In the last chapter of Song of Songs there is a very awkward moment.
If only you were to me like a brother, who was nursed at my mother’s breasts!
Then, if I found you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me. Song of Songs 8:1
For us, this is culturally awkward. I don’t think I need to point out the multiple layers of awkwardness present here. But the greater awkwardness is for the young couple. They have a love that is worthy of esteem, but no-one knows it yet – and in the meantime they are prone to social judgment. ‘Awkward’ is not the word for this. Our awkwardness in the reading is their pain in the living. Anyone who has been through the judgment of a community on their relationship will wince at the memory of it.
In our first blog we explored why Jesus suprisingly expected us to judge when he said ‘do not judge’. In our second we explained why it seems a clear practice in the bible that Christians would hold other Christians’ relationships to account (ie. ‘judge’). Finally we ask if we can do it better. Firstly, because I am pretty sure we can. Secondly, because the pain when we don’t is too great.
How Christians Can Judge Better
Again, I would like to put this in summary form for clarity’s sake. The matter is too serious for any confusion.
- Be clear what the bible says
Some Christian judgment happens not as Christian judgment, but as a social judgment with a thin veneer of Jesus. Before you even consider discerning the wisdom of another’s relationship, you would want to know the scriptures clearly.
This includes being clear (from last blog) that we do judge one another, but we do not judge unbelievers.
- Be clear about your own life
One of the things Jesus is very clear about is that we are likely to not see clearly when we judge in order to justify ourselves. This explains why people looking for specks in other peoples’ eyes miss planks in their own (Matthew 7:1-5). We must begin by being clear about ourselves.
If there is any bitterness between myself and the person I am observing, I hold all judgment. If there is any like sin in myself to that which I hope to correct in another – I slow right down. The dangers of self-justification in judging others are just too great to rush on.
In many ways the old rule is a good one – judge to the measure of your love, but no further. If you do not love someone, do not judge them. Do not let your judgment outstrip your love.
- You don’t have to judge all the time
Nothing is more oppressive than someone saying the same thing all the time, repetitively. I counsel that letting someone know your concern early on frees you up to not point it out every time you meet them. Judge for yourself – has my silence been taken as permission? If so, you might want to say something again. But saying something every time you are in teh presence of a person whom you have a concern about is being a one-person nanny-state and dripping tap.
- Understand ‘timetable issues’
Beware a lack of context in peoples’ lives. If I have a friend who has known Jesus for years and starts living with his girlfriend, then I am going to say something, and pretty seriously. But if I become friends with a new Christian who has been living with their girlfriend for two years, then I am going to relate differently – though the same issues are at stake.
People have timetable issues. When they come to Jesus they have leapt from one train on one track to another train which runs in a completely different direction. No wonder there will be inconsistencies and confusions. I call these ‘timetable issues’. Jesus is perfectly capable of working through them with his disciple over time. We need to remember we are watching someone train-jumping and learn to ‘mind the gap’. It’s a pretty serious and dangerous (and exciting) time.
- Remember that other people’s vulnerability is more important than your anxiety
One of the things Christian judgment comes from is not faithfulness to God, but a fear of doing the wrong thing, or looking like you are. So many Christians rush to judgment in their anxiety, to keep themselves safe from the terrible cowardliness they fear in doing nothing. This way, they know they are not cowards (even if they are now bullies) and they have the self-satisfying knowledge that everyone knows they are not cowards for Jesus.
But this is all too self-focussed. The vulnerability of the person being judged is always more important than the anxiety of the Christian hoping to correct them. Anxiety makes you bullish, maturity makes you gentle.
- Remember that holiness is not reinforced by being around holy people. I think we think our holiness is helped by being part of a ‘pure’ church. We want everyone to be on the same page. But we need to remember that Jesus compromised his looking holy with the Pharisees by eating and drinking with people who looked unholy. We need to remember that actual holiness will be being faithful to God in the presence of people who are not that holy. Holiness that is achieved by hanging out with a conforming crowd is just self-justifying group-think.
A Better Gentleness
Paul says in Galatians 6:1 that ‘if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.’ If this is true for a believer who has been caught out by sin, how much more for a person who has come to Christ and previously barely knew they were living outside his ways?
I pray we will be a church that judges very carefully, very clearly and very gently. I pray that we will be discerning enough to judge more deeply. I pray we will be people who bind up the broken-hearted, shelter the wounded, weep with the weeping and help the weak. This was Jesus’ manner among those regarded as ‘sinners’. Let it be ours too.