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Good judgement and bad judgement

© Andrew Knock (1999)


1  An unwanted word

Judgement is one of those words nobody wants to own.  "Well, I’m not judging you, but …"  So often, we want another person to know they are wrong, but we don’t want to acknowledge we are judging him or her.

It’s as if we instinctively know that to have the words ‘judgmental’ or ‘judging attitude’ attached to us won’t show us off in a good light either.   We feel, "Isn’t there that phrase in the Bible, 'Do not judge …'?"  That fine human being, thinker and opponent of Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even wrote:  "judgement is evil because it is itself apostasy." (Ethics p 31)  That is, people who judge presume to put themselves in the place of God.

So most of us devise ploys for putting other people ‘in the wrong’ while seeming to be virtuous ourselves.  What are some of the ways we do this?  Well, there are very familiar examples in Jesus’ teaching:

To abandon someone, to walk by on the other side (cf. the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10.25-37).  "He’s in a mess of his own making, and I wish to make that point clearly by abandoning him to his fate.  I don’t want to know whether he is cheerful or overwhelmed with sorrow.  If he needs a job, then ‘on his bike,’ as Norman Tebbit rightly said."

To concentrate on measurable faults and wrongs, rather than ‘big’ but imponderable issues.  (Cf. "you strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel", Matthew 23.24).  As Juan Carlos Ortiz has observed,

"We make an issue of things of the flesh – sex, alcohol, drugs, the way we dress, etc … but not inner sins like pride, factions, ambition, the abuse of power, stubbornness.  Jealousy is one of the worst …  But I have never seen a brother disciplined or separated from the Lord’s Table because he was proud."   (Cry of the human heart, p 30)

This was a key issue for Jesus, by the way.  He tackled it again and again – for example:

  • Giving a tithe on spices but ignoring justice, mercy or faith; he quoted "these people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me (Isaiah 29.13)" faced with people concerned about keeping food laws but not what comes from their heart (Matthew 15.1-20).
  • Plucking corn to eat on the Sabbath but not ‘doing good’ on the Sabbath (Matthew 12.1-14), for example by healing a crippled woman (Luke 13.10-17).
  • Committing murder, adultery, retaliation, giving preference to friends, etc., in your heart, by attitude and motivation, though seeming to be a whitewashed tomb in public (Matthew 5.21-6.18, and 23.27-28).

To gossip and grumble behind someone’s back, rather than speaking face to face.  This is usually in order to belittle the person (cf. "Isn’t this the carpenter, Mary’s son …?" (Mark 6.3)); but it may include exaggerating speculations and expectations:  Jesus asked, ‘Who do people say I am … but what about you, Peter; who do you say I am?" (Mark 8.27-29).   His own family – Mary and his brothers – tried to ‘take charge of him’, thinking from the rumours circulating that he was "out of his mind" (Mark 3.21).  (See The 'no-name' game.)

To scapegoat someone – the whole of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion (cf. the summary at Romans 3.25).  The Israelite idea of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16.10) was that on the Day of Atonement a goat be sent out sacrificially into the desert to die, bearing away the sins of the community and thereby 'cleansing' the community. 

We ‘move the problem elsewhere’, often by sweeping it under the carpet, sometimes by dismissing someone abruptly or appointing someone to another region or department far away.  Occasionally for political reasons institutions will even promote someone to the level of their incompetence in order to push them away from the likelihood of causing serious 'harm.'

To demonise someone (cf. Mark 3.30, "they were saying, ‘He has an evil spirit’.")   When you exclude a human being, and have nothing to do with her or him, you let a kind of demon in.  Fantasy about the other person runs riot, because it is unchecked by reality.  

It’s so easy to suggest that someone unusual, someone ‘different from us’ is implicitly evil – because we don’t understand them or feel overawed by them.  Racism thrives on this kind of ploy, turning cultural differences and preferences into aberrations.  The notable US pastor Francis Frangipane said:

And let me tell you what ‘discernment’ is not:  People get into a position, where they lean in and say slowly, "I sense ... that there is something wrong ... under the surface."  Doesn’t it sound spiritual?  But how many of you have something wrong under the surface? Of course there’s something wrong under the surface!  The surface is wrong, on top is wrong … that’s no revelation, that’s no gift, to say there’s something wrong under the surface!!

