Christians in North America have a reputation for being judgmental. Sometimes this moniker is unfair. We are considered judgmental because we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, or because we believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong, or because we take our faith seriously. But far too often, we are considered judgmental because we are. The problem is that our judgmental spirit is hurting us and hurting our witness to people who need Jesus even if they don’t know it.
As I’ve been thinking about the prophet Jonah lately, I see something in his story that helps us gain perspective about our struggle to be judgmental.
God tells Jonah to preach against the wickedness of Nineveh. Jonah knows that the Assyrians (Nineveh is the capital city) are some of the most ruthless and inhumane people in the Ancient Near East. The stories of their cruelty turn our stomachs. If you think of the most vicious dictators of the past few centuries and the atrocities that they promote, you would probably not reach the level of Assyria’s brutality and utter disregard for the people they conquer. It’s for this reason that God sends Jonah to preach to them; it’s for this reason that Jonah refuses to go.
Jonah isn’t uncaring; Jonah is committed to justice. God speaks openly and often about his passion for justice. Many of the prophets, as well as the laws of Moses, warn against unjust and inhumane behavior against others. Jonah doesn’t want to warn the Assyrians because they deserve the full weight of God’s justice and nothing else.
Jonah’s mindset comes out clearly in his conversation with God. Though at first refusing to go to Nineveh, a storm and a fish convince Jonah to change his mind. After preaching in Nineveh, the whole city laments their sin, repents and stops their violent behavior, which causes God to change his mind—from punishment to forgiveness.
Rather than being thrilled by God’s generosity, Jonah is irate. He says to God, “I knew that this was going to happen! I knew that you were going to do this! I knew that you were a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and abounding in love, a God who loves to relent from punishing people” (4:2). Jonah doesn’t want God to forgive the people of Nineveh because they deserve justice not grace.
As the story continues, Jonah goes outside the city to wait to see what God will do. While there, the sun beats upon him, so God provides a plant to give him shade. Jonah is grateful and pleased. But the next day, God sends a worm to eat the plant, causing it to wither. Now, Jonah is belligerent and angry. God says to him, “So, it’s okay for you to feel deep emotion that this plant I gave to you is gone, but you don’t want me to feel emotion about all of these people in this city who are in spiritual darkness” (4:9-10). The words that the New Living Translation translates as “spiritual darkness” are actually “people who cannot tell their right hand from their left.”
In other words, God is saying that these are people who don’t know any better. “These are people who don’t have the background and training that you have, Jonah. Knowing that, shouldn’t I treat them with more patience and with a different perspective than I treat you?” The more I ponder God’s words, the more my eyes are opened to the command of Jesus, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).
Jonah is judging the Assyrians through the same lens that he judges his fellow Israelites who live in the context of the law and the teachings of God. The Israelites are raised on the words of God. They learn them. They sing them. They practice them. They are ingrained in them. But the Assyrians do not. Jonah is acting as if the Assyrians know.
Now, God has placed into his created world the ability to know right from wrong. Amos’ prophecy begins with warnings against the nations around Israel for their cruel behavior toward other peoples. There is a certain element of human understanding that causes all people to know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. But the reality is that sin and the consequences of sin have skewed so much of this understanding that it is non-existent for many people.
I have long thought that children who endure the various forms of abuse process life and people differently than people who haven’t endured these traumas. Some people are raised in an environment in which what they are taught about good and bad looks very different from people in other environments. Some people grow up in situations of violence and neglect that leave scars that cause them to struggle with right and wrong. Some people are taught and nurtured in an environment that demeans God and Jesus, while others feel this way because of Christians who have hurt them or disappointed them.
In the past few months, I’ve been pondering some things about myself, particularly in comparison to others. I’m male. I’m white. I’m American. I’m educated. I’m the product of a Christian home. I’m healthy. I have healthy children. I own my own home. I have food in the refrigerator and the freezer. I have money in the bank. I’m comfortable. I only mention this because I know that my perspective about life and my expectations for others is shaped in the context of who I am. Your perspective about life and your expectations for others is shaped in the context of who you are. So, in issues like this, I have to compare the context of my life with the context of many others. Until I’m willing to do this, until I do all that I can to see the world the way others do, I’m going to be impatient and insensitive to their pain.
What would happen to our witness if we started thinking about what people don’t know rather than what we assume they do know? What would happen if our encounters with people who we want to judge and condemn started with us listening to them, asking questions about their journey, discerning the barriers that are preventing them from seeing God and life the we way we do? What would happen if we approached people and life in a spirit of humility rather than our tendency to a spirit of arrogance? What if every day we asked God to help us see others and their perspective of life with his eyes? I wonder how different our witness and our influence in our world would be.