A few years ago, a young woman, who I would say was in her late twenties or early thirties, came to the church to talk to me about something she said was weighing heavily on her. She began by telling me some of the back story of her life so I would have a context for what she was about to ask me. And what she told me was that she’d been brought up in what she described as a very conservative, Christian sect that still practiced what would probably be best described as ‘arranged marriages.’ Well, her father had arranged a marriage for her to a young man from another state she had known a bit, but not too terribly well. Soon after their wedding he became very physically abusive and she said it got so bad that eventually she had to get up the courage to divorce this angry man for her own safety. But after her divorce her family and her church community had shunned her. What she wanted to know was if she was wrong in getting divorced for this reason, was she now damaged beyond repair and would there ever be a time she could think about remarriage? What really broke my heart in this, beyond the abuse she had physically suffered, was that her family and her church community had chosen to stand against divorce as a greater sin than someone physically abusing their spouse. They clearly felt it was more important to dole out judgment on the sin of divorce than it was to offer her grace… and like I said, all of this broke my heart. We are in week 4 of our series called the Credibility Gap and the credibility gap we are discussing these five weeks is the gap that exists in many people’s hearts and minds these days… the gap between what people are thinking about Christianity and Christians and their willingness to even consider our message of Jesus’ love and salvation. And I have to say, if I were to tell this young woman’s story to any of the disaffected-and-disdainful-of-Christianity people I have known over the years, just the fact that this kind of judgmental behavior exists in any corner of what is called Christianity would have driven these people even further away from ever listening to a message about Jesus. Now, I know that this example is extreme and that the vast majority of Christians would find what happened to this young woman to be unacceptable; but here is the truth: it doesn’t take too much of this sort of behavior by Christians to paint the whole of us as terribly judgmental and ungracious. Most disaffected people, the very people we long to see meeting Jesus, can’t begin to tell the nuanced differences between the various branches of the Christian faith; we all get lumped together by the wider culture. And while I am not here today to talk about other churches or denominations or anything like that, we all know that when one televangelist who’s spent years mercilessly railing on the sins of the world, gets caught in some sort of disturbingly bad behavior, it sets things back for all of us… all Christians get thrown in the basket of assumed hypocrisy.
And what I believe this all comes down to is how important it is to be living by, what I’d like to call a well-calibrated, internal, moral compass. Here is what I mean by that: a regular compass that is well-calibrated will always tell you exactly where north is… it is consistent and true. But an uncalibrated compass will point you north some of the time and other times it will send you in the wrong direction. So, if you have a well-calibrated, internal moral compass, it will always direct you to the right thing, the true-north thing to do, and it will never allow you to drift and get lost who-knows-where. But if your internal, moral compass isn’t well-calibrated, it will lead you to thinking that some sins are repulsive and absolutely unacceptable while other sins can be just be overlooked… if you have an uncalculated moral compass you will get lost in a moral swamp. And here is the point in all of this: when Christians live by an uncalibrated, inner moral compass… when they make harsh judgements about some sins and then overlook others, especially when these sins are in their own lives, the credibility gap widens for those who are watching our lives. I’m sorry, but it just works that way. Whether we like it or not, people who don’t want to have anything to do with the Church or Christians still have clear ideas about what the Church should be about and how Christians should live… and, again, while we may not like it, when these disaffected people see Christians making harsh judgment on some things and then overlooking other things that are equally bad, they immediately smell hypocrisy… and we all know that hypocrisy always widens the credibility gap.
When I was a boy, being divorced was considered one of the major sins. When it was discovered that a new person in our church was divorced, why, they were practically handed a scarlet letter ‘D,’ if you know what I mean! Divorce removed a person from any possibility of church leadership… at any level. And the circumstances of the said divorce weren’t at issue… it was simply the fact that someone was divorced that brought on the judgement… judgement with no hope of grace, I might add. And even as a child I could feel this judgment from adults towards people who were divorced, often times just in the way they would say a divorced person’s name.
