Reflections on James 4:11-12 —
There is a healthy context in which we should judge others. Years ago, I managed a group of engineers. In that role, I facilitated annual performance reviews, hired new employees, and matched my staff members to different assignments. I had to be a good judge of character–listening carefully, watching body language, finding out what motivated people, discovering what made them tick. I had to monitor and scrutinize their performance, looking for things to praise or correct. I want my kids to be good judges of character as well. I want them to be friends with everyone, but only be best friends with those who have good morals. As Paul says, “bad company corrupts good morals.” (1).
In Bible times, when a successful business woman named Lydia became a Christian, she invited Paul & Silas and their companions to stay with her family “…if they judged her faithful…” (2). We know that Paul & Silas did indeed judge her faithful, for they accepted her invitation. They could tell from her disposition that she was a changed woman, sincere in her belief. After all, Jesus had said “you will know them by their fruits…” (3).
But there is also an unhealthy context for judgment. When our judgment of others takes on an air of contempt, it has crossed the line into sin, and a terrible sin it is. To treat someone with contempt is to dishonor, devalue, or dismiss them as good-for-nothing. It’s putting someone in their place–maybe out of revenge or just a desperate attempt at self-validation. It’s expecting others to think like us, and mocking them when they think differently. The irony is, we prefer to inspect others for faults when we’re more often the ones that need inspecting (4), and we tend to find faults in others that we commonly do ourselves (5).
I’ll admit–I’m fluent in judgment. I don’t even have to think about. It just comes naturally. I am quick to pass judgment on people whenever they look, act, or think differently from me. If I just notice the differences, no harm is done. I cross the line when I label those differences as wrong and pat myself on the back for being right.
When we judge with contempt, we become like the Pharisee who based his moral uprightness on the moral failures of those around him (6). We shrug off such behavior, but Jesus told us that when we call our brother a “good-for-nothing” or a “fool” we are guilty of a serious crime (7). Judgment is an ugly, lethal sin common among believers. It is a silent killer in the church, able to wreak havoc among members, pollute our Christian service, and offend the God of Heaven. James and Paul, authors and founders of the early church, saw fit to dedicate attention to combating judgmental thinking. It should not be taken lightly.
James on Judgment
Judgment was a problem as far back as the first century A.D., when the fledgling church was still feeling its way around, trying to get used to the idea that Jews and Gentiles could actually function together. James, the author of the book and head elder of the church, had ruled earlier that Gentile believers are not required to follow Jewish traditions to be part of God’s believing family. They could “come as they are” (8). This created all kinds of opportunities for judgment, as two very different ways of thinking were suddenly thrown together. People united by changed hearts and new purpose, but with very different backgrounds, were expected to accept each other, love each other, and work together.
James deals with the problems of partiality, malicious gossip, selfish ambition, and fleshly living in the first chapters of his letter. Then, in a brief and pointed statement, warns the young church of the dangers of judgment:
“Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12)
James says that when we judge, we place ourselves above the greatest commandment of all and assume a moral position on equal with God. The language is subtle, but the implications are enormous–the quiet sin of judgment is perhaps more offensive to God than murder, for it is obstinate and presumptuous at the same time.
You’re Not Above the Law
When we judge a Christian brother or sister with contempt, James says we “speak against and judge the law”. What law is he talking about? Clearly, it is the “royal law” (9), the law given by Jesus, the King of Kings: “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is a law to be followed without question, without condition. We don’t really get a say in the matter. Yet a contemptuous person believes he has the right to discard this law in certain cases, and excuses himself from loving certain individuals.
Do we really get to choose who to love and who to not love? Are some in our congregations worthy of our contempt? James says “no”. God has placed each member in the body exactly as He desired (31), so inherently, every brother, every sister we interact with unconditionally deserves honor, deserves love. This includes bosses, elderly widows, parents, rulers, spouses, and pretty much everyone else (32). In a world that is enamored with glamour and success, we lose sight of this. We dishonor and dismiss people who do not measure up, who do not look and act they way we think they should, rather than give people the honor they deserve.
To treat a believer with contempt is like saying, “yes, Jesus, I know you said to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ but this person clearly needs to be put in their place before I can love them. They need to see the correctness of my way of doing things, to be enlightened. Then, the loving part will come more naturally for me.” This is not how love works. Love, at its core, involves unconditional acceptance of others, even when they think differently from me. Paul reminds us to accept believers who think differently from us because they have already been accepted by God (10). If they’re good enough for God, certainly they should be good enough for you.
