Coronavirus and the Carnival of Judgment 

Three days ago, I ran into a Starbucks to pick up my drink. The store had four other patrons: two masked customers awaiting their drinks and two unmasked people who followed me in. Yours truly had unconsciously left my mask hanging, in all of its sanitary splendor, upon my rearview mirror. When I returned to my car, I discovered someone had pasted my car with spit.

Not to lose you with a graphic description, but if spittle can be charted between an infant’s drool and the saliva produced by a trucker with four cans of chaw, this person was a gold medalist in the latter category. I think this guy may have stained my paint.

While I can’t be certain of this person’s motives, it’s probable that this saliva-shot was a statement of protest over my unmasked face. You see, whether we’re talking about politics, church-state relations, facemasks, social distancing, medical data, or pandemic stats, self-righteous behavior is in full bloom this Spring. Differences over debatable matters flood our hearts with moral imperatives. Then, they bubble up within us, and come frothing like a waterfall over our lips. To put it plainly, there’s a soul-sickening pandemic breaking out with greater consequences than Covid-19. It’s sinful judgment. And we’re spitting it at each other with alarming conviction. Now, I could not see this patron’s heart, but that isn’t essential to my illustration. It just proves my point. Either he was judging me, or I’m judging him.

Regardless, welcome to the carnival.

 

The Heart of Judgment

Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:1–2). Jesus is not saying that his people should never be found assessing, evaluating, or discerning the words, actions, and attitudes of others. The church is called to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), not a gathering of simple dimwits.

But Jesus knew that judging comes naturally to us; we walk out the door each day with our antennas up—evaluating, interpreting, and forming opinions about what drives other people. Kimm and I are currently shopping for a used car. The axiom of “let the buyer beware” means that we make judgments about whether or not a dealership or sales person is credible. Indiscriminate naivety could land us in a lemon. But there’s a vast gulf between our daily need to discern and our sinful bent for assuming the worst. 

Judging turns sinful and evil when we ascribe bad motives to another person without a legitimate cause. When we demonize intentions, there’s always a cost. The judgment carnival pitches a tent in our heart. Discernment warps; our souls shrink. As Asaph described, “you give your mouth free rein for evil” (Ps. 50:19). People get ugly. Angry. Bitter. Even wrathful.

Many of us can see our tendency to assume the worst most clearly when we’re driving. Rather than graciously assuming the best about a person who just pulled out in front of us—maybe he’s a new driver, she’s just being inattentive, their kids are distracting them, or they just made a dumb mistake—we instead let the road rage rise. We shift gears and become indignant about the other driver’s motives: “That preening idiot intentionally pulled out, because he thinks he’s better than me. This is personal. It’s a threat—an actual assault on my dignity. I hate him!”

Maybe that’s a little exaggerated. But not by much.

We sinfully judge when we conclude that we know others’ motives. We say, “I know your heart” with a knowing smirk. Our opinion becomes fact—the only possible perspective one could have on this experience. We assume—or perhaps the operative phrase is “we ascend to”—a place of presumed divinity. Swapping places with God, we pretend to be omniscient in our discernment of the thoughts and intentions of others. Our take becomes God’s truth.

Ascendance, however, comes at a steep cost. The more confident we are in our judgments of others, the more blinded our view of ourselves. We assign to ourselves every role in the court: judge, jury, and executioner. And the verdict on others is always the same: guilty! To add insult to irony, the unknowing defendant is not even a part of the process. There’s no deposition, no testimony from the one charged, no fair hearing. It’s just our verdict. The case is always open-and-shut.

I’m not exactly sure what happened on the morning the spit hit my car. Maybe it was random. Perhaps a bear with bad lungs lumbered by, or a hang glider cleared her throat while sailing over Starbucks. But the probabilities lie elsewhere. Someone probably saw my maskless face and interpreted that as me cavalierly flipping the bird to their safety. If that were the case, then I ceased to be a fellow customer and was downgraded to a selfish, me-centered prima donna who needed to be taught a lesson.

 

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 facemask 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?”1John Newton, “On Controversy,” in The Works of Rev. John Newton, vol. 1 (New Haven: Nathan Whiting, 1824), 161.

 

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.”2p. 137.

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.3Francis Schaeffer, A Christian Worldview, Volume 4: A Christian View of the Church, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 195.

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.

 

For Those Under Sinful Judgment

Some who are reading right now are feeling the sting of being judged. Speaking with charity sounds well and good, but what good does it do when you have spittle on your car door?

