Who Are You to Judge Your Neighbor?
It is a truth often repeated (and in this day and age, often found as one scrolls through a Facebook newsfeed): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” And, while the attribution of this quotation is hazy at best, it contains a sentiment that faintly echoes a statement made by James in the early first century. In James 4:11-12, he writes:
“Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
It’s a common directive in Scripture – even Jesus cautions us against addressing the speck in a brother’s eye when we have a log in ours – and it’s repeated so often that we likely become desensitized to it. However, we ought to always give extra consideration to the things we see repeated throughout God’s Word, for clearly there must be something He wants us to understand.
So what exactly is James saying here? Certainly not that we should just let sin run rampant in the lives of our fellow Christians just so we don’t hurt their feelings – in fact, if we look through Scripture, we see constant directives telling us to hold ourselves and our fellow believers to a higher standard with our behavior. No, his warning speaks to something much more insidious, something that we all struggle with, and something which James has given special attention to this entire chapter: our pride and arrogance.
The problem here isn’t the action of criticizing one another in itself, but rather it is the mindset that so often goes along with it that James seeks to address. He makes it very clear:
“He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
Many times, criticism comes from a place where someone thinks, “I know what you should be doing, and you’re not doing it, so you’re wrong,” and while that may be from good intentions, there is an arrogance just below the surface. In criticizing someone this way, we are saying that we understand the law more fully than they do; and James clearly says that such a task does not fall to us. We are called to be doers of the law, not judge others based on it – we’re simply not qualified. And if we would take a moment and judge ourselves with that same critical look which we levy upon others, we would see that harsh reality in a moment. James reminds us of this too when he says:
“There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?”
Just in case we may have forgotten ourselves, we’re reminded of two things. First, that God is judge over all of our lives, having the power to save or to condemn us all. Second, that we are just as worthy of rebuke and judgment as anyone else -just as we are told earlier in Scripture, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Armed with that knowledge, we must always be aware of our actions and motivations. In seeking to lead a brother or sister down a Godly path, we must be careful not to fall into judgment of them, but remain always an advocate for the light of Christ, which convicts all humanity of good.
Pastor’s Academy Student