The stages of "Judge Not"
I've been thinking recently about the evolution of my faith, especially focusing on Jesus' famous instruction to "Judge Not:"
“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.
Matthew 7:1 (NIV)
Reflecting on the stages of my journey I observe four different phases of my understanding of this verse:
Phase 1: First naiveté
Being raised in the faith, I first encountered scripture in a context which made it normative. I was encouraged to accept the perspective and interpretation I was raised in, to the extent that I could hardly name that perspective because it was all encompassing. So my first encounter with "Do not judge" left me taking Jesus at his word - I shouldn't judge others. And this teaching, at least in theory, was promoted by my faith community. Seems simple enough - don't judge anyone!
Phase 2: Cognitive dissonance
As I learned more Scripture, I continued on in my learned faith tradition of "reading plainly." This naturally began to encode certain parts of scripture as 'sound bites' in my mind, devoid of context. According to my faith tradition, it was valid to 'prooftext,' that is, to take a particular verse or two and lay them out to someone and say "this is true, the Bible says so." And that's largely the position I adopted in regards to Matthew 7:1 - the Bible says "do not judge."Then I encountered 1 Corinthians 5.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
1 Corinthians 5:12-13 (NIV)
Devoid of context and taken on their own, these two verses seem contradictory. Jesus didn't provide a caveat of "don't just outsiders," he said, "don't judge." Yet Paul seems to think it's obvious we should judge our brothers and sisters.
No one else seemed to acknowledge the tension in my church at the time, and without someone to demonstrate how to resolve this contradiction to me, I began to simply live with the cognitive dissonance. Depending on the situation, the answer might be "don't judge them" from Matthew 7, or "we can judge them" from 1 Corinthians 5. Most of the time it suited the preferences of the person who either wanted to judge or didn't want to be judged themselves. I have noticed this sort of ambiguity is common, which makes me inclined to believe a lot of Christians are living in this dissonance.
Phase 3: Addressing the contradiction
As my faith grew and my world expanded, I began finding examples of others really wrestling with Scripture and engaging with the tensions it contains. By listening to these people and learning from them, I reached a point where I could go back and dig further into the question of judgment.It started with noticing exactly what Jesus was saying. I finally recognized the importance of the context to the soundbite "Do not judge." The critical or, as in or you too will be judged, fell into place - it was not so much that I could not judge, I thought, but that I shouldn't judge anyone by any standard I was not ready to accept for myself. I cannot be a hypocrite; I cannot give myself preferential treatment.
This recognition started to unlock meaning in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Now it began to make sense why Jesus expands the moral definition of murder to include hatred, or adultery to include lust. Now I began to read his statement as saying, "If you condemn someone for murder and you have hatred in your heart, you are also condemning yourself." We must be careful about judgment, because the measures we use extend further than we realize.And this begins to bring some light to Paul's stance as he judged the Corinthian church. By his own self-measure, perhaps he considered that he would not be condemned by the judgment he was declaring on the "sexually immoral, the greedy, the idolaters, the slanderers, the drunkards" who claimed to also be Christians. I can imagine his mindset being that if he was practicing such things and claimed Christ, he would want to be likewise rejected.
However, I have to say, it's still a pretty bold thing for Paul to put forward, in light of Jesus' teaching. Yet I can't say I disagree with his reasons for making the judgment, with the state of the Corinthian church according to his letter. It's a practical response.There's still tension in this phase. Jesus lays out a life-changing moral ideal which emphasizes careful self-reflection and a recognition of the connectedness of our hearts and actions. Paul points out what he believes is a practical example of when we should nevertheless attempt to navigate the dangerous waters of judgment.
Phase 4: Second naiveté
The fourth phase is one I haven't truly reached, but which I have seen exemplified in the wisdom of Saints and Mystics of Christian history. It comes full circle back to "Judge not."
The mindset, as far as I can understand it, is one of absolute humility. It is an internalization of the deeper meaning of "hatred is murder" and "lust is adultery;" a recognition that the roots of sin run deep within us and any condemnation risks our own spiritual jeopardy. I'm only scratching the surface at this moment, but I see in it a certain spiritual simplicity which often, as Paul says, appears to the 'wise' as foolishness. It is the simplicity of taking Jesus at his word and saying, "If I do not judge, I will be safe from judgment." It is rooted in a deep sense that, even if I believe I will not be condemned by the measure I use against another, I am incapable of being certain that a speck of that sin in my own heart, which I had not even been aware of, will not condemn me as well.It is the humility and wisdom of Abba Moses, of whom it is said:
A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting’ for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him, seeing the trail of water behind him, and said, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 138-9.
In a way, this is Jesus winning out over Paul. But we need not frame it so simply. Paul gave a practical application of morality, but as any other practical thing, it was contextual. Jesus, on the other hand, has provided a theological moral principle. The personal choice to follow this principle in simplicity, rather than debating the practical grounds, is a form of "second naiveté" which I have seen to be common in examples of great spiritual wisdom, especially the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
It is hard to recognize second naiveté from first naiveté as an outsider. Once again, Paul rightly says the wisdom of God may appear foolish. But the journey from first to second naiveté is a long one full of nuance and change. And even if I can see the examples of spiritual wisdom in front of me, I realize in myself that I'm not ready to live in that kind of wisdom. I still want exceptions, particularities, rules, caveats - anything to protect my own interests and self-will. There's a long road ahead.
Grace and peace to you, wherever you are on the journey.