Paul said, "I pray that your love may abound in real knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1.9)."  We don’t even have real discernment until we have abounding love.  Abounding love shows us what God wants to do – not just what is wrong but how God wants us to correct it.  (Taped address TACF, 3.5.97)

To stir up disgust  Jesus was in radical conflict with Jewish authorities over cleanliness.  "Don't you see that nothing which enters a man from outside can make him 'unclean.?" (Mark 7.18)  This may well have led to the accusation that he had a demon - seeing evil in people often accompanies fearing they are dirty.

Anthropologists have made us aware in recent decades of the fundamental role in a culture's development of defining what is dirty and disgusting - 'not our kind.'  In the 1930s the Nazis prepared the German people for the planned elimination of the Jewish people by constantly associating them with faeces and vermin.  Dr Val Curtis, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,, said, speaking particularly about Hitler but then about human beings generally:

"Disgust is an infectious idea. It’s one which can be passed from one person to another ... Disgust has been exploited, and it is a very effective means that our leaders have found to make us into armies and get us out there to kill … because it helps to de-humanise and make people into animals, make the enemy into something less than human, designated as something contaminated, dirty and dangerous."  (Anatomy of Disgust, C4TV 2000)


2  We can’t avoid judging

What I want to explore in this essay is the difference between good judgement and bad judgement. 

I believe that, because we tend to be frightened of the word, and spend so much time ‘disowning it’ – trying to brush it off our shoulders like dandruff to make sure it doesn’t stick out in public – we view the very idea of judgement with suspicion.  Like everything we try to conceal from ourselves about ourselves, the more we brush it off the more we carry on doing it.  Philip Yancey wrote wisely about guilt, for example:

People divide into two types: not the ‘guilty’ and the ‘righteous’ as many think, but rather two different types of guilty people.  There are guilty people who acknowledge their wrongs, and guilty ones who do not ... In dealing with the woman taken in adultery (John 8), Jesus replaces the two assumed categories, ‘righteous’ and ‘guilty’, with two different categories: sinners who admit and sinners who deny.  The woman caught in adultery helplessly admitted her guilt.  Far more problematic were people like the Pharisees, who denied or repressed guilt ...

Cloaking my sins under a robe of respectability, I seldom if ever let myself get caught in a blatant, public indiscretion.  Yet if I understand this story of Jesus correctly, the sinful woman is the one nearest the kingdom of God. (What’s so amazing about grace? pp 181-2)

Or as John Davies observed:

Just as the enemy of faith is not doubt but the repression of doubt, so the enemy of grace is not guilt but the repression of guilt.  (Beginning now p 212)

We can’t avoid judging – but we can own our responsibility to do it much, much better – and that starts with admitting how poorly we do it now.  Then we can improve our judgement, or aim for 'good judgement.'


3  Good judgement

What would good judgement amount to?  A good place to start is with a familiar passage where Jesus taught:

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eyes and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." (Matthew 7.1-5)

Let me make what may be a surprising point.  This is a parable about primary surgery!  It’s about helping people do the good but sometimes distressing job of cleaning up somebody else’s act (eye).  If you have children of your own – or if your husband has called on you to help him out – think of the tension and apprehension around when you try to flick out a bit of dust or a gnat with your tissue.   "I’m only letting you near my eye in really good faith. I’m trusting you … don’t blow it, don’t hurt my eye!"

Given our tendency to childish reactions, we need to know that the parent or teacher who operates on us can do it right, and cleanly.  What’s worse than having endless bits of tissue stuck into your eye, and then ten minutes later it still hurts – only more so, and the dust or the gnat is still there?

