“Things are rarely as they first appear.”
“Avoid a knee-jerk reaction.”
“One side seems right, until you hear the other side.”
“Don’t draw a conclusion before you’ve gathered all the facts.”
“Everyone deserves a fair hearing.”
These sayings, and many more like them, are older than we are. Several can be traced back to the Bible (cf. Prov. 18:19; James 1:19). But have we lost our appreciation for the wisdom they commend?
Today, cable news keeps us glued with a steady stream of “instant reactions.” On social media, first impressions in the morning become hashtag dogmas by that afternoon. Customers rate restaurants and businesses in the heat of the moment rather than after they’ve had time to reflect on their experience. Even churches are not spared, as people increasingly rate established congregations after just one visit.
If it is a universal condition of fallen human beings to rush to judgment, our generation differs from others in that what they cautioned against, we encourage and condone. But where does this lead us as a society? And how can we, as Christians, guard ourselves from this tendency for the good of our souls, our communities, and the glory of God?
Here we find some pearls of Reformed wisdom in the voice of Bénédict Pictet (1655–1724), the once renowned theologian in Geneva who you’ve probably never heard of (in part because he had the unenviable role of standing as the last of the Genevan theologians after Calvin adhering to the legacy of the Reformers). From the waning light of Geneva, Pictet wrote not only renowned works of theology that influenced the likes of John Witherspoon, but a number of moral treatises as well. “In his exercise of great Christian charity, he brought doctrine down to earth,” wrote his only biographer.
Pictet’s major moral treatise, La morale chrétienne ou l’art de bien bivre (Christian Morality or the Art of Living Well), features an insightful chapter with the title “On Rash Judgments.” By “rash judgments,” Pictet means hasty, ill-formed, and uncharitable conclusions drawn about other people. Rash judgments take many forms (Pictet lists fifteen!), but all share these two features: they fail to take the time needed—whether intentionally or unintentionally—to see the whole picture, and they lack love toward the person concerned.
This raises the question: Why are we so prone to make rash judgments? Pictet highlights several reasons. In some cases, we may be genuinely ignorant of the facts needed for us to make a sound judgment. In other cases, we have allowed ourselves to become so fed up with the person that we no longer give him the benefit of the doubt. Other times, we flatter our pride by enjoying the sense of superiority that comes from finding fault in others. In some cases, a secret envy drives us to judge those whose lives we wish we had. Last, a guilty conscience can lead us to attempt to assuage ourselves with the thought that however bad we may be, others are still worse. All these conditions are ripe for the forming of ill-founded and uncharitable judgments.
Pictet then leads us to consider how greatly we sin when we form rash judgments—sinning against God and others. We sin against God, for we “arrogate to ourselves an authority which neither the Lord nor men have given us . . . placing ourselves on His throne, desiring to know the hearts of men, to anticipate His judgment, and to determine the degree of fault, which only He can do.” Such judgment reveals ingratitude to God, for it “treats our brothers with strictness, and does not ponder the kindness with which God treats us.”
Moreover, we sin against our fellows in numerous ways. When we judge rashly, “we take from our neighbor a thing more precious to them than life, which is innocence.” Additionally, we “judge and condemn them without knowing the facts, and always without understanding them.” Such hasty judgments “most often condemn those who are innocent, and exaggerate the faults of the guilty.” In the end, they “erode little by little, and eventually ruin, the love that we must have for the one we condemn. The more we judge him guilty, the less disposed we are to love him.” One cannot square rash judgments with love, which “believes all things, hopes all things, bears all things, which covers a multitude of sins” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:7; 1 Peter 4:8).