Living in the Judgment Culture
The first commandment in our culture right now is “Thou shalt not judge.” The unspoken rule is that everyone is free to live as he or she pleases, and no one has the right to challenge our unfeigned pursuit of individual happiness. And if you transgress this boundary, you will hear about it for sure. You may even be labeled “judgmental.”
“Do not judge” comes straight from the mouth of Jesus (Matthew 7:1) We like these words, even if we don’t know much about Jesus, or would reject much of what Christianity affirms, or even the multitude of other words Jesus spoke. We like them because at first glance, taken out of their historical and textual context, they affirm what our culture values most - the pursuit of individual freedom defined and defended on the basis of our own desires. That individual freedom is often related to what we do with our time, our money, our beliefs, and our bodies. We guard these safe havens of self-rule with zealous contempt for any judgments upon our decisions.
A God Who Judges?
Taken at face value (and not watered down by liberal interpretations), the Bible speaks very plainly about God’s judgment. Yes, God is love (1 John 4:8). But his love is also a thick, robust love that calls certain thoughts and actions wrong and others right. God evens hates some actions (Proverbs 6:16-19), but loves others (Psalm 11:7). And finally, God has reserved a day of judgment in which some people will be found in the right, and others in the wrong - all in a very final sense (Romans 2:5-6).
None of this sits well with us. I suppose weak and diluted forms of Christianity will not incite the ire of our culture - but any honest speak about judgment and many will turn a deaf ear in resistance. We see this as medieval - the stuff of Dante and street corner preachers. We see this kind of talk as threatening because it challenges what we value most - individual autonomy unchallenged by the accountability of authority.
A Culture That Judges
But it just so happens that God isn't the only one who judges. We live in a very judgmental culture. I was reminded of this as a I recently read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The book is fascinating - an anthology of sad characters who ruined their lives by a thoughtless tweet or Facebook quote. For example, Justine Sacco, who mindlessly tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” She opened up her phone upon her arrival in South Africa to learn that her simple tweet had become a hurricane of social media rage - even to the point that she lost her job and received morbid threats of death and sexual assault. She violated something all decent people value - deeply held convictions about the equality of races and the evil of mocking those who endure suffering. And when something we value is violated, we respond with judgment. What often ensues on social media shows that we still believe in old school mob mentality trial and judgment.
Another example (not found in Ronson’s book) would be the case of Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla Firefox. Eich valued traditional views on marriage, which led him at one time to donate money to an organization that opposed the legality of same-sex marriage. When some who deeply valued the legality of same-sex marriage made this information public about Eich, the court of public judgment came down hard. Eich’s beliefs and action directly violated the deeply held convictions of many. Concerning marriage and human sexuality, they valued individual freedom, and when that individual freedom was threatened, judgment came down hard, and Eich eventually resigned.
As we’ve seen, we all pass judgment, and even demand punishment when what we value is threatened. The same is true of God. Like us, he judges according to what he values. So, what does God value?
God Values God
First, God values himself. That sounds self-centered, but we must remember that human creatures are contingent creatures, whereas God is self-sufficient and the source of all goodness. Contingent creatures rely upon God as the center and source of their life and value. So, we wither away when self-centered, but thrive when reliant upon God. God, however, relies upon no one or nothing above himself. He is not selfish in centering all of reality around himself because there is no reality greater than himself.
We see this in the first three commandments. The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods." Martin Luther interprets this command as a call to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” because “whatever you trust in with all your heart - that is your God.” So, God values worship. The second commandment is “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” God values his name. The third commandment is “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” God values time spent in worship and attention given to his Word.
Overall, God has designed that we would live in a reality where he is the center of unbroken praise and adoration - a reality in which God is valued and loved above all else. From this vantage point we can see that human beings cannot treat God lightly without great harm done to themselves and others. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we cannot live without God anymore than cars can run without gasoline (or petrol, as the British say). Human beings cannot ignore God and avoid judgment anymore than we can hold our breath and not suffocate, for God values his glory in such a way that those who despise it will be held accountable.
God Values You
Second, God values human beings. The Scriptures teach us that God created human beings in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:27) To be human is no small thing, but rather a noble vocation in which we reflect God’s glory as we worship, live in relationship with others, and care for his creation. Just as God’s judgment comes to those who despise his glory, so also his judgment comes to those who despise his image in other human beings.
Once again, the Ten Commandments express clearly what God values - in this case the second section (commandments 4-10), which deal with our relationship to others. God calls us to honor legitimate authority (“Honor your father and your mother”) because humans thrive on order and structure rather than chaos and anarchy. God prohibits murder (“You shall not murder”) because he values the dignity of every human life, regardless of age, ability, or circumstance. God is no friend of adultery (“You shall not commit adultery”) because marital faithfulness and family protect human dignity. He shows that he values the dignity of hard work and reward (“You shall not steal”). He values the dignity of our reputations (“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor”). And finally, he values contentment (“You shall not covet”), for when we covet, assaults against the image of God often follow.
All of these commandments show clearly that God values human dignity, and since God values human dignity, he promises to judge those who insult the image of God in others by breaking them. Just as our culture reacts with anger when what it values most is harmed, so also does God when what he values is treated lightly (his glory) or harmed (his creation - specifically human beings). As Tim Keller has commented in his book The Reason for God:
The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity.
As it turns out, the love of God and the justice of God are intimately intertwined. If he is angry in judgment, it’s because he values what is best for us (himself) and what is best for others (love). We are often angry in judgment as well - but are our motives the same? Are we slow to anger? Do we desire justice, for the sake of others, even at great expense to ourselves? Here enters the profound mystery of the gospel that makes the Christian faith unique. I don't know any social justice warriors who would die for their enemies - maybe for their cause - but not for their enemies who defy their cause. But I do know about a perfectly just God who, in the innocent person of Jesus Christ, bore all the injustice of the world and even the judgment of God for our sins without retaliation. "While we were still sinners and enemies," Paul says, "Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:8,10). That seems to be more of a perplexing, perhaps even offense conundrum than why God would judge.
Pastor John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church