Bobbing on the ocean’s surface, I listened as the surf instructor reminded me what to do. Together we squinted towards the horizon, scanning for the next set of waves to roll in. Standing waist-deep in the water, he prepared me for my first ride before shouting with glee, “Ok, here we go!” With a shove of the board, he pushed me in front of the swell and began shouting “Paddle! Paddle! Now stand up!” With one swift motion I pushed myself from my chest to my feet and steadied myself as the board moved towards the shore. After years of wanting to learn, it was a thrill to surf in the warm waters of Kauai that day. The long board, low waves and encouragement from a knowledgeable teacher were key ingredients for success.
As much as I loved the experience, you won’t find me riding the waves off the California coast anytime soon. There are many aspects of the sport that intimidate me, but the main one is that I’m not an “insider.” I’ve learned through listening to family members and friends that there is a whole culture and code of conduct in the world of surfing. There are unwritten rules about who surfs what beaches and who has first dibs to drop in on a wave. A newbie who doesn’t know better is sure to get a tongue-lashing from locals who don’t appreciate a “kook” messing up their surf session. (Yes, surfers have their own brand of slang and terminology too.)
For me, the act of riding the waves was hard enough. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my instructor. Adding the unwritten rules within surf culture makes it far too intimidating to be enjoyable for me. If you’ve never surfed before, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. But if you know the thrill of riding a wave, you might think I’m crazy for letting surf etiquette keep me from continuing to learn.
What if I told you that many people outside of the church view Christian culture the same way? There are aspects of it that attract them (that whole promise of eternal life isn’t so bad, after all). But there are so many parts that intimidate them that they aren’t willing to risk engaging in Christian community.
For the past few years I’ve had a unique opportunity to spend time weekly with a group of women who considered themselves “newbies” to exploring faith. Some had a church background but lacked Biblical knowledge while others were discovering the Christian faith for the first time. Regardless of their levels of experience, two things held them back from seeking answers to their spiritual questions: hypocrisy and judgment. Most had at least one negative experience with a “churchy” person that had tainted their perspective of God and the Church as a whole.
I’ve learned a lot from this group of women as we’ve continued to meet and study the Bible together. They have given me an “outsider’s” view into the Christian sub-culture. For most of them, our group was the first time they felt safe to ask questions without fearing judgment or criticism. That is why Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are so striking to me:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 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? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5, NIV)
Judging people labels and categorizes them, diminishing their value and dismissing them based on outward flaws. Many Christians are quick to let the sinful behaviors and attitudes of non-believers deter them from engaging in relationships. It’s so much easier to judge a person for things we see on the surface than to take time to develop a friendship and to discover what influences and worldviews have impacted their perspectives.
Judging people creates a barrier that prevents opportunity for deeper relationships. It intimidates others and often causes us to appear self-righteous. Judging others also puts us in a position of superiority that stands in opposition to humility. It causes us to hide our sins and weaknesses for the sake of pride, making us hypocrites in the process.
Jesus gave us the perfect model for engaging others with love. He took time to get people in all stations in life–even the worst sinners. His harshest words were directed not towards “sinners” but toward the most self-righteous and superior people He encountered, the Pharisees.
The next time you’re tempted to make a quick judgment on someone, take a moment to stop and think first. What factors might be contributing to their actions and attitudes? Examine your heart and ask God to help you see the person as He sees them. Make time to understand them before being so quick to dismiss them.
There is a place for using discernment to hold people accountable for their sins, once we’ve made things right within ourselves and with God. However, this needs to be done in the context of a loving caring relationship, not as a snap judgment. (See James 5:19-20 for more on this.)
Let’s strive to be more like my surf instructor– coming alongside people patiently and helping them to discover the tremendous joy found through a relationship with Jesus. When we begin with love and encouragement, they may eventually trust us enough to let us address the areas in their lives that need transformation. And there won’t be any need to judge.
Let’s never forget that God gave us grace when we deserved judgment. May the song “Call it Grace” by Unspoken remind you of this foundational truth and motivate you to share it with others.