“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbour?”
In James 4:11-12, James brings up these two touchy topics of speaking evil and judging others. For most of us the first topic seems clear enough: speaking evil is wrong! But for many of us, the second topic, judging others, is not quite so clear. Is judging others the same as speaking evil? Or is it in a different category? Can we be guilty of one and not of the other?
Here’s what’s clear: slander, gossiping, lying, and verbal attacks are not what should come out of a Christian’s mouth. The ninth Commandment tells us not to testify falsely against our neighbour (Ex 20:16), and Jesus told us that we should treat people the way we want them to treat us (Mt 7:12). Then Jesus went on to say: that’s the Law! James says in this verse that speaking evil against one another is the same as speaking evil against the very law of God.
Here’s what’s not so clear: “Don’t judge others.” Jesus also warned us not to judge; otherwise, we’ll be judged. (Mt 7:1). So often we hear this Bible verse twisted from “Don’t judge others” to “Don’t judge me!” Not all judging is wrong or sinful. In fact, Jesus told us not to judge by appearances, but to judge with right judgment (John 7:24). And the Apostle Paul calls for judgment when sin has crept into the church (1 Cor 5:12).
When faced with challenging moral issues, we should not stay neutral. We should take a stand. We should be ready to defend our convictions, follow God’s commands and live honourable lives. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Pr 31:9) So when should we “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) and when should we be “slow to speak” (James 1:19)?
We are so often fooled by outward appearances, but it is God alone who judges the heart (1 Sam 16:7). We so often love to pick out faults in other people when we’ve got even bigger problems of our own! (Mt 7:5) Our sinful human nature is so prone to selfishness, pride and hypocrisy that we can so easily cross the line and sin by judging others.
When have we crossed the line? When has judging others become a sin? Obviously, when we use slander, gossip, lying, and attacks to judge others, that is sin. It is also wrong to think that we can judge because we ourselves are above the law (Rom 2:12). We condemn ourselves when we do the same things that we judge others for (Rom 2:1). We should never try to become the enforcer of God’s law, thereby usurping God’s authority.
Missionaries like us, working thousands of miles from home, with people from a different ethnic group, speaking a different language, need to be especially careful. Our task is not only to learn a new language; we need to also learn a new culture! And it can be so easy for us as missionaries to be judgmental of mannerisms, customs, or even national characteristics that are different than our own. Over the years, we have learned how important it is to be careful not to pass judgment on the citizens of our host country, whether they are not yet believers or whether they belong to the household of faith.
So let’s not be quick to condemn, criticize, or be harsh with our words. We don’t have the right to pass judgment on a fellow servant (Rom 14:4). Judging is such a dangerous mine field that if we can’t be sure about someone’s motive, we should avoid judging them altogether. The point of verse 12 is clear: There is only one lawgiver and judge, and that is God. He’s the one who is able to save and destroy. When we put judging in that perspective, as James says, who are we to judge our neighbour?
Let’s take some time to do a personal inventory of the times when we have passed judgment upon someone through our words or actions. Any regrets? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that the times that our judging of others crossed the line into sin far outweigh the times we acted righteously and brought restoration. Let’s resolve to speak graciously, by the Holy Spirit’s power, to encourage and build others up as we minister to them (Eph 4:29).