How do you talk about people you don’t like? When that person who drives you crazy leaves the room, what words are quick to rush out of your mouth? How do you speak about those who are really different from you? Or, better yet, how do speak about someone who has hurt you? Our words, as James has told us elsewhere, are very powerful, and how we speak about others often reflects what our hearts deeply believe, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
When you talk negatively about someone, often you flatten them into a caricature, and they suddenly have become subhuman. If a person is just “white trash” or “stupid” or a girl is “a hussy”, then you are forcing them into a box that you will never let them leave. Whatever they do from then on, they are doing it because they are that title – so we think, Oh, of course he said that, he’s an idiot. They are no longer human beings with genuine hopes, honest mistakes, and accomplishments that should be applauded; they are just the ugly name you call them.
James’ passage continues the stream of thought from last week, where James explained what divides a Christian community, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (Ja. 4:1). James says that our sinful desires within our churches lead to fights, quarrels, bitterness and violence, and here we see that it leads to “evil speech”. The NIV translates “evil speech” as “slander” – which is an intentional, malicious attack on someone else; putting them down and lifting myself up in comparison.
Our generation strongly prizes itself on not being “judgmental”. The most popular verse in the Bible is no longer John 3:16, but instead is Matt. 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” That is thrown around all over the place today – and yet, we all are still extremely judgmental. Even those who like to prize themselves as being remarkably open-minded and tolerant, often are extremely judgmental towards those they see as intolerant and close-minded. Pots are calling kettles “black” all over the place!
James and Matthew are going to give us three reasons why we judge and speak evil about others, and one solution to the problem. We will look at Judging Others, Judging God’s Law, Judging God, Seeing our Sin, and Forgiveness of Sin.
James immediately connects slandering someone with judging them, “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother…” (Ja. 4:11). This makes sense, because the two go hand in hand – if I am slandering someone, that is usually because I have judged them, and if I am judging someone, I often will slander them.
The word for judge means “to condemn”, as in to proclaim someone else’s value as below my own. “Judge” does not mean stating an obvious fact: if someone says “Marc wears glasses”, they are discerning the obvious reality that I have eyesight problems and need glasses, but if someone says, “Marc looks like a dork in those glasses” they are judging me. One “judgment” doesn’t involve raising or lowering someone’s value, while the other does. James is saying that Christians must not look down on their fellow neighbors.
So think about how you speak – when you are talking about someone with an intent of damaging their reputation, making them look stupid, or using them and their weaknesses to make yourself look better – you are judging them, you are looking down upon the. You aren’t just saying mean words, you aren’t just making a joke, you aren’t just treating them the way they treat you. You are looking at them and subtly pushing their heads under the water, so you can rise above them. Why? Because, we feel like they deserve it.
And listen friends, this happens in our hearts just as much as it does with our mouths, and it is wicked. Just because I refrain from actually verbalizing my judgments, doesn’t make me any less guilty than if I have said it.
Judging God’s Law
James is going to take us a level deeper under our judgments of others by warning us when we judge others we actually are judging God’s law, “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law” (Ja. 4:11). Interestingly, James sees our attacks on our brothers really as an attack on God’s law. Why?
James earlier summarized God’s law in chapter 2 as “loving your neighbor” (Ja. 2:8); Jesus Himself said that the whole law could be summarized into loving God and loving your neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). So, James says that when we judge and slander our neighbor, we are actually judging God’s command to love our neighbor. It’s like we look at God’s law and say with our hearts, “That’s a dumb command – I shouldn’t have to obey that, I shouldn’t have to love this kind of person.” We may not be consciously telling ourselves that, but that is what we feel like.
As we look down on our neighbor, we are also looking down on God’s law, even if we are unaware of it. And James rightfully reminds us, that as long as we remain critics of God’s law, we cannot become obedient followers of God’s law, “But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge” (Ja. 4:11). James simply tells us: we cannot look down on someone, and love them; we cannot look down on God’s command to love our neighbors, and love our neighbors. If you bump into a homeless person on the street and feel superior to them, you are looking down on them, and no matter how much money or food you give them, you are not loving them. Loving our neighbor is a command that can only be fulfilled if we all are on the same footing, the same level as one another. James obviously sees a critical spirit against God’s Law as very serious – but why?
James sees judging others as particularly grievous because what lays at the heart of it. Think about this, if judging my neighbors is also me judging God’s law, and God’s law comes from God, then I am by extension judging God Himself! James says, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy” (Ja. 4:12). James tells us, there is only one Person who is qualified to judge, and it is the one who is able to save and to destroy – in other words, not you.