There are two very powerful passages in the New Testament that talk directly to this subject of passing judgment on others. In the first passage we hear from Jesus and the second we hear from the Apostle Paul; two very important voices, I’d say. Jesus’ comments are found in Matthew 7: 1-5, why don’t you turn to that with me… (WELCOME) What we are going to look at is something Jesus said right in the middle of his most famous sermon: The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus had just finished a long section of teaching focused on why we shouldn’t worry… he’d said we shouldn’t worry because God will take care of us. We shouldn’t worry because God takes care of the birds and the flowers and he’ll take care of us. This is wonderful, confidence-building stuff! And then, BOOM, Jesus turns a big corner and starts talking about something we should be worried about! And here is what our New Living Translation says: ‘Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.’ I want to read the first verse here to you in the raw Greek, because it is way more aggressive. ‘Judge not or you will be judged; with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged.’ Did you notice that Jesus used the word ‘judge’ 5 times in that sentence? Which I am sure he did to make a point… about judging! And then he strengthened his point by saying this, which oddly isn’t in our New Living Testament versions, but it reads like this, ‘And with what measure you measure it will be measured to you.’ Here he says ‘Measure’ three time in one little sentence... measure as in taking the measure of someone else… as in judging someone! Jesus was really pushing his point here, that we are to be extremely careful in the way we judge others. And then Jesus goes on to say one of the most recognized things in all of scripture… he says, “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First, get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. Okay, Jesus saying that we have a log in our eye is clearly and exaggeration for effect… but still, what Jesus was saying is obvious: we shouldn’t be worrying about the splinters-worth-of-trouble in someone else’s life when we have a log’s worth in ours! I know that what Jesus says here makes obvious sense: We eventually get back what we dish out and we need to take care of our own business before we go around judging other people’s business. But let’s be honest for a second… this is really hard to do… it just doesn’t come naturally, at least it doesn’t to me… and it’s even harder when I am living with the solid conviction that there are some sins that I am just not having and others that I don’t feel are all that important to pay attention to. I want to be sure you understand where I am on this: I would never say we should condone anything that is truly sinful… I am not saying that there aren’t times that call for judgment… that isn’t what I am talking about. But what I am talking about and what does widen the credibility gap… what does keep many people from acknowledging that Christianity has any merit, is the notion that Christians are judgmental. And the complaint isn’t that Christians are simply judgmental, but they make their judgments by an uncalibrated, inner moral compass that doesn’t seem to be consistent and never allows for grace.
A long time ago when I was 16 our family attended a small independent evangelical church of about 250 people and the church had hired a cool, young, youth leader to oversee, I’d say, about 30 kids total. We met in homes after the church’s Sunday evening service for a Bible study and what happened was that the time together was so amazing that many of the original 30 kids started inviting their friends to come to this youth meeting. And literally in about 2 months the number of kids had grown from 30 to around to 80 teenagers, most of whom were not churched at all. Now this was 1969-70 and almost all teenage boys then had longer hair, and everyone wore tee shirts and bell bottom jeans and such. Well, for some reason the thought of all of these hippy types from who-knows-where gathering up under the umbrella of our church filled some of the adult leadership with fear… they thought that what was really going on was some sort of open rebellion; we were dressing like trouble and bringing more trouble along with us. So, they decided to lay down the law: Rule one: in order to come to the after-the-evening-service Bible study you had to first attend the evening church service. Rule two: since the evening church service was in God’s house you had to dress in a respectful manner when you came to the evening service. Rule three: respectful manner of dress meant boys had to wear a collared shirt and cuffed pants and girls could not wear jeans. Rule four: you had to then wear these respectful clothes to the youth meeting. It clearly didn’t matter that close to 50 teenagers, teenagers with no church connection, who knew close to nothing about Jesus, were willing to come out on a Sunday evening to study the Bible. Nope. The sin was a sin of general disrespect… the sin of making some sort of rebellious statement against God through fashion… and boy did judgment reign down! That edict certainly had its effect. You can guess how long that Bible study lasted. I’m still in contact with some of those 50 guests… I’ve had a meal with 3 of them in the last month and they are still no closer to following Jesus today than 50 years ago… and a good portion of the reason is because the one time they did think about looking into Jesus they were told by Christians in a church that they didn’t meet the standards needed for getting in the door. I’m sure some of you are thinking, ‘Why haven’t they gotten over that by now?’ Truth is people hang on to things a lot longer than you’d ever imagine… especially things that happen when we’re teenagers. We just do. A footnote… about 10 years later the pastor at that church, the man who had spearheaded the edict about collars and cuffs made a concerted effort to have a face-to-face with me and he apologized for that time. I will never forget him saying, and he worded it just like this, if he had known of how many logs there were in the eyes of those who had condemned me back then he’d have never put one minute into trying to get the splinters out of my eyes and the eyes of my friends. He was sorry they’d tried to clean everyone up before they’d even had a chance to hear about Jesus. And then he said this, ‘I’m asking you to extend the grace to me that I was unwilling to extend to you.’
