Who Are You to Judge?
June 21, 2020 – Evening Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.[a] 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 neighbor?
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
When a sculptor rasps away at a block of marble, he gets rid of a lot of excess marble to leave a more perfect form. He rasps and rasps away, and the idea is that he leaves something beautiful.
Well, when we first started the book of James, I imagine that we were all in pretty rough shape – a pretty grotesque block of marble. Since that first chapter, more and more of our ego and pride has been stripped away and we have seen chunks of rock being removed chapter by chapter, section by section.
Tonight we complete chapter four, and move into the last section of James. And believe it or not, I’m just now realizing something. James isn’t sculpting a beautiful statue of us with these blows. Blow by blow, James is knocking us out of the way. He is removing all of our passions, our boasting, our pride, our partiality, our dead faith, our supposed wisdom. He is tearing us down to nothing, so that we can start over as the new creations Jesus came to make us.
It has taken me several months now to pick up on that.
And James is not rasping away at us carefully, but rather is taking more of a sledgehammer approach, directed at our pride. He has come to destroy our egos and leave us with nothing but Jesus, so that we no longer live, but Jesus Christ lives in us.
At the end of this book, we won’t be able to say, “Now we’ve got it! We’ve mastered trials and the use of our tongues, and we’ve become single-minded!” No.
If James has accomplished his goal, we will be a humbler people who realize that we have nothing to offer to God or to this world but Jesus.
We are a hard-headed people. Just like the Israelites, we struggle to obey. We stray from the path God has given us, and we follow after the idols of this world. And just like the prophets of old, James is here to call us back to Jesus, and away from ourselves.
Tonight, my friends, James is going to strike another blow, and though he wrote these words so many, many years ago, the Holy Spirit knew that we needed to hear this tonight.
And though this is a short passage, the teaching has significant implications in our lives. Here we are learning a specific aspect of obedience that we must follow, a specific way in which we must guard our tongues and use them for God’s glory rather than for our own.
Many of us can remember what it felt like to learn to swim, or to teach someone else to swim. In order to learn, you have to let go of the side of the pool and take some risks; you have to let go of your parents and try to stay afloat.
When I first taught my older kids how to swim, they clung to me and their nails dug deep into my skin. You see, they had experienced that awful feeling of having water go up their nose, and nothing was going to pry their little fingers off of my arms after having that feeling.
There was, built into their little brains, that if they let go, they would suffer horrible consequences. So they clung to me.
As time went on, I taught them that if they paddled a certain way, and held their breath a certain way, they could actually experience the joy of feeling the freedom of swimming.
But it takes practice. A lot of practice. One bad experience is enough to make them never want to go back in the water again. So, we have to teach them and explain it to them. We have to encourage them to let go of the floaties and stop depending on them.
In a way, we all have a similar fear. We have had bad experiences in this world. We’ve been burned and the walls have gone up. We’ve gone through trials, we’ve had the unpleasant feeling of having a lot of water go up our noses, and we fear what it would mean to experience something like that again, so we cling to whatever brings us security – be it pride, self-reliance or something else.
And I believe that that security, which we have placed our trust in, is ourselves. We are fearful of what could happen if we trust in God’s way, so we depend on ourselves, and we trust in ourselves rather than in God’s plan.
The problem is that living this way, is to live like the world and we have grown so accustomed to living like the world, that we have trouble seeing it any other way. We don’t understand that being a Christian requires us to be drastically different than the world. It requires us to take steps that seem counterintuitive. It requires us die to self and live humbly before God.
And yet, we know that humility and dying to self is central to Scripture’s teaching because we know the first and greatest commandment: to love God above all things, with our heart, soul, strength and mind – and the second, to love our neighbor as ourselves. We see that to live in obedience to God, we must die to ourselves and live for him. This is the humility Jesus calls us to.
But we fear and cling to our pride. We don’t want to. We have so engrained in our hearts that we need to look out for ourselves, and that is why James begins this section with a rebuke and a call to forsake a type of behavior that lends itself to building up our pride. And that behavior that is rooted in pride is slander.
Listen to James from v. 11, “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.”
Again, this requires a great deal of retraining and a great deal of unlearning. We have grown accustomed to the practices of our flesh and the world and have learned to make every move we make about furthering our well-being, our self-centered agenda.
