The Apostle Paul warns that wielding the sword of judgment, even with great dexterity, won’t earn anyone points on the Day of God’s wrath.
A Bad Joke and a Ruined Life
Judgmentalism used to be a nasty habit confined to religion. But we’ve now bred a secular culture of judging and shaming so merciless and unbalanced that it rivals religious legalism on its worst days. Strange, given the favored verse fragment up until recent years was “Judge not.” Now it seems, judgment has become a team sport.
Submitted for example is the case of Justine Sacco. In 2015 the 30-year-old boarded a flight in London bound for Cape Town, South Africa, and tweeted:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
The tweet was sarcastic and tasteless. No one at first responded to it—not surprising, since Sacco had less than two hundred twitter followers. She then turned off her cell phone for the eleven hour flight without any clue that before her plane landed, her name would become an international online obsession, and her words shared no less than 30,000 times.
The tweet was picked up and passed around, sluggishly at first, but then gained momentum as outrage grew around it. A dogpile of responses in the thousands rapidly surpassed Sacco’s tweet for sheer vulgarity. The tenor and tone of them were dark, wrathful, and some borderline hysterical, with name calling and wishes that Sacco would become infected with the AIDS virus.
Journalist Jon Ronson of the New York Times Magazine remarked that, “The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment.”1 Indeed, it seemed that each post tried to outdo the other in the ingenious turning of cruel phrases.
Meanwhile, Sacco was still in the air, oblivious to the unfolding drama and unable to explain or apologize or delete the offensive tweet. It simply sat there in cyberspace, attracting more attention. A hashtag appeared—#HasJustineLandedYet—and trended worldwide.
The orgy of judgment grew so heavy that even after the woman was blindsided by the entire affair, deleted her social media accounts and tried to apologize, she still lost her job. At a later time when she quietly resurfaced at another place of employment, former shamers found out and began tweeting about her again.
Ironically, Sacco’s lead attacker was himself targeted by a different group of online judges who found him lacking in some specific point of correctness. Infected with the same mob instinct, they sought to destroy him as well.
The Pot Calling the Kettle Black
We have become adept at judgment, but not well-equipped in the art of detecting self-contradiction. The Atlantic magazine relates the story of Omar Mahmood, a student and journalist at the University of Michigan, who dared pen a satirical piece on the over-sensitivity of college students. After complaints about the column, the editors of his publication terminated his employment.
But it wasn’t over. “A group of women later vandalized Mahmood’s doorway with eggs, hotdogs, gum, and notes with messages such as ‘Everyone hates you, you violent pr*ck.’”2 Apparently, this deed was meant to demonstrate their commitment to tolerance.
Though such self-contradiction seems obvious, it is always lost upon those involved in the sincere, sweaty prosecution of judgment. In our quest for justice upon others, we are blind.
That is why Paul’s opening phrase in Romans 2 is so startling:
2:1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.
The scandal of human judgment lies not in the act of judging, but in the fact that the very person who judges is guilty of the same things he or she condemns.
Denial is both hot and immediate: I am not guilty of things I judge in others!
Maybe so. At least not an exact replica of them. But the unrighteousness we commit is always variation on a theme. For instance, adultery, internet pornography, Friday night hook-ups, ogling girls at the mall, sexting your steady, prostitution, phone sex via credit card, and homosexuality, while different on the surface, all share a common source in the seething broth of sexual lust. They vary in expression, but thematically at root level, all look similar.
The Reason We Judge
Then why do we judge? Setting aside the numerous reasons we could list here, Paul alludes to one overriding motive:
3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?
This man who judges, plants his flag on moral high ground and assigns others a standing somewhere beneath him. The harder and more exacting his judgment upon them, the greater the distance between him and them.
He supposes this approach will best transcend their unrighteousness and perhaps excuse him from their judgment. This supposition, though basic to human psychology, is misled.
The judge who does the same things he judges will receive no exemptions. Salvation does not lie in turning the spotlight on others. As a strategy for escaping divine condemnation, it is futile, like a man who bails water from a leaky boat. With dixie cup in hand he furiously gets rid of twelve ounces of water from the front of the boat. Meanwhile four gallons seep into the back of it. Since he has perfected his bailing technique, he thinks he’s getting somewhere. Anyone who sees the whole picture finds it a bit amusing, if not sad. He, however, is serious. He is on a mission to correct the wrongs of the world, and believes himself to be earning points in the process.
