“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.1 “In his exercise of great Christian charity, he brought doctrine down to earth,” wrote his only biographer.2
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.”3 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.”4 Such judgment reveals ingratitude to God, for it “treats our brothers with strictness, and does not ponder the kindness with which God treats us.”5
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.”6 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.”7 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).8
Pictet is especially insightful, in ways filled with application for our current day, when he speaks of the devastating ripple effects of rash judgments: “It rarely happens that those who form rash judgments of their brothers stop there.”9 He observes that those who have prematurely condemned another person in their minds usually go on to do one or more of the following things:
- They open their mouths with indiscreet words, malicious gossip, and slander against the person they have judged.
- They allow themselves to become filled with hatred and suspicion toward those whom they are judging and condemning.
- They make it their mission to persuade others to share their opinion about their neighbor and often end up hating those who choose not to share their view.
- All these things greatly trouble society, cause massive disorder, lead to the oppression of the innocent, and result in irreconcilable hatred and sometimes bloody wars.10
It’s almost as if Pictet foresaw our own day with the grave ripple effects of rash judgments flowing out of our hearts through our social media feeds, into our political discourse, and eventually into our streets. Even our homes and congregations are not spared the consequences.
What is the remedy? Pictet writes to Christians, and indeed we must begin with ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31; 1 Peter 4:17). If Christians would avoid falling into the destructive sin of rash judgments, Pictet counsels us to do the following:
- Never condemn an action before taking the time to examine it, to curb the impetuosity of our minds in the clearest things, and to develop the habit of not rushing into the questionable things.
- Never condemn any action without first asking ourselves if we can envision any circumstances in which in which it would be a good action, and determining that those circumstances were not present in this instance.
- Be mindful of how often we find ourselves mistaken when we judge too harshly.
- Think much about the good qualities of our brothers rather than focusing on their faults.
- Never condemn on the mere basis of what someone has said, and always examine whether the person sharing something with us has a particular agenda —favorable or unfavorable—concerning the person about whom they are speaking.
- Be mindful that many people condemn the words and actions of others not out of particular malice but for the simple pleasure it brings them. 11
- Think often of that day when we will be judged, even as we judge (Matt. 7:2).
In addition to these, Pictet adds that we should be as restrained in our judgment of the dead as we are of the living, “for it happens often that we condemn those whom God has justified and whom he has even crowned. We must respect their ashes and their graves.”12
The tendency to rush to judgment lies so deep in our fallen nature, and enjoys such encouragement from our culture, that we cannot overcome it without falling to our knees to seek God’s help. Thus, Pictet ends his chapter “On Rash Judgments” with this prayer:
O God! Pardon me, if I have to often rashly judged my brothers, and keep me from falling back into this sin. Let me not be one who easily receives the unfavorable things someone tells me, but rather keeps them within limits, not taking as certain what is not certain, and listening favorably to those who aim to help me see the matter more fully and clearly. May I prefer judging myself to judging others and correcting my own faults to correcting those of my brothers. Above all, O God, make me to think of that day, when those who judge will be judged as they have judged others. Amen.13
- On Pictet’s theological influence on John Witherspoon, see Kevin DeYoung, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon: Calvinism, Evangelicalism, and the Scottish Enlightenment (Milton Park, England: Routledge, 2020). ↩︎
- Eugene de Budé, Vie de Benedict Pictet: Théologien Genevois, 1655, 1724 (Lausanne, Switzerland: Georges Bridel, 1874), 105. ↩︎
- Bénédict Pictet, Morale Chrétienne ou L’Art de Bien Vivre, 1710, Tome Second (Geneva: Éditions Pierre Th. Benoit, 2018), 86–93. ↩︎
- Pictet, 88–89. ↩︎
- Pictet, 89. ↩︎
- Pictet. ↩︎
- Pictet. ↩︎
- Pictet, 89–90. ↩︎
- Pictet, 89. ↩︎
- Pictet. ↩︎
- Pictet, 92. ↩︎
- Pictet, 93. ↩︎