I Cor. 4: 1So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. 2Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. 6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.
Purpose: That we will embrace our Christian freedom from judging others, and being judged by others, because it is God who judges.
If I were promising us today freedom from gravity and a foolproof way of personal flight—not in an airplane, not even a jetpack, but by jumping up and flapping our arms—hopefully you’d be very skeptical. But today’s passage promises something like that very kind of freedom. By the time this message is done, I hope we will all understand and embrace its promise of freedom, a freedom even greater than freedom from gravity.
This promise of such great freedom is described in verse 5, when Paul writes, “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes.” At first this kind of freedom sounds exactly like what today’s post-modern thinking considers freedom. “Judge nothing:” Doesn’t that fit right in with the contemporary mindset that says there is nothing to judge but judgment and judgmentalism, nothing to disapprove of but disapproval, nothing to disagree with but disagreement, because we’re past thinking that everything is relative. That’s so 1960’s! We’re on to “everything is good” now, except for saying that anything is bad. So we can tolerate everything except intolerance. See, its even in the Bible. Like Paul says, “judge nothing.”
And if you’re wondering, “Who are you and what have you done with the pastor?” you’re probably not alone. And if you’re thinking, Wait a minute, even saying “judge nothing” is passing judgment on something, at least on judging, then you’re a step ahead of the sermon. And if we should go on to say, “But this whole letter of I Corinthians is about judging or discerning between beliefs, behaviors and values, and that Paul himself passes judgment on all sorts of moral and spiritual options,” then good for you– you’ve been paying attention to this sermon series.
So what gives? How can we judge nothing, including the act of judging, according to a letter full of all sorts of moral and spiritual judgments and discernment? Well, it depends on what—or who—we’re judging. And on who’s doing the judging. We read in verse 6 that the Lord does the one supreme historical definitive and 100% accurate judgment when he returns. “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. Then each person will receive his praise ….from God.”
For as rarely as we hear sermons on The Last Judgment, it’s a pretty basic feature of Christian faith. Of all prophetic, monotheistic and Abrahamic faiths, like Judaism and Islam too. One of the names given in the Q’uran for God is “Master of the Day of Judgment.” This name is repeated with every one of their five daily prayers. It wouldn’t hurt us Christians either to remind ourselves regularly of that feature of God’s nature, and of our accountability and responsibility.
But what God judges is something that neither you nor I have the capacity to judge: “what is hidden in the darkness [of each human soul] and the motives of people’s hearts.” That’s what is meant by “judge nothing.” Nothing by way of “what is hidden in the darkness [of each human soul] and the motives of people’s hearts.” Paul says that he isn’t even completely capable of doing that for himself. “I do not even judge myself,” he writes in verse 3. “My conscience is clear,” he adds, “but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” The judgment that counts most will be done by the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, let alone anyone else.
So we must judge and discern among all the alternative values, behaviors and beliefs coming at us all the time, as if our lives depended upon them. For they do. As an example, I know people with histories of crystal meth and ecstasy use, whose brains have been so deeply scrambled that sometimes I don’t know if I’m talking to the person in front of me, or to residues of the chemicals. Maybe they got into that stuff thinking, Hey, its all okay, except for saying that anything is not okay. But as far as I know, they may never be entirely free of the temptation to use again, nor of the effects of the drugs that have abused them. So, we are responsible for for discerning between beliefs, behaviors and values, so that we don’t get into bondage like what I just described. Its not always easy, but its a life-and-death matter. And it is doable.
But judging—or discerning– what Paul calls “what is hidden in darkness” and “the motives of men’s hearts,” that is, judging people themselves, that we are neither capable of, nor responsible for. That is God’s business, not ours. On that day when all is laid bare and we shall know as we are known, we will be surprised by the darkness that was in the lightest and brightest of souls, and the light that was somehow yet there in what seemed to be the darkest and deadest of souls. Or as the little childhood ditty puts it, “There’s so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, it doesn’t behoove any of us, to talk about the rest of us.” So I hold out hope for all people, whatever they’ve done, whatever their past, not because of who or how they are, or who or how I am, but because of who and how God is.
Paul himself, in all the passages we have read so far this year, does not infringe upon God’s realm of judgment. Nowhere in this letter does he judge persons or evaluate their worth the way he does their teachings or their conduct. Their conduct might be just wrong, arrogant, destructive and divisive, and he’ll say so. But never does he label or reject them personally.
But isn’t that what we often do whenever a disagreement rears its head, or a question or controversy arises over some moral or spiritual matter? Such as the controversy in the church or conference over questions of sexuality, or church membership, or war, patriotism and politics? That, in fear and self-defense, we are tempted to go for the jugular vein and to question people’s motives, their character, their value to us, to the world and to God? That we judge not just what they advocate or do, but who they are and what they’re worth? Experience has taught me that no side in any controversy has the monopoly on such fear-based tactics. I’ve seen people who call themselves “non-judgmental” act very judgmentally against people whom they judged for being judgmental.
But two wrongs don’t make a right, nor can we arrive at clarity without charity. We may have one hundred good reasons to believe that a position we hold, or an action we take, is morally superior to all the alternatives. But that gives us no right nor reason to believe that we personally are morally superior than anyone else. Our position might be technically correct, like the computer that kept billing my father one year for an account balance of zero dollars and zero cents. By the third notice, it was threatening to charge interest if he didn’t send in a check for zero dollars and zero cents. It was technically very, very correct. But also lacking something very important. In Christian moral discernment, that most important part is always love for people, even if we can’t always love their beliefs and behavior, judgmental or otherwise. Our first and most important task in discerning right from wrong and good from evil is to love people with a love that is infinitely warmer, even more sacrificial, than what mere tolerance can muster.
