Him as I am instructed by His Word and Spirit to grow in knowledge and commitment to truth and grace? If not, I may be a judgmental person, seeking my own glory as I judge others while reclaiming glory for myself. But if I am truly dependent on the Lord Jesus and am seeking first His kingdom, then I must stand firm, love with the love of Christ, and know that my discernment is right, because it is dependent on the Lord Himself.