James’ letter teaches us that God purposely places us in close proximity to all kinds of people, giving us many opportunities to perfect our love and use words carefully. Marriage is a sacred proving ground of love, for nowhere else is there better application of the principle that we are to honor people simply because they are worthy of honor. Nowhere else will you be exposed to someone who thinks differently. Nowhere else is good communication so difficult. Marriage breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds contempt. So we have to work at love, not put ourselves above it.
James says we are not to “speak against or judge” our brothers. Our words reflect our thoughts. When we hold someone in contempt in our heart, it is obvious in our conversation. Words are powerful, yet we are so casual in our word choice. We love to complain, to put people in their place with cutting words. We think nothing of it, but in the Lord’s mind, speaking against a brother is a weighty sin (7):
“…whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
Jesus made this statement in His argument that proper treatment of others is more important to God than religious service. His point–if you want to be religious, start by honoring and loving people. The church is starving for kind words spoken from loving hearts. We need people who carefully choose wholesome words (11), timing them to drop into place like “apples of gold in settings of silver” (12). Only a heart yielded to the Spirit can be changed into a loving heart that produces good words, the kind of words that pay dividends we cannot see (13).
Only God Sees the Heart
James says “there is only One Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and destroy.” Here’s a hint–that’s not you. The church has lost its edge when it comes to fearing God. We elevate mankind, preach motivational sermons to move people to action, overemphasize practical application and understate the essential work of the Spirit. This fosters an attitude of independence, views life from our vantage point here on earth, makes us believe we are capable we can do things that were only meant for God. Judgment is one of them.
Like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14, we judge people using the only information we have available–the sensual things, things we can see, hear, feel, touch, or smell. We compare how we talk, dress, react. We compare our gait, posture, odor, and appearance. We compare jobs, habits, and lifestyles. We notice what others value, what they disdain, what they embrace, and what they avoid. We notice what others eat, how much they exercise, how they celebrate holidays, how close their family is. We notice how often they attend church, and which family members don’t attend. We judge people based on these things even though this limited information only scratches the surface. Facebook and Instagram give more personal insight on individuals than we’ve ever had, but even that valuable information falls short. We simply don’t have enough evidence to reach a verdict. But that doesn’t keep us from trying.
When God wanted to select a king for Israel, He went to the home of Jesse. Jesse had seven sons, and he lined them up from eldest to youngest. Except he left the youngest out in the pasture tending sheep. When Jesse surveyed his boys, he quickly assumed the oldest and best looking of the lot were qualified for leadership. But that’s not what God had in mind. He murmured,
”God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” –I Samuel 16:7
God dismissed the eldest sons and had Jesse fetch the absent shepherd boy, for he was the one God wanted.
Never overestimate your ability to judge people. You have no insight in and of yourself. Fear God. Consider the facts He states about Himself:
- God owns souls (14)
- God knows hearts (15)
- God knows how each one of us was put together in the womb (16)
- God is intimately familiar with our habits, routines, and thoughts (17)
- God’s piercing gaze penetrates souls, uncovering hidden motives (18)
- God saves and destroys souls (19)
You cannot possibly hope to know a person well enough to judge them accurately or fairly. When James says “who are you to judge your neighbor?” he is putting it nicely. What he really means is that it is incomprehensibly naive and vain for you to presume you have sufficient insight to condemn others.
Everyone has a Row to Hoe
As an Iowa boy, I used to “walk beans” to earn money. Walking beans simply means you walk up and down rows of soybeans with a hoe and hack out any weed you see. When I think of life, I think of it as our “row to hoe”. Your row may be filled with buttonweeds while others’ are relatively clean. You may have to hack and cut your way through, be completely exhausted half-way along the length of your row while others are leisurely progressing along two hundred yards ahead. That doesn’t make them better bean walkers than you. There may be a few hoeing techniques you can learn so you can be more effective at cutting weeds, but beyond that, it comes down to the row you’re assigned.
