The peril of the pointing finger

Jesus said: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Matthew 7:1

London. The First World War is raging. Two young men are sitting in an expensive restaurant enjoying a fine meal. A young woman approaches their table and hands each of them a white feather.

What’s going on? The white feather was a symbol of cowardice, and, when the war started, a group called the Order of the White Feather was formed. Its aim: to shame young men into enlisting in the army. Its method: to encourage young women to hand a white feather to any young men seen without uniform. (To be fair to the young women involved, many of them were probably sisters, girl-friends or wives of soldiers suffering in the horrors of the trenches.)

What the woman in the true story above didn’t know was this: one of the two men was in London because his plane had been shot down and he had been badly hurt; the other had just come from Buckingham Palace where he had been awarded a medal for gallantry. Some cowards! They had made the “mistake” of changing out of uniform before having their meal.

Jesus tells us, “Do not judge”. This doesn’t mean, of course, that no Christian can ever serve as a judge or magistrate. What it does mean is that we shouldn’t condemn or criticise others unless we really know what we’re doing – and perhaps not even then.

Why do we have this tendency to find fault with others? Perhaps it makes us feel better about ourselves and our own faults and failings. But whatever the reason, it’s a dangerous thing to do. Jesus gives two reasons why.

First, if you judge others, you invite God’s judgment on yourself: “In the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Putting that last part more bluntly: if you dish out judgment by the bucketful, then God will pour a bucket of judgment on you too.

It’s rather like that part of the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He spells out the essence of what that means at the end of the prayer: “If you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (verse 15).

The Bible teaches that all of us must one day “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). However sure we are of our salvation and forgiveness in him (and I hope we are) that statement should give us something to think about. (And I suggest leaving discussions – how can those two truths agree? – for another day: that would be to duck the point Jesus is making…)

Second, we have plenty of sins of our own to bother about before bothering about other people’s.

Says Jesus: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”A ridiculous comparison? Well, yes indeed. But Jesus was never afraid to exaggerate in order to make his point: hopefully we have all got the message… The old illustration remains true – you can’t point the finger at someone else without pointing three fingers at yourself (try it if you don’t believe me).

Ultimately, only God himself can judge rightly. I may point that accusing finger at someone – but what do I really know about them? What do I know about their background, about the way they were brought up, about the influences they have come under, about the temptations they are subject to? What do I know about their true motives, their deepest desires? Suppose the fault I have picked on in them is one that they themselves hate and despise and weep over every night?

I don’t know – I cannot know – these things. But God knows. So isn’t it best to leave the judging to him? Isn’t it better to pray, “Lord God, help me to see that person with your eyes”? And then to focus on my own sins?

The book I took the story of the white feather from also told me that among the best Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day six things were especially valued: “study, visiting the sick, hospitality, devotion in prayer, the education of children in the Law, and thinking the best of other people”.

Thinking the best of other people… Yes! Isn’t that what this is all about?

May God forgive us that nasty instinct to think the worst. And may he, by his Spirit, sponge it out of our souls.

Lord God, you alone know the heart of every living man and woman – including mine. So help me to gladly leave the judging of us all to your just and loving wisdom. Amen.