“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matt. 7:1-2)
You probably can’t count the number of times you’ve heard this passage used in the wrong context (assuming you know the right context). Even a casual reading of Matthew 7:1-6 should make it clear that not all judging is wrong. If it were, how are we to determine who are the dogs and swine (Matt. 7:6)?
To judge, in simple terms, is the act of discernment. Frankly, it’s not possible to tell right from wrong without judging. We can’t even decide a favorite flavor of ice cream without judging.
In context, Jesus is contrasting his disciples (at least, who they are supposed to be) next to the religious elites of the day (namely, the scribes and Pharisees). So, let’s the compare the two.
Judge only according to God’s standard
There was no sin more harshly rebuked by Christ than self-righteousness. He really let the Pharisees have it when he accused them of standing in their followers’ way of entering the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 23:13). They had created their own system of morality and imposed it on everyone else (Luke 16:15).
That was the problem. Self-righteousness will always lead to wicked judgments because the self-righteous person is judging according to a standard that is not God’s perfect standard (Matt. 15:3).
This is why Jesus used that cartoonish example of a man judging another man’s splinter when he has a 2×4 beam protruding from his own eye (Matt. 7:3-5).
Judge only what you can see
Another problem with the Pharisees was their superficial attitude. They judged primarily according to appearance. If a person fit their mental picture of a sinner, they were a sinner (Matt. 9:11).
However, there’s always more to the story than what meets the eye. The Pharisees may have looked like a righteous bunch and many certainly believed they were (Matt. 5:20), but appearances are deceiving.
Jesus told the story of two men going into the temple to pray. One, a Pharisee, boasted on his good works and how he had kept so many of the fundamental commandments of God, and the other, a publican, convicted of his sin, begged for mercy. It was the publican who left justified (Luke 18:10-14).
It’s one thing to judge a person’s behavior. It’s another thing to judge his motives or his heart.
Judge only when and how commanded
Judging others to be right or wrong is necessary and even commanded. For instance, we should acknowledge those in the church living in sin and deal with it (1 Cor. 5:1-13). Parents must do the same with their children (Prov. 23:13-14). We’re to be aware of false teachers and avoid them (Gal. 1:8).
Unfortunately, sometimes we’re tempted to disregard meekness and love when we judge (Gal. 6:1-2). Sometimes we go beyond the Bible’s instructions and outright condemn (Rom. 2:1). Sometimes we seek to punish when a person’s punishment is reserved only for government or God (Rom. 13:3-4, Jer. 11:20).
Perhaps the biggest mistake we make in judging (and consequently acting upon it) is that we often do it too quickly (James 1:19-20). We should be quick to judge ourselves and slow to judge others.