In a remarkably direct way, Jesus’ parable shows us what good judgement is for.   To help people see better themselves.  Only a few verses before the passage we are looking at here, from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew had already placed this bit of teaching:

"The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness." (Matthew 6.22-23)

His parable of cleaning someone’s eyes follows on from this – to help someone so that the darkness in them becomes full of light.


4   Leadership and better eyes

Most of James Cameron’s movies explore in surprising ways how a woman becomes a leader, albeit in a rather macho universe.  There is a fine piece of dialogue in his ambitious if flawed film The Abyss, when Lindsey Brigman (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) challenges ex-husband Bud’s (Ed Harris) cynicism, and grows into greater leadership:

"We all see what we want to see.  Coffey (Michael Biehn as a rather disturbed US Navy SEAL) looks and he sees Russians.  He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that."

It has consistently struck me that, if we use St Paul’s image of the human body (apparently adapted largely from Stoic philosophy and also popularised by the emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius) and apply it to the church congregation or larger unit, then the leader or leaders have to be the eyes of the body. They need vision – not only visionary ideas, but the ability to see better than others - to have ‘better eyes.’

Since most of us have poor eyesight - for human spirituality, anyway - a good image to use here is that of using spectacles with a type of bi-focal lens.  One the one hand, we can focus on the scale of the wrong that someone, or we, have done.  There is clear judgement.  Yet - at the same time - we can focus on the life and wellbeing of the wrongdoer(s), as well as on any victims other than ourselves.  It's a mistake to assume that forgiveness involves 'not judging'  It involves better, more creative and life-giving judging.   Judging without a bi-focal perspective is merely labelling - an easier option, involving treating someone as a pariah or criminal constricted in medieval village stocks, to be jeered at, ignored, or gossiped about

Sadly, in too many organisations claiming to promote values associated with forgiveness and transformation, the leaders are majoring on survival and institutional promotion, and their eyes are busy checking on how their rivals are doing, or how the press views them, or with whom to network to secure a better job for themselves.  The eyesight - the defining quality of leaders in spiritually-orientated organisations - is one-dimensional.

I used to encourage a church preaching team (largely voluntary, and including myself) to listen to their own sermons and teaching addresses on tape, together, and to evaluate them. Some were very willing to hear any criticism which also pointed out a better way to do something, and notably tried to apply their learning next time, and we tried to provide ourselves with that.  Others resisted the process, and remained 'hit-or-miss' preachers and teachers. Their fear of judgement – in their own hearts as well as from others – made it hard for them to distinguish between good judgement and bad judgement.

One of the reinforcers of that fear is the kind of media criticism - political and artistic - we are increasingly deluged by.  Criticism which just says what’s wrong but doesn’t also set out a better way is worse than useless, which is why so much Arts criticism in the media has merely cheapened and down-graded artistic creativity to an apparent matter of personal preference.  Jonathan Miller, who grew from a Cambridge scientific and medical career into theatre and opera production and much else, has spoken scathingly of the difference between the value of normal scientific criticism by one's peers, and the lack of value - even great damage - caused by theatre critics who may write a newspaper review with negative wit but have not proved themselves able to write or produce a notable play. (Interview with Anthony Clare, BBC R4, 24.9.99)


5  To judge or not to judge?

Why, then, did Jesus say, "Do not judge," when he clearly wanted people to do it, but do it better?  We can learn more by looking at two passages from John’s Gospel.

When Jesus was censured for healing on the Sabbath, he claimed that God was at work, and that he (Jesus) was following God’s example (John 5.17-19).

"Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son." (5.22).

Later, and paradoxically, he said,

"You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no one.  But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me.  In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid.  I am the one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father who sent me." (8.15-18).

