“Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). That verse is one of the most misapplied passages in the entire Bible. It is not unusual for a Christian to drop all discernment and blindly trust an untrustworthy person or tolerate gross immorality on the basis of this verse.
But Jesus Himself told his disciples to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” and to be discerning of spiritual leaders. “By their fruits you will know them,” He said.
So what does the “judge not” verse really mean? It means not to have a condemning attitude toward anyone. For instance, more than one individual has confided to me, “I still hurt from hearing my father (or teacher or principal) tell me with a sneer, ‘You’ll never amount to anything!’” No one has the right to pass such a sentence of judgment upon another.
But the Scriptures do admonish us to use proper discernment in regard to others in many situations of life. For example, when a citizen is called to jury duty, he or she is temporarily acting with God-given authority to help carry out justice. And on a more personal level, when a person seeks to win your confidence, you are justified before God in trying to discern whether they are trustworthy. But exercising such judgment can be tricky sometimes.
I recently finished reading a fascinating book called And the Sea Will Tell, by Vincent Bugliosi. The author first tells about a crime that took place in 1974 on the isolated Pacific Island of Palmyra. A rough ex-felon named Buck and his girlfriend Stephanie were each charged with murdering an older, more responsible couple on that island and stealing their boat. Buck was found guilty of premeditated murder. Stephanie, to me, obviously participated in the crime and was as guilty as Buck.
However, Bugliosi, who also defended Stephanie in court, argued that there was certainly reasonable doubt that she had been involved in the murder. Indeed, he argued, strong evidence pointed to her innocence. Buck had acted alone in the despicable crime. Bugliosi convinced me.
The merits of hearing all sides of an issue before making a judgment came home to me more personally about 15 years ago as I pastored in Northeast Tennessee. One Sunday evening a young man from New Mexico of Navajo extraction attended our worship service. Nathaniel was a quiet, respectful man who worked at a local grocery store and was living temporarily at the rescue mission in town. He had been traveling across the country and somehow landed in our region with no money or home.
I took Nathaniel under my wing and tried to help him get on his feet and find direction. He never asked me for money. He continued attending our church and became friends with a few of our young people.
Several weeks later he appeared quite distraught one Sunday. “My Mom died,” he confided. I asked if he had the money to get back to New Mexico for the funeral. As he did not, I began to look for help in flying him home. A day or two later, however, one of the rescue mission administrators warned me, “Nathaniel’s a con man! He told us his Mom died four months ago. So how did she die again?”
I was grieved to hear this news. I had thought Nathaniel was trustworthy. But to settle the issue in my own mind, I approached the rescue mission director. He said he would check into it. Soon Nathaniel called me and said he would not need to return home after all. The director then told me privately that in Navajo culture, when the mother dies, her sister becomes the new “mother.”
Nathaniel’s real mother had indeed died earlier. Now it was his substitute mother, his aunt, that died. So Nathaniel was trustworthy after all, and the other administrator had pronounced a hasty, unwarranted judgment.
Nathaniel did finally make it back to New Mexico, entered college, and so far as I know, has done well.
“The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).