We simply are not competent enough, wise enough, or powerful enough to have any part in critiquing God’s law – and yet, we still do! Could you imagine walking in on a surgeon operating on someone, and say, “Hey, I’ve watched a couple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, I could give you some tips!”? Or going with the bomb-squad and trying to tell them which wires to cut because you watched The Hurt Locker?
The only reason we would ever do something so foolish would be because 1) we are in a delusion of self-grandeur, we actually think because we have watched something on TV we can do it, or 2) we don’t trust the ability of the surgeon or bomb technician. If we think they are really imposters, we won’t trust them with something as serious as surgery or defusing a bomb! And friends, look at me, when we hear God’s commands and criticize it rather than obey it, we are saying, “God, I think you’re a phony. I don’t think you are doing a good job.” Whenever I encounter one of God’s commands and flagrantly disobey it, my heart is saying, “God, you don’t know what you are doing. I could do your job better than you.” We treat God like the clueless substitute teacher, fumbling through his papers, assigning homework to the wrong class, clearly with no idea what he should be doing, and could honestly use some help.
Friends, this is no small matter – our sin is not just breaking God’s commands, it is an assault on the very throne of God! As we look down on others, we look down on God’s law, and therefore down on God Himself. We actually think we know better than our Lord. God does not take that lightly. Taking the omnipotent Lord, King of the Universe, Creator God, gently by the hand like a befuddled grandpa and lead Him where you think is best, is a very dangerous place to be. Treating a tiger like a kitten will not go well for you.
So what should we do? Let’s be honest friends, we all are in this boat. We all have been judgmental. We all have that one person that we look down on and we really think we are better than them. We all are guilty of disobeying God, and attempting to usurp His throne – and for that, we should face God’s judgment. What should we do? Jesus offers us some guidance in Matthew.
Seeing our Sin
Jesus, speaking on the danger of judging others, tells us when we set aside God’s law, we actually set up in our hearts our own kind of law. We make rules for ourselves, saying, “I’ll be nice to people who are nice to me…I’ll speak well of the kind of people who I think deserve it…I’ll spread rumors about people who spread rumors about me.” We create all of these little rules inside our heart of who and when we should judge. But Jesus warns us in Matthew, “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).
What Jesus says here is fascinating: If we reject God’s standard, then God will actually judge us by our own. The measure we use to judge others will be the measure that God uses to judge our lives at the end of our days. Francis Schaeffer, teaching out of Romans 2, used an illustration he called “the invisible tape recorder”. Schaeffer said that an invisible tape recorder hangs around all of our necks, and it records every time we give someone else advice or tell someone how they ought to live. And if we do not want to abide by God’s law and standard, then on judgment day, God will just push play on the recorder and judge our lives by our own standard. And there is no one in this room who would be able to pass that test. Think about this: has someone ever lied to you, and you felt cheated and wronged, and thought or felt You shouldn’t tell lies! Well, have you told a lie? …(I’m guessing so)…If so, we already have failed, and that’s just one thing! You see, we are no better off if we are judged by our own standard.
Someone might respond, “Well, I’m not perfect! I’m just human. You can’t expect me to live some kind of flawless life.” Exactly! Don’t you see? That’s just the point! We ALL are flawed and imperfect, so we are in no place to be making judgments on others and certainly in no place to make judgments on the one Perfect Being: God. This is why Jesus continues, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3-4). Jesus assumes that we all have a log of sin in our eyes; in other words, we all are sinners. If I have a log in my eye, I can’t necessarily see very well, and am not in a position to make accurate judgments. Likewise, if I am riddled with sin, I am in no place to look down on a fellow struggler and condemn him.
And up to this point, the majority of our generation would probably be applauding this – “Yea! We’re all flawed, no one is perfect, so who are we to judge??” And they use this reasoning to essentially justify living however they want to live, and doing whatever they want. “Yea, maybe I am sleeping with my girlfriend – but hey! we’re all imperfect, right? You can’t tell me it’s wrong, because ‘don’t judge’!” This is how this verse is so often grossly misinterpreted today – kind of like a blank check to sin and break any commandments we want to, because “we can’t judge anyone”, right? Well, the only problem with that reasoning is that Jesus doesn’t stop there.
