Across the great American political divide, the two warring tribes have made an identical judgment about the other—“I’m not hateful, you are.” Or, to put it even more precisely, “I may not hate you, but you hate me.”
One of the first and most elementary things a young Christian learns in Sunday school is the idea that God’s commands are “good for you.” The violation of a moral command activates a set of consequences. On the individual level, this is not a controversial thought. Think of the Ten Commandments—violating prohibitions against adultery, theft, and murder results in pain, chaos, and violence.
Extending beyond the basic requirements of the Decalogue, the Bible is full of if/then propositions that describe the terrible consequences of sin and the benefits of obedience. There are so many, in fact, that it’s one explanation for the persistence of legalism or the prevalence of problematic theologies like the prosperity gospel. Seeking certainty in an uncertain world, Christians latch onto these propositions as if the promised rewards for righteousness are typically immediate, literal, and material.
In fact, there are times when we don’t live to see the benefits of obedience—by “taking up our cross” Christians can in fact die unjust deaths and suffer horrible persecution. I’d urge you to re-read Hebrews 11, the “hall of fame of faith,” to understand how obedience can lead to both earthly triumph and terrible tribulation:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Count me in the category of people who’d rather “put foreign armies to flight” than be “sawn in two,” but that’s not for me to decide.
I digress. The point of this newsletter isn’t to decipher all of God’s promises but rather to note two things at once. First, sin has consequences. Second, sometimes you can see those consequences play out in real time.
Let’s move to Matthew 7:1, one of the most-quoted and least understood verses in the entire Bible. Virtually every American—even the most biblically illiterate—can quote the first two words, “Judge not.” It’s turned into a cultural imperative, repeated in songs, talk shows, gifs, and memes. Don’t judge me.
Why do I say the verse is least understood? Well, for one thing, we have to define “judging.” If I say to a Christian friend who’s having an affair with a colleague that his affair is wrong, I’m not “judging.” I’m simply using basic reading comprehension. God has issued his judgment on adultery, not me. It’s right there in the text.
The larger context provides an if/then construct that is a clear warning of the consequences of uncharitable assessments of others—especially when our own sins are grievous. Here it is:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
The moral command is followed immediately by the consequence—you’ll be judged by the same standards you judge others. Give no grace, receive no grace. We’re extremely familiar with the individual application of this concept. How often do people respond not with sorrow but with a peculiar sense of satisfaction and schadenfreude when, say, a judgmental pastor is caught (literally) with his pants down, or when a vicious public personality is revealed to be a crook or a fraud?
But let’s move beyond the individual. Do the first verses of Matthew 7 describe a reality that isn’t just personal but also cultural and political? Can a nation suffer the consequences of mass-scale intolerance?