It is like a game of chess, where every single move counts, and each move we make cannot be neutral. Everything is rooted in good or evil.
As we have learned before, we will be judged for every careless word.
And that is where James focuses. He begins with the fact that as Christians, we have a problem with slander. We speak evil of others in our daily conversations so often that we don’t even realize it anymore. And he is here to tell us that it is a major problem with major consequences.
And I believe we need to hear this message because we sin against others behind their backs with such regularity that we don’t even realize it anymore. Of course, we camouflage it by justifying our actions with all sorts of spiritual reasonings – asking for prayer, help or guidance.
How many times has someone come to you to “ask for help,” but you quickly find out that what they really want is just to vent and tell you how unreasonable someone has been towards them?
We may have grown up since our schoolyard days where people bullied each other, but we are still bullying people; we are just doing it in more sophisticated ways. Now we do it behind their backs, at their expense and for our advancement in the real-life version of the game of chess.
The difficulty with the issue of slander and gossip and speaking evil about others is that we don’t really feel like we really struggle with this sin. We might be tempted to think of some chatty Aunt that we have, or perhaps a talkative neighbor who deals with this, but we fail to see how we regularly take part in speaking evil against others.
We prefer to narrow it down to the idea of those gossips who just love to tell everyone about the recent gossip, and we feel like we are sophisticated and mature and can move on to more difficult Christian struggles. After all, “we all sin, but this isn’t really an area I struggle in.”
But Henry Krabbendam argues that what James is addressing here is much wider in scope than just gossip. He says that James “takes aim at any and every kind of prejudicial ‘language’: thoughtless, careless, or intentional.”
Right away, he expands our understanding of slander to encompass even unintentional gossip – you know, the kind of slander that seems innocent.
And he goes on to say that it is “any language that, for the purpose of subtle self- exaltation, paints a negative picture, regardless whether it is true or false.” Here again, it doesn’t matter if it is a true rumor; it is still slander!
He continues, and speaks against “language [that] may put the brother in a bad light, whether this is deserved or not, [which] may ‘suggest bad motives,’ … [or] falsely accuses him, harshly criticizes him, defames him, degrades him, belittles him, …and is calculated to lower him in other people’s estimation.” (Krabbendam, 698.)
If Krabbendam is right, and I believe he is, we have much room for growth. Every word matters. We are guilty in even those brief comments, unintentional as they may be.
How many of us can say that we are not guilty of speaking about other people’s short comings when they aren’t around? Can we say we only speak well of others?
Perhaps you are sharing what other people are going through and without even realizing it, you highlight an area of failure, or a mistake they’ve made. In this way, you speak evil against them.
Every careless word spoken in reference to a brother or sister, every conversation behind people’s backs, has a very high potential for sin, for speaking evil against them.
No doubt over your meals today there were various opportunities for this. Think back for a moment.
It is easy to start off with something positive. You begin to talk about the morning service, how it was so nice to see everyone. “The singing was beautiful, the message spoke to my heart…it was so good to see so and so.”
“Oh, but where was John Doe’s family?”
“Oh, I don’t think he would come,” someone says judgmentally.
“They wouldn’t like the cold, or they wouldn’t want to wear a mask, or maybe they were too afraid to risk it. No, I think they just wouldn’t agree to the rules,” another chimes in.
“He and his family can be pretty flakey. Remember when they never showed up for the Harvest Fest after they had said they’d come?”
So quickly, from a positive conversation, we are thrust into slander, and we throw on heaps of reasons why John Doe didn’t make it to the service. He is thrown under the bus and made out to be a loser – but we do it nicely and casually, with a Christian-like tone and appearance. We base it on common sense and past experience … and all the while it turns out he had a flat tire on his way to the Harvest Fest and had a car accident that Sunday.
A struggling and hurting family now has the reputation of being unreliable and fickle. All because of a few careless words spoken as we “fellowshipped” at the dinner table.
Why do we do that? Why do we speak about others and their family issues? Or why do our conversations revolve around “concerns” we have about people? What does it benefit us? Are we truly concerned for their well-being, or are we just building ourselves up at their expense? Making ourselves feel good while we talk about other people’s struggles in life?
