“… judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”
1 Corinthians 4:5
Many years ago, I heard a funny saying that has stuck with me: “We’re not supposed to judge…but we should be fruit inspectors!”
This humorous saying contains real wisdom. Jesus is very clear in Matthew 7:17-20 that we are to evaluate others’ actions to see whether they are good or evil. He expresses this by using a vivid word picture: a tree that bears fruit, good or bad. When we see “bad fruit” in another’s actions, we can deduce that something is disordered in that person’s life; something is problematic with the “tree” that is the person’s life.
Sin is something we all have to contend with – pride, anger, envy, greed and the like – and it is sin in all of us that produces the “bad fruit” of unloving or even immoral actions. Yet one implicit message in our culture these days seems to be that we are supposed to express “tolerance” by never judging anything as sinful or wrong, so that people will not feel badly. But mercy without truth is simply sentimental and false; it is far from lifegiving love.
On the other hand some people, in reaction to this prevailing cultural message, have presumptuously attempted to “right all wrongs”, usually on social media. The result? The current state of our public discourse (where trashing people seems to be the “blood sport” of the moment) has become exceedingly contentious and even dangerous. Truth without mercy is hard and unyielding and fails, too, the test of real love.
The verse from St Paul quoted above gives us some balance. It cautions us against a particular kind of judgement. We are not to judge another person’s heart, for we can never know what lies deep within them and what their true motives are. We are to leave that to God Himself, for only He knows all things, and only He has that right. Yes, we can “inspect the fruit” – the person’s actions – and evaluate those, but we are not to condemn the person; we are to leave final judgement, that last word, to God, who alone can judge perfectly.
So what are we to do when we see someone – a family member, an acquaintance, a friend, or even a public figure – doing something blatantly wrong? “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) is the usual Christian response to this question. But how to do this?
If we examine the entire chapter in which this oft-quoted verse comes to us, we find some serious how-to guidance: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with (i.e., putting up with) one another in love…do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs…get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger…along with every form of malice…” (Ephesians 4:2, 29, 31 NIV).
I don’t know about you, but I desperately need to cultivate more self-control in this area; it’s ‘way too easy for me to be quick to critique someone before making sure that I actually have their best interests at heart. If I instead manage to wait and take time to actually, sincerely pray for them in a concerted way, I eventually find that I’m the one who changes, and my prayers and my words become more humble and life giving instead of critical and rejecting.
Holy Spirit, help me by your grace to grow in merciful, patient, unselfish love! Amen.