Perhaps you’re a church leader, and you’ve made unpopular decisions about how to move forward with (or without) regathering. Maybe you’re a parent, and your convictions seem out of step with the way other parents are handling social isolation. Or maybe you’re married with a spouse who has made what seems like unfounded judgments about you, notions that are nevertheless gospel truth to them. Perhaps your name has been smeared on social media; your mistakes have gone viral and not in a good way. Right now, you feel more slandered than supported. If you feel that you’re underneath sinful judgment, what should you do?

 

1. Trust God

This is not about being a doormat or giving up your opinion. It’s about a fundamental orientation that places God in the center of this experience. Remember, you have been called to follow a crucified Savior, the One who “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2), who “suffered outside of the gate” (Heb. 13:12). My friend, did you imagine that you could “pick up your cross daily,” as commanded by Christ, and not have to suffer people’s judgments? While we sojourn on this earth, none will be spared the shame of sinful judgments.

George Whitfield understood. He passed through a terrible, pandemic-like time in ministry where he was the object of contempt, scorn, and slander by a vocal minority. The hardest part was that some who opposed him were once dear friends. But when Whitfield reflected back on the experience, he was able to see and celebrate the beauty of God’s activity. “It is good for me,” said Whitfield, “that I have been supplanted, despised, censured, maligned, judged by and separated from my nearest dearest friends. By this I have found the faithfulness of Him who is the friend of friends.”4Quoted in Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990) 101. Because Whitfield trusted God, he was able to draw close to God. And he ultimately learned that God works in serious, soul-satisfying ways when his servants come under sinful judgments.

 

2. Pray Honestly

Hannah was barren and praying silently for a child. When Eli saw her lips moving without words, he sinfully judged her, assuming she was drunk. In fact, Eli accused her publicly, adding shame to her profound grief. But Hannah did not make Eli’s sin the center of her story. She fled to God in prayer.

“O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1:11). Hannah’s prayer is honest, direct, specific, and sacrificial. Hannah knew God was behind her barrenness; even working behind how she was treated over her barrenness. So, she turned to God for help.

If you feel sinfully judged, follow Hannah’s example. Pray boldly! Confess your complete inability to change your circumstances, and confess your total dependence upon God. Declare your willingness to trust him, even when you see no evidence of progress. Pray like Hannah, specifically and sincerely about what you want God to do in the situation. Pray for God to arrange events, situations, and people to spark change in the heart of the one who is antagonizing you.

 

3. Keep On!

I love this report that was told about Charles Spurgeon: “There is a man who has probably been more assailed and lied about than any other man in England, and, perhaps, in modern times . . . amid it all, he has not, so far as we know, once replied or denied the charges. He has just gone right on, doing God’s work in God’s own way. As a result, the lies have stopped.”5Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1992), 721. Spurgeon’s strategy for dealing with the array of judgments against his ministry was perseverance; he would outlive his enemies. Spurgeon would struggle on!

My friend, trust God, pray honestly, and struggle onward! And as you negotiate the pain of being sinfully judged, always remember the One who was judged far more than anyone else who has walked the earth. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3). Jesus sweat blood. He felt the strain; he fought back the temptations; he endured the scorn and humiliation of fools. Then he died, only to rise again on the third day. Jesus struggled under the judgment of others; ultimately the judgment of God, but trusted the Father for resurrection power. We can trust God too. Even when riding the emotional roller coaster in the carnival of judgment.

 

Jesus Knows Your Heart

So, when you are being judged, you can know that you are not alone; you are not crazy; your situation is not incomprehensible; your fatigue is not unbearable; your suffering is not intolerable. Jesus has gone before you in this experience. He gets it. In fact, Jesus sweat and spilled blood to ensure “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Are you weary? Take heart. Jesus knows your heart! He understands, and he knows exactly what you need. Christ knows you’re tempted to lash out with contempt. He understands why it’s hard to sleep. Jesus knows what it’s like to remain silent; to bite your tongue; even to be spit upon—not on his car, but in his face.

So, don’t give up. You can speak with charity and bear another’s sins a bit longer without striking back. Like Spurgeon, you can just “go right on, doing God’s work in God’s way.” Your work is not over, and God is not done. Leadership is hard when pandemics break, but God will complete what he began in your life and ministry. Trust him, pray to Him, endure for Him. Keep running hard. And when you finish, you will stand utterly amazed that God not only supplied the power by which you persevered, but became the prize for which you raced.

 

 

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