“Do not judge!” pt. 3
Cuz I Ain’t Got a Pencil
by Joshua Dickerson
I woke myself up
Because we ain’t got an alarm clock
Dug in the dirty clothes basket,
Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,
Cuz the light ain’t on
Even got my baby sister ready,
Cuz my momma wasn’t home.
Got us both to school on time,
To eat us a good breakfast.
Then when I got to class the teacher fussed
Cuz I ain’t got a pencil.
To the teacher the forgotten pencil is simply the result of childish carelessness. We readers know differently, however. The young man is actually mature beyond his years, even heroic. Remembering a pencil, unfortunately, is the least of his worries. This, of course, is one of the challenges we face when we evaluate other people. Our perspective is limited at best. We can easily be mistaken in our assessment. God knows every factor. We do not. God knows how to interpret every factor. We do not. God sees through eyes of love. We may not. So our evaluation of others is a tricky task— easy to bungle.
Knowing this, we may be tempted to abandon any attempt at judging others (I use “judging” in a neutral sense here-not meaning “to condemn” but simply meaning “to evaluate or assess”.). Abandoning all judgment sounds safe. There’s a problem with this approach, though. First, it’s not realistic. You and I are social creatures who constantly interact with each other. In order to do this successfully we must, at least to some extent, figure each other out. We assess aspects like ability, attitude, maturity, understanding, motivation and character. This sort of judging allows us to interact in prudent and useful ways. We all do this sort of judging instinctively, anyway. The only issue is whether or not we will do it well.
The second problem with abandoning all judgment of others is that this stance conflicts with Scripture. The Bible calls us to interface with one other in ways which require exercising some judgment. We’re to encourage (Heb. 10:25), motivate (Heb. 10:24), teach, rebuke, correct (2 Tim. 3:17) and so on. To do these well requires the ability to at least make a good guess about the state of others.
Yet it’s hard to properly assess even ourselves (1 Cor. 4:3), much less others. It’s easy to misread; to make mistaken assumptions. How can I do this as well as possible?
I’m a more skillful judge of others if:
1. I’m a more skillful judge of others if I’m filled with the Holy Spirit
This is the most critical condition on the list. The Spirit is a perfect judge of whatever He assesses. He searches all things, even the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). He purifies our hearts, prepares our attitude and gives us insight. He guides our timing. He empowers us. Paul says, “The spiritual man makes judgments about all things. . .”(1 Cor. 2:15). With His help our judgments will be better constructed, better delivered, and often better received.
2. I’m a more skillful judge of others if I’ve judged myself first
This brings us back to Matt. 7:1 where we’re told “first take the plank out of your own eye.” If I first deal with my own shortcomings and realize how embarrassing this may be or how difficult it can be to change, I will approach others with more humility and patience.
3. I’m a more skillful judge of others if I recognize my limitations
As mentioned earlier, it’s easy, given our serious limitations, to misread a person or a situation. This needn’t make us lose all confidence in our judgment. The Bible assumes that, with the Spirit’s help, we can understand quite a bit about others. But it should build in us a healthy caution. We learn to be careful about getting the facts right, about double-checking our presumptions, and about knowing the limits of our knowledge.
4. I’m a more skillful judge of others if I’m especially cautious about ascribing motives
Judging another’s motives is dauntingly difficult. It’s hard enough to discern why
I do what I do. Knowing what’s driving you is much trickier – so challenging that many assert we shouldn’t even attempt it. Again, however, we run into the problem stated earlier in regard to judging others – motive discernment is an instinctive part of our social interaction. We’re always asking, consciously or unconsciously, “Why did this person do such and such?” Our discernment of another’s motivation (where they’re “coming from”) helps us to make all sorts of social decisions-like who we can tell our secrets to, who will babysit our kids, who to hire, who to marry, or how to motivate a certain person. To have no instincts in this area sets us up for disaster.
Furthermore, in Scripture people do ascribe motives to others-both bad (2 Timothy 4:10 -Demas, Acts 5:3-Annanias, Acts 8:23-Simon) and good (Acts 11:24-Barnabas, Phil. 2:20 -Timothy).
Nevertheless, because it’s so easy to be mistaken about motives, let me make some suggestions. First, it’s often better to focus on visible actions rather than on invisible motives when we assess another person. In the end, what a person does reveals quite a bit about who they are. If they behave wisely or responsibly or vice versa that’s often all that we need to know in our dealings with them.
Second, when possible, allow the other person to explain their motives. Ask a lot of questions. Listen. You may learn something.
Third, realize that motivations are often complicated. We don’t always have just one motivation. People are complex. Altruism may be mixed with egotism. Both love and fear may motivate an action.
Fourth, when you do attempt to discern motives do it with a humble tentativeness, being willing to change your mind if new evidence appears. Take your conclusions with a grain of salt remembering that, unlike God, you’re just taking your best guess.
Fifth, be generous. While we don’t want to be so generous that we’re gullible, it’s usually wise to give one another the benefit of the doubt when it comes to assessing motives. This keeps us from causing unnecessary hurt and may actually bring out the best in some who want to live up to our positive impression of them.
5. I’m a more skillful judge of others if I work at improving this skill
Have you noticed that some people are especially insightful in their understanding of others? Some of this may be natural ability, but social perception is also a skill that can be cultivated. Our ability to accurately perceive people needs considerable refining. In our natural state our view of others is like a smudged, cracked window-distorted by our own biases, limitations, and sinfulness. Through the help of the Spirit, of wise people, and of experience over time our window gets clearer.
6. I’m a more skillful judge of others if I learn to limit my need to judge others
I’ve already noted that some judgment, or assessment of others is normal and even necessary due to our social interactions. Yet one of the traits of wise people is that they have also learned to relax and to suspend judgment more often. We don’t always have to figure others out. On occasion our energy may be better expended in simply loving them, enjoying them and supporting them. God knows. Maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.