Forgiveness of Sin
Much to our generation’s dismay, Jesus then immediately says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). Jesus doesn’t leave us only in the place of admitting our sin, He tells us to remove our sin; take out the log.
The irreligious person tells you that the log of sin in your eye is a part of you and you must learn to accept it. The religious person, on the other hand, tells you that by your own strength and power you can remove it. Religious people view their life like a ladder, constantly taking more steps to become closer and closer to God, and making Him happier with you. Every spiritual and moral discipline we accomplish is seen as another wrung that we have climbed, constantly working to reach the top of the ladder. But don’t you see the inherent danger in this? This life necessarily means that you look down on others who are not trying as hard or are as successful as you are; those who are further down their ladder than yours are literally below you – and you will treat them like that.
This whole sermon we are talking about the sin of looking down on others – but this worldview, ironically, forces you to partake in that particular sin! For example, if you believe that you are a better person by not having sex outside of marriage, and you meet someone who lost their virginity before marriage, then you will look down on them – you have to – you absolutely think you are better than them. You may not say it to them, but you will feel this particular kind of smugness and superiority over them. Friends – that is absolutely opposed to the Christian faith.
The Gospel, on the other hand, offers something very different. Whereas irreligion says that you just learn to accept the log, and religion says you pull it out by your moral and spiritual achievements, the gospel says that the log is removed by being forgiven. The Bible tells us that if our sins are not paid for, we will die in our sins and go to hell for eternity (so the irreligious route won’t work) – but, the Bible also tells us that there is no amount of good I can do to pay that debt; the ladder is ten trillion times longer than I can reach (so the religious route won’t work either).
But our God, Jesus Christ, rich in mercy, has come down to us! “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13-14). What we were unable to do, God did for us in sending His Son to die for us, to pay our sin-debt, and crush our sin! You can have your sin, the log in your eye, sweetly taken from you, through His forgiveness. You see, the log is removed, but not because of your greatness or superiority – far from it! The log is removed because you acknowledge that you are weak, you admit that you have a giant log of sin that you cannot budge and you are helplessly blind because of it! We feebly lift the empty hands of faith to the God who is eager and willing to forgive.
Listen to the beauty of forgiveness for the weak from the 19th century pastor, Octavius Winslow,
O blessed door of return, open and never shut, to the wanderer from God! How glorious, how free, how accessible! Here the sinful, the vile, the guilty, the unworthy, the poor, the penniless, may come. Here too the weary spirit may bring its burden, the broken spirit its sorrow, the guilty spirit its sin, the backsliding spirit its wandering. All are welcome here. The death of Jesus was the opening and the emptying of the full heart of God; it was the outgushing of that ocean of infinite mercy that heaved and panted and longed for an outlet; it was God showing how he could love a poor, guilty sinner.
What does a life, what does a community look like after they have received this? Well Jesus told us, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).
- Well, first off, Jesus says that we will always be more aware of our sin before we are aware of others. Jesus says we all have logs, and other people have specks. Whenever I encounter someone else who is doing something sinful, I should always be more aware of my own proclivity, tendency and history of sin, than theirs. What captivates more of your attention, more of your heart’s wonder? That God has freely forgiven you of your mountain of sin – or that so many people have pebbles of sin in their lives? Someone who has trusted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the one who is constantly more amazed that they are forgiven, then shocked at other’s sinfulness.
- Next, Jesus says we will practice repentance more than we practice pointing out other people’s flaws. I am to “remove the log” – be more aware of my sin, confess it, turn from it, and freely receive the grace and mercy of Christ. My business is focused on my own sin, before I focus on others.
- Lastly, I gently and lovingly come alongside my brother and help them remove their speck as well. I point them to the same overflowing fountain of love and grace in Jesus Christ. Coming alongside someone as a fellow weary traveller, pointing them towards a shelter in the storm is very different than shouting down the ladder at someone else to pick up the pace. If we really believe that we are saved by grace, we will not look down, speak slanderously, or harbor bitter thoughts towards our neighbor – when we do, we have just forgotten of the log of sin that Jesus forgave us of. But if we have established a pattern of remembering and repenting of our own sin, we should help our brother experience that same kind of freedom. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).
We want to be a youth group, a church and a community that does not thrive by pushing other people’s heads under the water so we can look good, so we can rise up and survive. We want to be a community that admits that we were dead at the bottom of the ocean, and Christ dove in and breathed life into us and are now alive, and we just want to bring as many people with us as possible. May God transform us into that kind of gloriously free people, the kind of people who will transform the world!