It is the same with faith. God has purposely placed you in your own unique “row” in life–your body, health, family upbringing, spouse, kids,, job, location…all of it is intentional, not random (20). Your row is your personal proving ground. Each person is struggling through the life God has placed before them to varying degrees. Some may be falling behind, fighting foes that were altogether absent for you. Some may be learning lessons that you had to learn long ago. More likely, they are going through challenges you can’t even contemplate. Keep this little metaphor in mind, for it will curb your contempt for others. It will help you not judge a person so quickly and so harshly when they don’t act the way you think they should. Paul told the Corinthians there are a variety of gifts, ministries, and effects (21). Those people you are judging could just have different gifts than you. They could have a different calling than you. They may not be leading thousands to Christ like you, yet even so, if they’re walking with Christ they’re accomplishing the things He wants.
Don’t be too arrogant to believe you have all the answers, that one-size-fits-all (and that one size is yours). Don’t convince yourself that if everyone just did what you do, they’d be fine. What works for you may not work for others. Even if it did, those souls are not accountable to you, but to God. As Paul says (22),
“…who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands and falls, and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand”
In this verse, Paul reminds us that “God’s got this”. God knows the needs of every individual, and He has unique plans for every individual. He is fully capable and prepared to help them. When we judge, we are too focused on how good our methods are and not focused enough on how to help the other person.The poor soul struggling through life doesn’t need your methods, he needs your mercy (23), and he needs you to fit into God’s plan for “making him stand.”.
Here’s a word to the church: Don’t try to make everyone dynamic evangelists. People who don’t fit that mold are too easily dismissed, especially people who seem to be struggling. Those struggles are God’s proving ground. People going through them are to be honored, not dismissed, so hold them in high regard. Those experiences may be refining their gifts to a level that you can never hope to attain. The best churches are the ones who seek out people’s gifts and put them to work.
Close with Jesus (Convinced and Happy)
The flip side of all of this is that it is possible to feel judged by others. Sometimes, criticism is merited. We all have blind spots that only a friend can reveal. But other times, we can be on the receiving end of unjust judgment. The world is full of people who measure others by their standards–standards that are inflexible, unrealistic, even flawed. When the disciples were in the grainfields picking heads of wheat on a Sabbath (24), the Pharisees called them out…they were breaking the Sabbath! At first, they must have been dismayed and their being discovered. But that dismay quickly turned into joy when Jesus stood up for them . I imagine they looked at each other, smiled, turned back to the Pharisees and said, “we’re with Him!”.
When we find ourselves on the receiving end of judgment, do a little self-assessment like Paul suggests (25). Be convinced in your own mind that the things you approve are sound (26). First of all, ask yourself, is the abiding presence of Christ your righteousness in this moment? If you’re just following Him with a clear conscience like the disciples in that grainfield, you’ve probably nothing to worry about. Or else, you can apply the “I Corinthians 6-8-10” principle someone once taught me, and ask yourself these questions:
- Are your decisions profitable for you in the long run (27)?
- Are your actions considerate of others (28)?
- Are your actions honoring to God (29)?
If your conscience bugs you a little when you think about these, if you sense a bit of doubt in your spirit, perhaps you should stop and reconsider what you’re doing. But if you can positively answer these questions, be convinced, and rest assured. You’re on the right track. Go ahead and pick those grains of wheat on the Sabbath with confidence–you’re with Him! As Paul says, “happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (30).
Judgment is a silent killer. It is common. It is presumptuous. Let’s not cross the line into contempt. That’s not our place, and we are not above the law of our King of Kings. Let us not be a church that judges people based on external appearance, on a narrow way of thinking. Let God do the judging. He’s pretty good at that. Instead, let us submit ourselves to loving our neighbor as ourself and in so doing, put to death the silent killer.
- I Corinthians 15:33
- Acts 16:15
- Matthew 7:16
- Matthew 7:3
- Romans 2:1
- Luke 18:9-14
- Matthew 5:22
- Acts 15:19
- James 2:8
- Romans 14:3
- Ephesians 4:29
- Proverbs 25:11
- Matthew 12:33-37
- Ezekiel 18:4
- Acts 15:8
- Psalm 139:13
- Psalm 119:1-3
- Hebrews 4:12-13
- Luke 12:4-5
- Acts 17:26
- I Corinthians 12:4-6
- Romans 14:4
- James 2:13
- Matthew 12:1-8
- I Corinthians 11:28, II Corinthians 13:5, Galatians 6:4
- Romans 14:5,16
- I Corinthians 6:12-20
- I Corinthians 8:1-13
- I Corinthians 10:23
- Romans 14:22-23
- I Corinthians 12:18
- I Timothy 5:3,17; 6:1; Ephesians 6:2; Matthew 15:4; I Peter 2:17, 3:7