Coronavirus and the Carnival of Judgment, Part 2By Dave Harvey
June 9, 2020
The Voice of Judgment
Sinful judgments speak fluently in the language of self-righteousness. We assume a dialect of moral superiority. Think about the cynical disdain we display when we prosecute other people who insult, injure, or disagree with us. You know, the I-can’t-believe-you-did-that-said-that-or-thought-that spirit. We’ve all seen it. Actually, we’ve all done it! If we’re honest, each of us have memories of speaking to others as if we were incapable of their despicable behavior. Isn’t that why reality television was invented? “That’s appalling. . . we would never stoop that low!”
There’s something about the coronavirus that has made everyone a little more fluent in this sort of self-righteous talk. Heck, self-righteousness is becoming our national language. Did Duolingo add it to their app just before quarantine?
We should all stop and ask ourselves how fluent we’ve become in the language of self-righteousness. Here are some evaluation questions:
- Do I relate my opinion with a self-confidence that assumes I see all the facts clearly?
- Am I quick to assign motives to people who are not adopting the same COVID-19 precautions I am?
- Can I articulate ideals with which I disagree in a way that accurately reflects the content and spirit of that position? Or do I relate to the position dismissively, as if no rational person could really believe those things?
- Am I known for asking leading questions with built-in assumptions that presume the correctness of my position? Or do I ask impartial questions that sincerely seek to understand the other perspective?
- Am I excessively concerned with finding something or someone to blame for what has gone wrong?
- Do I speak in way that betrays my impatience with or intolerance of those who disagree?
If these questions call to mind recent interactions in your life, I can relate. While processing the best steps for moving forward in this COVID-19 world, I’ve had plenty of occasions where my judging heart started talking with a self-righteous voice. Sometimes I should just put my face-mask in my mouth, not across it. I’ve found an additional question, posed by John Newton, to bring conviction when I’m stuck at the carnival: “What will it profit a man if he gains his cause, and silences his adversary, if at the same time he loses that humble tender frame of spirit in which the Lord delights, and to which the promise of his presence is made?”1
Our Escape from Judgment
At the core of the Christians belief system stands a bloody cross. There, upon a hill called Golgotha, God poured out his wrath upon his Son for the sins of his people. By bearing the curse for our sins and becoming a substitute who stood in our place, Jesus bore the full measure of God’s judgment for our transgressions. God’s justified and unrestrained fury for our lawlessness crushed the Savior until he gave himself over to death. But death could not hold him. By rising from the dead, Jesus proved God’s plan worked. Christ’s precious blood was accepted as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. God’s necessary judgment was satisfied in the slaughter of the Lamb of God. To say it simply, Jesus was judged so his people could escape judgment.
Maybe you’re wondering how God’s judgment of Jesus on the cross connects to our call to “judge not.” Matthew 7:1 is not merely a call for better behavior; it’s far more substantial. The cross makes a claim upon all Christians: When Christ was judged for our sins, he freed us from sinfully judging. As citizens of a new kingdom, we are bound to a new ethic of speech—one that is free from assigning bad motives to other people just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. God judged Jesus so that we can “judge not.” Freedom from judgment is not just a Christian benefit—like an airline award member who gets upgrades and special perks. No, this gift does not terminate upon us. In other words, to truly enjoy the benefit, we must pass it along.
Let this truth settle upon your soul. Because our sins have already been judged in Christ’s death, we are relieved from the burden of judging others; we do not need to become either the Law or the Spirit in their lives. God’s people were (and will be) spared God’s judgment providing that we “judge not.” But should we cling to the belief that we truly know the motives and intentions of others, we should feel sobered and sentenced by the verse that follows: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:2).
This is one of those gotcha passages. How do you want to be judged by others? Do you want to be presumed guilty until proven innocent, or would you prefer someone thinking the best about you? Allow me to ask it another way: would the measure you use in dissecting the motives of others be the same one you want applied to yourself? In whatever way you answer these questions, Jesus simply says, go now and do the same for others.
Think about that next time you talk about pandemic-related controversies. The One judged for us is now listening to us. And he wants to hear a different kind of speech.
The Alternative to Judgment
Instead of judging, Christ invites us to come to the threshold of love. The apostle Paul describes love this way:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:1–7).
Have you noticed how speech changes when it is seasoned with love? When words are charitable, they are kind, not envious, boastful or rude. Charitable speech is gracious, not irritable or resentful, and it doesn’t celebrate foolish things. When love speaks, there are no exasperating overreactions, no fingers pointing in another’s face. Earlier today I was the object of someone’s overreaction. They misunderstood something I wrote and colored my motives with dark undertones. While I’m tempted to feel wounded, I know I have done the same thing. We all have. But Jesus provides a better way.
Because of Christ’s death, Christians are called to die to wounded reactions. We die to the incessant impulse to assign bad motives to others. Instead, we are now obligated to ascribe charitable motives to them, until we have good reason to believe otherwise. Cultivating charitable assumptions enlarges the soul because believing the best, particularly when information is unavailable, crucifies the slanderous flesh. Jonathan Edwards called this “charitable judgments,” which he describes as “a disposition to think the best of others that the case will allow.”2
Do you ever find yourself doing the opposite—assuming the best about your own heart and the worst about others? Or maybe acting on second-hand information as if it happened right in front of you? I have. Heck, that was my go-to parenting style. Shoot first then maybe ask a question. Maybe.
But have you ever really considered the enduring impact of trigger-happy judgments on another person? Ever thought about how corrupted judgment impacts God’s church? Francis Shaeffer did. He once wrote:
I have observed one thing among true Christians in their differences in many countries: what divides and severs true Christian groups and Christians—what leaves a bitterness that can last for twenty, thirty, or forty years (or for fifty or sixty years in a son’s memory)—is not the issue of doctrine or belief that caused the differences in the first place. Invariably it is a lack of love—and the bitter things that are said by true Christians in the midst of differences.3
One of the greatest issues we are confronting right now is how to live united in spite of deep disagreements. How do we live as human beings when we’re divided over important matters of health and safety?
But just imagine, if you will, how having a more charitable judgment might revolutionize your relationships. Think about how it may transform your social media exchanges, civilize your website content, season your disagreements with graciousness, and elevate your discussions about how to move forward in this post-pandemic world. The presence or absence of a mask will no longer divide you. When love saturates your language, your words will edify and people will be ennobled. In loving others, you’ll come to listen more and truly know their hearts (as opposed to pre-judging their hearts). You’ll no longer speak with a sneer but with charity.