Here Jesus linked ‘passing judgement’ which he said he did not do, with ‘judging by human standards’, while acknowledging that he did judge … according to his Father’s standards, as the Father has entrusted him to do.  St Paul was to follow him in this distinction, saying,

"From now on we regard no-one from a world point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new is come!" (2 Corinthians 5.16-17)

Paul had a particularly deep insight into what makes up bad judgement, and how to make it better.  He frequently viewed our lives as like running a race, where we need to get into training, and where other people – trainers – can correct and improve our way of running. (see Acts 20.24, 1 Corinthians 9.24, Galatians 5.7, Philippians 3.12-14, etc.)  Perhaps we can learn to help them too.  So he wrote:

Brethren, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.  If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  Each one should test his own actions.  Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to someone else, for each one should carry his own load. (Galatians 6.1-5)

Paul distinguished between:

  • judgement by comparing oneself with others, and
  • judgement by checking that you are on course - on the race track - yourself.

When he wrote about ‘sin’ he usually used the word ‘hamartia,’ which derives from archery and has the sense of (an arrow) going off course.  Good judgement means checking that you are on course – you may also then be able to help another person come back on course.  Bad judgement belongs in the mind-world of them-and-us, of "He’s not one of us – let’s get rid of him," "I’ll show him I was right all along," "Thank God I am not like that tax gatherer over there (Luke 18.11)," and so on.  (See On not excluding others.)

And so a main indicator of the presence of ‘good judgement’ is that you provide direct companionship – you have the desire and readiness to stay alongside someone and help them back on course, usually encouraging him or her within your own circle or community.  This is unambiguously what Paul meant by "bear one another's burdens" (v.2).  Biblical expositor John MacArthur’s thorough book The Power and Freedom of Forgiveness puts it like this:

Praying with someone for victory over a certain sin lifts part of the struggle.   Sometimes simply having a friend who knows about their struggle can strengthen them and lighten the load.  In every case, however, helping bear the burden entails getting involved in the other person’s life.  It involves much more than merely saying, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled."  We have to be mutual burden-bearers. (p 159)

To help bear a sinner’s burden is to empower them.  And at the opposite end, a main indicator of the presence of bad judgement is exclusion – closing someone out, abandoning him or her, scapegoating him or her.  By doing this you disempower them, turning what should be constructive discipline into cruelty.


6  ‘Giving-for’

I have tried to explore elsewhere how forgiveness – if it is to be active and mature – will usually involve facing the wrongdoer with his or her wrong, and then creating a ‘better way’ for him or her to step next.  (See You are forgiven §20, The power to initiate forgiveness §11.)  To turn the word around, to forgive is to ‘give-for’ another when they are stuck, to redeem them from the pit.  It may be to do a ‘Walter Raleigh’ and lay your cloak in the mud so that the Queen doesn’t get her feet dirty. 

This next step may involve discipline as well as restoration in the community – if your community or institution lacks real authority then its members should at least assist the wrongdoer to begin again with a new group and fellowship.  Otherwise they have not been able to forgive, merely ignore and 'walk by on the other side.'

Juan Carlos Ortiz, whom I greatly admire for risking a radical, imaginative and faithful way of ‘doing’ church, and then also reflecting openly, spiritually and theologically on the lessons of the adventure, tells a powerful story from his own life:

A member of my staff in Argentina began a church in another city and was enjoying great success.  Then one day he fell into a horrible sin.  "Juan Carlos, I know I am wrong," my friend confessed to me in tears.  "I am guilty 100 per cent.   I place myself in your hands.  If you tell me to throw myself in the river tied to a big stone, I will do it.  If you tell me to go to Brazil or Australia, I’ll leave.  You tell me what you want."

So I said that according to our rules I would remove him from his ministry.  I told him his salary would be cut off, and I was not sure if he would preach again.

I went into my office to pray.  My conscience said to me, "How easily you did that.  When he was doing well, you shared his glory.  Now that he is doing badly, you don’t want to share the blame.  You cut him off.  Maybe he will die of sadness and depression, but you have saved your own life.  The holy man Juan Carlos Ortiz doesn’t allow any sin in his church ...  Juan Carlos, the truth is that his failure is your failure, just as his success was your success.  He is part of you."

So I went and told my friend, "Forgive me.  I haven’t really forgiven you.   If I had, I would have treated you differently.  I wouldn’t make you pay first.  You will have your full salary back, for you will need it more today than ever, since you must stop preaching and deal with the full consequences of this sin."