It can be parenting, it can be family life, the way their children behave, the way they school their kids, the amount they are involved in church.
It can be the car they drive, the clothes they wear, the way they spend their money, the way they spend their time, the things they watch, the things they don’t watch. We can bring up all sorts of things to critique and judge.
Have you ever taken a screenshot or shared something that someone else wrote that you disapproved of? If so, why do we do that? Is it so that we could share it with someone else we know would disapprove of it as well? Is it so we can all get a laugh at their expense and build ourselves up?
Everyone in our church sins in different ways. We all have our struggles. Honestly, we all are a mess if you look past our Sunday best. And yet, somehow, we find something in someone else’s life to critique and judge. We look at the speck in their eye and forget about the beam in our own.
Why do we do that? What stops us from approaching someone when we are concerned?
If we really care about people’s problems, how is talking about their issues with other people going to help them?
If we are truly worried about sin in their lives, we must beware of the pretext of “asking for counsel” with 3-5 people and then never going to that person with the issue we were so concerned about.
If we really care, then we don’t need to bring people’s struggles to the dinner table. We don’t need to tell our spouses, sisters and brothers everything we’ve heard.
For as we do this, we are speaking evil against them, and building ourselves up at their expense.
It works like this. We look at our neighbor’s yard, and we see how beautifully maintained it is, and we say something with our eyebrows up, like, “Their yard is obviously very important to them….they invest so much into it. It is like a god to them.” This may or may not be something I said 15 years ago.
What??!?! I did this to make myself greater than them, because of my insecurities and deficiencies.
However, we can avoid speaking against our brothers and sisters and instead show them love by either 1) overlooking the offense, or 2) going to them directly, as Scripture commands us to.
The next time you are in a conversation, take note every time you bring up someone’s name. Why are you bringing up that name? Why are you talking about that brother or sister? If you are building them up, praise the Lord. But if you are not, you are in great danger of speaking evil against them.
Make it a practice to test yourself, to ask yourself, “Why did I just bring up that person’s name?”
I’ll be the first to admit that it is hard work to control the tongue. It requires constant vigilance and great humility. So much of what we do, we do to serve ourselves.
In my college days, I went to the movies with a Christian friend. A bad scene came up, and he physically shielded his eyes from the scene. I was like, “Put your hands down…you are embarrassing me!” But as I look back to it, I see that, while extreme, his heart was in the right place. He didn’t care how he looked. He wanted to make sure to protect himself from evil.
Sometimes it takes being awkward like that to make a statement about something. Sometimes being the only one in the group to speak up is uncomfortable. It takes sacrifice. It means looking bad before others, being that awkward person to interrupt everyone who just wants to have a good time.
But that is the sacrifice of our pride that we are called to. James is calling us to humility and to die to self in this letter. We are to value God’s honor above our own. Valuing the honor of others means loving them and loving God. Because “how can we love God whom we have not seen, if we do not love man who we have seen?” Loving God and loving our brothers and sisters goes hand in hand.
We cannot say we love God when we slander our brethren. This simply doesn’t work.
To be transparent, I have wrestled with this message. In some ways it seemed like an insignificant point. I mean, it was only two verses! Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? There are people who are struggling, marriages and relationships that are strained, people that are living in sin, others who are struggling with additions, people who are hurting other people.
Who cares about a little slip of the tongue? Is talking about someone without mal intent all that bad? Especially if it is kept secret? After all, the information stays with us, it isn’t being broadcast to the whole church. We have no evil motives, right?
I assume many of us feel that way, at least subconsciously. I mean, rarely do we bring people up on charges for speaking badly about other people, right?
But that is precisely the problem in the second part of v. 11. According to our passage, the problem is that we have made distinctions between God’s law. We have decided that some of God’s laws are important and that others are less important.
Lying, cheating and stealing is to be condemned, but slander and speaking about others behind their backs isn’t that big a deal. Hot tempers and rebellious attitudes are a big problem, but we dismiss our group conversation about people who have them.
As we judge people for their sin, we not only act as though we are better than they, but we act as if we are above the law. We sit in judgment on them and in judgment on the law, not realizing our own sin.
But James says in v. 11 that when we judge others, we actually fail to practice the law of God. We sit in judgment over others, but in reality, we are just showing that we are breaking the law.