We may know this, but sometimes fear and confusion can tip us back into childish or adolescent behavior, like wondering and worrying about who’s most popular, who’s most valued, who’s in, and who’s out? Whenever we uncover a disagreement, that’s the fear that raises its ugly head: I thought I was in, but am I now about to be out?
And that’s what Paul was up against in Corinth: something like high school cliques that never grew up. As we saw in the previous chapters, the churches of Corinth were preoccupied with a vicious, divisive popularity contest. “I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, I am for Peter,” some were saying. Not only is that trying to pit Peter, Paul and Apollos against each other, it obviously got turned inward, among the members. Many of us came out of our junior or senior high school years the walking wounded, wounded by such rejection, cliques, labels and scapegoating. And the trauma may come back, from time to time. Like for the guy who received information in the mail about his upcoming twenty-fifth high school reunion, read it, and found himself on the list of people whose whereabouts were unknown. Go figure.
But all that “Who’s In and Who’s Out and Who’s Who?” seems to have been like water off a duck’s back for Paul. “God judges, and I don’t even judge myself,” he said. He cares about the Corinthian Christians passionately, like the father that he was to them in the faith. But he doesn’t care about what they think of him or how much they like him. Or not. The only one whose judgment he cares about is God’s. And on that day of judgment, when all humanity is gathered before his Great White Throne, his verdict will prove so indisputably right-on and penetrating that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” that he is Lord. What a relief that neither you nor I nor anyone else we see sits on that Throne.
And that’s the freedom that this passage offers us today. Not any freedom from responsibility for our actions, not any freedom so-called from the responsibility to discern right from wrong, or good from evil, and to order our steps aright. The failure to do so, or to do so correctly, can lead us into less freedom, not more.
Nor is it freedom from God’s judgment. That’s just a given. And I know, at first, that sounds like a recipe for enslavement to fear. To stand before the One who knows me better than I know myself, and to have him reveal all that he see in me, all that I have done and have therefore become….Scary. Because none of us is exactly on the inside what we are on the outside. And we know that.
But really, finally, the one and most important thing we will be judged upon is whether or not we embraced and accepted God’s love, God’s mercy, forgiveness and affirmation for us. As Karl Barth defined it, “Faith is the courage to accept that we are accepted.” By God. That’s what we’ll have to answer most for: Have we let God justify us through his compassion for us, or did we keep trying to justify ourselves to God and to the world by our works? Or did we try to justify ourselves by judging others? Did we rely upon the world and ourselves to judge us, with the usual harsh and punitive standards, or have we let God judge us, with his reliably merciful and compassionate heart? In effect, by that choice, we actually judge ourselves. The one choice is slavery, the other freedom.
If we’re looking for true freedom, then flee to the Judge who is also our Refuge, our Comforter and our Vindicator, and we need never fear either his judgment, nor that of anyone else again. That’s one kind of freedom that today’s passage offers us.
But there’s another kind of freedom offered to us: freedom from the hard work of climbing onto God’s Great White Throne and taking on the task of judging the world for him, of trying to discern what we cannot know about others, sometimes not even about our own mysterious selves. We can confess this: that there will be a supreme, definitive judgment; that God has the last word over human history and our histories. We can name Him who will do the judging: the One sinless lamb of God who took our most damning judgment upon his own back in the form of the cross. And we have heard how he will judge all who have fled to him for mercy. As he himself said, “No one who comes to me will I cast out (Jn. 6:40).” So, we’re free from the fear of judgment.
But when it comes to other people, even people with whom we disagree on major stuff, even people who may hate us and judge us, we stand at the threshold of a mystery whose depths and darkness only One knows and can judge, and it is not any one of us visible here this morning. We are free from the burden of trying to guess the motives and secrets of their hearts, or to determine their destinies and relationship with God. We can move on then to the first and most important task of discernment for which we are responsible, and of which we are capable: how to order our own lives aright, how to love others and display to them the tender mercies and the extravagant welcome of God.
I had such an experience last January, and it was beautiful. It wasn’t easy, but it stands out as a prime example of the disciple’s freedom that comes from leaving divine judgment in divine hands. It was when our regional district conference held a discussion on biblical interpretation and sexuality.
Since this conference was in Iowa, and since it was winter, it seemed the better part of reason to carpool our way down from the Twin Cities. In that van were people all over the map in regards to their understanding of sexuality and the Bible, even including one person in a major role in a major advocacy organization. So you can understand why I was a little nervous getting into that van. Once they knew what a dyed-in-the-wool classical orthodox biblicist I was, were they going to dump me out and leave me in a snowbank along the windy, wintry Interstate? On a cold January day, being in or out could be a life and death matter. But others in that car, with different positions, probably had the same fear about me. And we had ample opportunity during the conference to compare our positions and air our differences.
On the way back home, we stopped at a restaurant in Mason City, Iowa, and enjoyed good food and each other’s company. No one seemed to be holding a grudge, no fear held back the laughter and the witty repartees, and no one’s appetite seemed to be inhibited by having just done the hard and sometimes painful work of finding our way through the moral and spiritual thickets of this world, holding many of the same basic values, but going down different paths. I remember that friendly and enjoyable trip together, on a dark, cold January night, as a supreme example of what can happen when we separate the need to judge moral and spiritual alternatives from trying to judge what only God can judge: people.
I’m so glad that that is God’s task, not mine. That frees us to get on with doing what we discern, and what he reveals, his will to be, free from fear of either God’s rejection and condemnation, or that of anyone else. Free as well, from the burden of doing God’s job of judging others. That’s the freedom I wish for everyone here.