Category Archives: Conscience

The Decisive Issue

Practice has made us perfect at evading the decisive issue in almost every decision we make, in every action we take, and in every word we say. The decisive question we must answer is not “How does this action make me appear to others?” It’s not “Do I feel strongly about what I am saying?” Nor is it “Can I find some justification for this decision?” It’s not even “Will this act accomplish something good or is this word true?”

The most important question for me at every point is this: “How does it stand between me and God?” “What is God’s judgment about me?” It’s not “How does it stand between my brother or sister or my enemy or this or that public figure and God?” It’s not “How does my group or nation or other groups and nations stand in relation to God?” I answer to God for what I am and do. You answer to God for what you are and do. And the moment I begin making judgments about how it stands between you and God, I have already begun evading the decisive issue in my life, which is God’s assessment of me.

Perhaps the most familiar and misused of Jesus’ sayings is found in Matthew 7:1-2:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

This saying is often misinterpreted to mean that since everyone is their own judge and gets to determine what is good and right for them, no one else has the right to make that determination. This interpretation is doubly wrong. First, we are not our own judges. Jesus does not forbid judging others because it violates others’ right judge their own case. God is the judge—everyone’s judge—and that is why Jesus forbids judging each other. To pretend to make a judgment only God’s has the right and knowledge to make and the power to enforce, is to place ourselves in God’s judgment seat. And no one who truly recognizes God as their judge can at the same time substitute their own judgment for God’s judgment.

There is a second problem with the popular misinterpretation of Jesus’ command not to judge. In verse 1, “to judge” means to pronounce a verdict on someone’s person. (This is obvious from what Jesus says in verse 2 about the measure or standard used. His warning assumes that in our judgments we usually hold others to a higher standard than the one to which we wish to be held.) Jesus speaks of a judgment about the ultimate disposition of an individual, a judgment that should take into account every factor that touches the case. That is to say, it is a judgment only God can make. It is not mere recognition that someone broke a law to which they were subject. Jesus does not deny that some actions are wrong for everyone or that we can know what those actions are and recognize when another person does them. You are not “judging” someone when you recognize or even inform them that they are breaking a law. It becomes a forbidden judgment only when you try to speak for God, as if you knew the “sinner” as well as God does or understood completely the extent of God’s mercy or depth of his justice.

How does it stand between me and God? This is the question I should remember when I am tempted to contrast other people’s weaknesses and sins to my strengths and good deeds and excellent motives. When I feel the urge to vent my anger or unleash a sarcastic or insulting word, remembering that God is my judge will give me pause. I don’t get to judge myself. Nor am I allowed to inflict the punishment of anger and insult and violence on others. When someone expresses a “stupid,” “benighted,” or “biased” opinion about religion, politics, or morality, if you must respond at all, respond with the consciousness that God alone knows the human heart, and that God alone determines how others stand before him. Be as merciful to others as you want God to be to you. When I think of Matthew 7:2, my friends, it scares me to death; for I need maximum mercy! Don’t we all?

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