The apostle Paul had some even stronger things to say about making these kinds of judgments of other people. Let’s turn to Romans chapter 2:1 and see what he had to say. Actually, he started this whole discussion at the end of the first chapter of his letter by talking about how some people had decided that it wasn’t important to acknowledge God and so God had just let those people go and now they were doing all sorts of things that shouldn’t ever be done. And then he gives us a list of those things that never should be done. And what a list it is! I am just going to read it out… oh, but before I do it’s important to know that lists of things we shouldn’t do, or lists of vices like this were common in the ancient world… generally these kinds of lists contained both vices and virtues, but when you get a list just of vices like this one, it was assumed you would think about the vice and then you’d think about its opposite virtue. So, here is Paul’s list of things that shouldn’t ever be a part of anyone’s life: greed, hatred, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, gossip, backstabbing, God hating, insolence, pride, boasting, inventing evil things, disobeying parents, and finally being foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless. And then Paul ends this list by saying that people know, they just know, that they shouldn’t do these things, but they still do them and even worse, they encourage others to do them. Okay, now these things are all terrible… nothing in this list can be somehow twisted into being a virtue… and it would seem like it should be permissible to sit in judgment just a little bit of anyone who gossips and backstabs and is heartless and greedy. But look at what Paul says in the first verse of Chapter 2: You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? Yikes! What Paul is saying here is pretty easy to understand: if God can be this kind and tolerant and patient with me… if he is this gracious to me when I do some of these very same things, then I can, or at least I should try to be, as gracious to others… especially those who still haven’t realized their need to turn from their sin and follow Jesus. One quick aside that struck me about this passage: in the Greek there is something that I have never found anyone except the translators of the King James Version kept in their translation. In verse one Paul says this: You may think you can condemn such people, and then in the Greek Paul adds this little addition, ‘O Man’ and then he goes on… So, it literally says, ‘You may think you can condemn such people, O Man, but you are just as bad…’ And then in verse 3 Paul does the same thing again! He says, ‘Why do you think, O Man, you can avoid God’s judgment?’ Here is the deal… I only know of one other place in the Bible where this phrase ‘O Man’ is used in this way and it’s in the Old Testament in Micah 6:8 where God says this to his people: He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. I am absolutely convinced that Paul was hoping to get his readers to think about the passage in Micah when he added in his two ‘O Man’s’ here… I am certain that he was pointing his readers, people he was accusing of doing things that shouldn’t be done, back to a passage that tells us what should be done… that we should do things justly… we should do things with justice in mind and we should love to show mercy… and we should be humble as we walk with God! Here is what all of this tells me: if I want to close the credibility gap for someone who thinks that all Christians are judgmental and graceless, then I need to show justice and mercy as I walk in humility with God … my showing grace will narrow the credibility gap and give those who desperately need Jesus an opportunity to see what the Grace of Jesus looks like.
Please do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not advocating for ignoring brokenness and immorality when other’s lives are broken or if they are living in ways that are contrary to God’s heart. But I am confident that the way that we reach those who are disaffected or disdainful of our faith is by living lives that are gracious even when those who are disaffected and disdainful are living cynical and sinful lives. The way it works is this: we do everything we can to bring them to Jesus… and then it is the Holy Spirit’s task to change their lives… to remake them in the image of Jesus. Sometimes we will be called to speak to people about things that need to change in their lives, but most of the time the call is simply for us to live the kind of life that first narrows the credibility gap and then brings people to Jesus.
Earlier I said that when we find an ancient list of vices the author expected that his readers to think about what a life lived in the opposite fashion would look like… the author expected us to consider actions of virtue. So, let’s think back to Paul’s letter to the Romans and his long list of vices: and here is my 180 degree translation: here is what I believe Paul would have said if he had given us a list of what a virtuous life looks like... what I think he would have said if he had been telling us how to properly calibrate our moral compasses! He’d have said it this way, ‘Here is a list of things that should always be done… this is a list of every sort of virtue. You should always be generous; you should always be loving; you should always pay attention to others and make certain that what you do and say is life giving. You should always be working to bring reconciliation, you should always be honest, kind, trustworthy and supportive of others; you should always live a life that shows you love God; and always be respectful, humble, and modest; you should always be thinking of ways to create good things for others; always respect your parents and listen to them; and finally, always live a wise, faithful, caring and merciful life… Living like this can’t help but make us gracious… it will calibrate our inner, moral compass and it will keep us from being judgmental… and particularly, keep us from passing judgement on some sins while overlooking others! What both Jesus and Paul have called us to is one of the most powerful apologetics for the truth of the gospel of Jesus… and it is this: Jesus and Paul have called those of us who say we are followers of Jesus to live in ways that show the world that God’s grace is real… and that God’s grace not only flows from the throne of God to all mankind, but that it also flows out of the hearts of those that call themselves his children. This is kind of graciousness that will do more than just narrow the credibility gap… this kind of grace will open the gateway for many to find life in Jesus.