There is a scene in a TV show I don’t recommend, where a really socially unaware and awkward boss is followed around by an employee who wants to kiss up and get on his good side. He follows him around all day, and the socially awkward boss, who never gets any social cues right, turns to the camera and says, “I wonder if this guy knows how socially awkward he is.” This is us when we see ourselves in judgment over others.
God’s calls us in his law to love others as ourselves. But we disregard and pay no attention to that law, because we are too busy pointing out other people’s sins.
And we do this because we think so highly of ourselves. We think we are above others and above the law, that somehow our accomplishments justify us thinking more highly of ourselves than others.
So, we step on people’s backs to lift ourselves up. We build a case against others so people will see us in a better light, so that they will think we are better Christians than everyone else.
This is the pride we cling to, that pride that we just naturally grasp at.
We fear humility, because to be humble and to pursue humility can be humbling. And sometimes we don’t like that feeling. It feels far better to be in charge and in control, and to make ourselves feel good about our lives.
But the truth is that what the law does is show us that we are all sinners, that we are all on equal footing. We have all fallen short of the glory of God.
We didn’t give the law; we didn’t write the laws. God did. He is the lawgiver and he is the judge. We have no business judging the sins of others, focusing on their speck, when we ourselves are walking around with multiple beams of sin in our eyes.
There is only ONE Lawgiver and Judge. He is the one who holds us all accountable for all of our sins. We are no more righteous than the next guy. We were all dead in our trespasses and sins.
If we do not struggle with some particular sin that someone else has, it is by the grace of God, not because we are better than someone else.
My son Jeremiah was taking the garbage out for us the other day. As he did, someone walked by him and called him a name that really upset him. He didn’t know Jeremiah, and Jeremiah didn’t know him.
When I learned about it hours later, I immediately became so frustrated and wanted to rush outside and look for this guy who had been there hours ago. I wanted to do everything in my power to somehow bring the situation to justice. But there was nothing I could do. But it surprised me how upset that situation made me.
When we consider the fact that God has made us all in his image, and called us to be children of God, that he has elected for glory, before the beginning of time, in his great wisdom and mercy and grace—
When we consider that God sent his only begotten Son to this world to be beaten, abused, ridiculed and murdered so that his chosen people could be saved—
Imagine the sorrow we bring upon God when we speak evil against his chosen ones, the men and women, our very own brothers and sisters, whom he has saved by grace, not because of anything within them, but because of the blood of Jesus, to free them from the shame of this world and to unify his church.
And then we choose to slander those beloved of his and speak evil against them and divide churches and relationships because we care more about ourselves than others.
James forcefully asks, “Who are you?! Who are you to judge your neighbor?!” The answer to this rhetorical question is, “Nobody.” You are unqualified and unworthy to judge.
You are no one to judge those whom God has made in his image and who he made righteous by the blood of his Son.
Brothers and sisters, James calls us to repent. He tells us that we cannot speak against our brothers and sisters. We must be different from the world.
Rather than speak evil, rather than speak words of destruction and devastation, we must speak words of love.
Rather than follow the path of Satan the accuser, accusing our brethren of their sin behind their backs, may we follow the path of Jesus, who is both lawgiver and judge, and is able to destroy, but also chooses to save.
This is the path we must follow. The path of humility. The path of love and sacrifice. The way that pursues and helps our brethren sacrificially and silences all slander and gossip.
This is what we are called to as his children.
Brothers and sisters, as we hear the strong words of v. 12, asking “Who are you to judge?”, may we be reminded that we are nobody to judge. In fact, without Christ, we are nothing more than wretched sinners, condemned for eternity. We have nothing to bring to the table. We must humbly remember this. We must seek to kill our self-serving nature and pride and seek to build others up in Jesus’ love.
As I mentioned before, this is easier said than done. We are a people who look out for ourselves so much so that it is ingrained in us. It is part of our sinful and corrupted DNA.
But Jesus has made us new creations. In Him, our thoughts and actions and decisions and judgments no longer self-serving. They are selfless. They serve our Lawgiver and Judge, our Savior and God.
Therefore, may we seek to obey the law of love, by ceasing to speak evil and speaking only that which is good and honoring to God.
For in this way we love God and love our neighbor.
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