If you talked to a random cross-section of non-Christians, and asked them what Christians aren’t supposed to be doing, you would get a nearly unanimous response: “Don’t judge!”
Folks who don’t know anything else about the Bible can correctly quote this verse: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) It’s such common knowledge that folks on the streets wear “Only God Can Judge Me” tattoos, and Tupac rapped about it.
Christians, generally, respond to all this by falling into one of two camps. Camp 1 ignores the verse entirely. They protest loudly, picket funerals, pound their angry fists on their antique Bibles, and go on news programs to deliver antagonistic proclamations without a hint of mercy or grace.
Camp 2 recognizes that, in fact, no, they shouldn’t be judging people. And they try to make sure they don’t. And they try so hard to not judge that they end up losing something else in the process. And that something is “discernment.”
A far less-well-known verse from the Bible is this one: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best .” (Phil 1:9-10)
Judgment, as it turns out, is about rendering a verdict – and a condemnation – on a person. It’s about declaring that a person is bad and can’t be helped. Discernment, on the other hand, is about understanding a situation, and whether or not that situation is a good one.
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you’re feeling a little under the weather, and you go to the doctor. You wait in the tiny room with the paper-covered bench, you don’t have any pants on, and then the Doc comes in. He uses the stethoscope, makes you stick out your tongue, and at last says, with disgust, “All you sickies are the same. Bunch of disease-factories, if you ask me. And what’d you do to get sick, eh? You know what: just get out of my office.”
Well, now, this would be judgment. And, as you can tell, it’s neither very nice nor very helpful.
Let’s try again. Doc comes in. Stethoscope. Tongue. Ahh. And he says: “Hey, bro, you’ve got a body, and it’s your body, and, hey, bro, whatever your body needs to do, however it needs to be, that’s cool. I celebrate your body. ‘Cause every body is unique. And, sometimes, a body just wants to cough up blood. That’s cool with me. If that’s your choice, bro, I support that, and I think it’s great.”
Well, now, I bet you can see the problem here immediately. Yes, he has been very nonjudgmental. He also hasn’t fixed anything. I didn’t go to the doctor to get affirmed in my personhood; I went ‘cause I didn’t feel good.
Let’s try one more time. Small room. No pants. Say ahh. And the doctor speaks.
“Ok, well, it looks like you’ve got a fairly mild case of strep throat. It’s not bad at the moment, but we’ll want to knock it out so it doesn’t get worse. I’m going to write you a prescription for antibiotics, and you’ll need to take these daily for the next three weeks. And you should be all good.”
Amazing! Here’s what just happened. First, the doctor didn’t judge me. He didn’t label me as a bad person and hopeless. He simply looked at what was going wrong in my situation. “You have an infection in your respiratory system.” And he was prepared to help me fix it. He gave me the steps, the know-how, and the resources to do just that.
Well, now, all of this applies directly to being a Christian, and ministering to others. As you know, you should not ever judge or condemn people. But, in order to minister to people, to love them the way Jesus did, you do need to be able to discern what is going on with their situation.
As an example, if you knew a person who struggled with cowardice, and that person wanted to move forward in their life as a Christian, it would be an unloving thing to pretend they didn’t struggle with cowardice. We can’t fix what we won’t look at.
But if we’re willing to turn on our discernment, and look at the situation, yes, we’ll have to acknowledge that cowardly behavior is going on. However, we may quickly discover that the root of it is understandable, and the fix is much easier than we’d expect.
Our friend may struggle with cowardice because that’s what was modeled by his parents. Maybe they behaved in a cowardly fashion, and that’s all he’s ever really seen. That doesn’t really leave him room to feel bad about it, and it’s certainly not something to look down our noses at him about.
So, we help our friend find little moments of bravery in his life. Asking that girl out. Telling the boss he can’t work this weekend. Going down to the homeless shelter and serving soup.
And, as our friend takes these little steps, perhaps that cowardice begins to fall to the side, and the courageous man the Lord created begins to emerge. This is what happens when we love well, friends, when our love is couple with insight, and discernment. We didn’t judge, but we didn’t turn a blind eye, either.
And that friend, who is discovering a new freedom, boldness, and vitality in his life? I promise that he has no complaints.