What God is Trying to Do With the One Man judge and Jury
Paul asks the poor man one further question:
4 …do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
The self-righteous assume they don’t need God’s kindness, because they haven’t done anything wrong. They don’t need God to forbear with them, because they don’t give Him trouble. They don’t need God to be patient with them, because they don’t try Him.
In essence, they don’t know that God is being kind to them by leading them to a place where they realize their own ridiculous internal contradictions—that what they say and what they do are two different things, and what they condemn and what they do are the same. Until that happens, these mini-judges will continue to pound their gavels, holler at the unenlightened, and see unrighteousness as a product of the primitive masses, but certainly not of them.
The message to all who judge is that the emphasis of God is on you, not on others.
When we ignore that message, the long-term result is deadly:
5 …because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
The impenitent heart, or heart that refuses to repent, stores up the wrath of God like a cosmic bank account. The hardness of this heart rebuffs all opportunities for repentance until the day arrives when the righteous wrath of God is fully revealed. Only then will self-bound human righteousness be shown as a Titanic.
For a while prior to the start of World War II, America tolerated the re-armament of Germany, and an increasingly militaristic Japan. Personal crimes were committed against American citizens overseas, and the sinking of ships took place. Hitler’s rhetoric grew worse, and tales of Jewish persecution leaked to the outside world.
Some asked how long it would be before the U.S. would strike an aggressive posture to stop the outrages. More delays came. A growing consensus suggested that perhaps the nation was unable to fight. The offending countries began to openly mock America, calling it “a nation of weaklings—playboys.”3 Finally Japan breached the zero barrier when it bombed Pearl Harbor. The U.S. War machine began to trundle forward.
Admiral Yamamoto of the Japanese navy was said to have written in his diary, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled it with a terrible resolve.” Even if the quote was apocryphal (some say it is), it could not have been more accurate. After relentless pounding, Germany ended up in ruins and Japan under the furnace of dual mushroom clouds.
If a mere earthly nation could inflict this punishment after much longsuffering, what will the wrath of an omnipotent Being look like? However terrible the scene, when it finally falls, it will not land on a group of poor, unwarned, unprepared people, but on those who actively shunned the work of God in a “talk to the hand” manner.
Before You Commit to Self-Righteousness, Know What You’re Getting Into
In response to the eventuality of God’s judgment, we determine to do better—to be less hypocritical. We’ll try harder to be consistent, we tell ourselves. But Paul, in order to make sure we understand the gravity of the situation says,
6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
As long as the man who judges persists in his homegrown righteousness, he must be aware of the ground rules. The bar cannot be lowered for him. Nothing short of “doing” fits the necessary criteria. Not intentions. Not effort. Not college tries. He receives no extra credit for time spent on the bench judging others. The self-appointed judge can’t have one standard for himself and another for the people he judges.
I played a lot of board games with my siblings. As the oldest, and thus reigning tyrant among the kids, I often wanted to make up the rules as we went along. Some of them were absurd. If you accidentally dropped the dice when you rolled, you couldn’t roll again, even if one die went under the couch. If you dropped your token when it was your turn to move, it was a $25,000 penalty In game currency). You weren’t allowed to quit the game and go ride your bike if you started losing. After it was over, losers always have to clean up the game pieces. Anything I didn’t know, and wasn’t in the mood to chase down in the instructions, I invented. The devil of it all was my fluidity and forgiveness when it came to myself. My own rules didn’t often apply to me. The other kids would howl in protest, but my ability to reason, plus my twenty-five extra pounds and peppery temper would put all such debates to rest.
God doesn’t work that way.
As Paul says, 11 …God shows no partiality.
These verses have been featured in a fair number of sermons with the punchline of “Do not judge.” It is good advice and certainly commanded in other verses, but Paul isn’t trying to make that point here.
He makes a prolonged case against judgmentalism to remind us that judging others blinds us to the fact that we are as flawed as the people we judge and as short of righteousness as they are. After we have passed judgment on various parties and the courtroom dust settles, we find that we are them.
Judging isn’t simply mean or bad decorum; it draws the focus away from the condition of one’s own soul, and places it elsewhere, until it is too late.
For that reason, like bloodhounds, we must track the scent of real righteousness not back to the corridors of our own hearts, full as they are of rule bending, and relativist standards skewed in our favor. The trail instead should take us back to Romans 1:16-17, where the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is our reference point, the only place that radiates salvation.
It is where we find righteousness that doesn’t leak and never sinks.
1Jon Ronson, New York Times Magazine, Online edition, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”. February 12, 2015.
2Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” September, 2015.
3Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fireside Chat, February 23, 1942.