The Season of Lent: Helping Guard Against Unholy Judgmentalism

They [Gentile unbelievers] have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

–Romans 1.29-2.4 (NIV)

In today’s world it has become quite unfashionable to be seen as “judgmental.” Because Jesus’ (and Paul’s) injunctions against judging have been decontextualized and misinterpreted, many believe that we are to suspend all forms of moral judgment. “Don’t judge unless you want to be judged” and all that. But that is simply a misreading of Scripture as can be seen in today’s passage. And as we will see, having a proper season of Lent in our hearts will go a long way in helping to guard against the kind of unholy judgmentalism that Scripture prohibits.

In today’s passage Paul catalogs a host of behaviors that are part and parcel of the human condition. It is not a pretty list to consider. Paul compiles a similar list in his letter to the Galatians:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5.19-21).

If these behaviors are so bad, why then should we not call them for what they are? Why should we not be opposed to them? In other words, why should we not judge them (i.e., assess them to be right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy)? Paul tells us. We should not judge the behaviors of others if we too engage in the same kind of behaviors. This is quite different from never judging (assessing) behaviors. Note carefully the difference between judging people versus judging their behaviors–the two are quite different. If you do not believe me, then consider the words of Jesus as Matthew records them. You cannot help but notice that our Lord is indeed making a judgment about the Pharisees’ behavior.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23.27-37).

So much for gentle Jesus, meek and mild. So much for never judging or assessing others’ behavior. But notice the critical difference here. Notice on what Jesus focuses. He excoriates the Pharisees’ behavior because they focus on the external trappings that are designed to foster human praise rather than on changing the heart. The sin of the Pharisees isn’t that they did these things but that they did these things out of a hard-hearted and self-righteous attitude which led them to think they were somehow superior to others. And notice carefully how Jesus ends his “seven woes.” The Pharisees’ biggest sin was that they rejected the help God had sent them in the form of the Law and the prophets. They abandoned the principles of God’s righteousness in favor of following their own minutiae.

And this is where observing a true season of Lent comes in. When we get real with ourselves and acknowledge our human condition, we suddenly realize that we are just like those whom we want to judge and this must inevitably lead us to be circumspect in our judging of others’ behavior because we realize that we are capable of the exact same behavior. This is the kind of judgmentalism that Scripture prohibits. We who love the Lord and seek to follow him are not to suspend our moral judgment. Rather, we are to suspend the judgmentalism that flows from a proud and arrogant heart.

If we have a proper and humble spirit, we will be ruthless on ourselves. We will always be monitoring our own thoughts and behaviors to see if there is any corruption or wickedness in them. How will we know if there is? Because we use God’s Truth contained in Scripture as the criteria by which we assess everything we think, say, or do. And this is precisely what the season of Lent is designed to help us do. When we confess our sins and repent of them, when we pray, fast, and read Scripture, we open ourselves up to God’s power working in us in the person of the Holy Spirit to put to death that within us that keeps us separate from and hostile toward God and others, judgmentalism being one of the worst culprits in this sad and deadly dynamic. This leads to a true understanding of our real and fallen nature. We are always aware of our brokenness and this leads us to see the sins of others in a different light. Instead of being proud, haughty, and self-righteous when we see others misbehaving, it brings us real sorrow, in part, because we remember that we are capable of behaving in the exact same way.

And this will perforce change the way in which we judge others. We will talk to them the same way we would want others to talk to us when correcting us and judging our sinful behavior. We will take no pleasure in doing so and our hearts will be heavy when we confront others, especially if they do not repent. Instead of condemning them, we will want to pray for them because we want the best for them and we want others praying for us when we get it wrong.

All of this, of course, comes from a humble and contrite heart and this is the best safeguard there is against the kind of unholy judgmentalism the Bible condemns. We will always be looking at our own thoughts, speech, and behaviors before we look at others. The season of Lent will also lead us to look for the fruit of the Spirit about which Paul talks in Galatians.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5.22-26).

Seeing the fruit of the Spirit is the best way you can tell if your Lenten disciplines are efficacious. It will necessarily lead you to see yourself in God’s light and this will help you remember who you are and Whose you are. This, in turn, must always lead us to be circumspect in our judgment of others. May God grant you a prosperous and holy Lenten season.