"Pastor, this is crazy," he said.  "Don’t you know what other people will say about you and about our church?"  I said, "You should have thought about that before you sinned.  Now you will see how much we will pay for your sins.  But because we love you and you are one of us, we will suffer the blame together."

And we did.  The criticism and gossip were worse than any discipline I could have invented.  My friend even asked me to release him, so he could go to another country.   He learned - we all learned - what it meant for Jesus to identify with our sins.   Jesus laid down his life for the brethren and we have to do the same.  Jesus received the lashes that we deserved, and sometimes we have to receive some of the lashes meant for our brother or sister in Christ. (God is closer than you think pp 65-67)

(See also another similar true story, told by Don Baker in Forgive and restore.)

Of course, a lot of well-meaning groups and communities, whether churches or schools, extended families or businesses, simply lack the personal freedom and authority (one could also say ‘faith’) to do this.  But they do almost always have the resources to provide companionship and counsel for a wrongdoer to change direction and become established in a new community, supported, guided and assisted by new friends and colleagues.  Not to do so is to avoid any serious concern to bring forgiveness, and it is better to admit, "We lack the ability to bring forgiveness to this, our brother or sister."

What we can perhaps now appreciate is that this depth in forgiveness is the same kind of ‘good eyesight’ which Jesus wanted us to help each other develop … a matter of good judgement.  (To continue the parallel with media Arts criticism, a good critic would help a composer, playwright or movie director to see what changes could improve the integrity, accessibility and ‘voice’ in the work.  He or she would attempt to be a colleague with the creator, and at the least be well-trained in the same craft, rather than a member of a tribe of dilettantes perpetuating a war with a tribe of artists.)


7  Conclusion

We need to judge. We need to judge both ourselves and others, according to how well we are proceeding on the path which (so far as we can tell, with our limited judgement) is the most fruitful, creative and life-giving.

I would have to acknowledge that by using these descriptive words I am already making some assumptions about common values for everyone’s paths.  However I would also say I am doing so deliberately: I would claim forgiveness as a fundamental standard of goodness, and that these values arise from it.  (See the longer article The values implied by forgiveness.)

An ethic is an integrated view or vision of what 'goodness' involves.  The point is that forgiveness brings with it an ethic of good judgement, and therefore also implies that these common values are the best ones.  Good judgement is not only an 'improved' judgement; it articulates and encourages goodness.  A good life, or good judgement, will release other people too, will bring mercy and compassion, companionship and solidarity in suffering and love, encouragement and assistance to begin again.   Paul summarised this very well in the passage we have looked at: "test your own actions; carry one another’s burdens."  For Jesus, it was a matter of "doing what I see my Father doing" (John 5.19) – his eyes were a lot better than ours.

Bad judgement does the opposite.  It walks away from people, imprisoning and then abandoning them, bringing gossip, fault-finding and blame … "It’s her fault, so she must find her own way out of the mess she's in."

We are so used to this in the way the British tabloids write up stories that we seldom remark on it as exhibiting bad judgement rather than good.  Even TV interviewers seem to believe that their role and calling when reporting on a problem or disaster is to attempt to fix at least some of the blame on the interviewee, and then move on; job done.   Making a programme about a solution, or about restoration – well, in this culture that’s presumably another person’s job, if they can find a financial backer, and if the potential audience is large enough. 

For example, the French golfer Jean Van de Velde memorably pursued his ball into the water at the end of the 1999 British Open, and eventually lost his lead and the tournament.  If he now hits a ball into a water hazard - as all professionals do, including Tiger Woods! - commentators and sports writers now speak 'wittily' of his "fatal attraction" for water ... as if their journalistic wisdom lies in reminding us that he is to blame for what he does.

And if such apparent 'luminaries' behave in this way, why should we behave differently?  Until we start understanding the extraordinary power that lies in full or active forgiveness, it's unlikely we will.  n

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