Thomas Paine wrote the famous statement, "These are the times that try men's souls" (The American Crisis 1776-83). I believe this comment is as applicable today as it was 200 years ago.
As we watch the events unfolding in and around the church, I see much division and confusion. The sources of information are the Internet, e-mail, faxes, telephone, personal letters, newspapers, sermons on cassette tapes, and letters from various personalities. Frequently, claims of one sort or another are made. With so many sources of information, not to mention the volume of it, the claims and counter claims are causing a degree of confusion in the church of God! Invariably, these claims boil down to the situation characterized by the "I said, he said" disputes. Indeed, these are such times that try men's souls!
Making a Righteous Judgment
The simple question I ask is, What does the Christian do when there is such a flood of information on so many communication systems? Who or what does one believe anymore? How does a Christian make a righteous judgment?
I want to focus on one aspect that helps guide me under such an avalanche of claims and counterclaims. As Christians, we are admonished to judge righteous judgment, not according to appearance (John 7:24). At the same time we are told not to judge (condemn) (Matthew 7:1-2) which seems contradictory on the surface, but is it really? Let me give a personal example.
Many years ago, my son was playing with another church member's child. The church member was a farmer who had a huge barn full of hay. The other child ran to his parents to inform them that my son was going to burn down the barn by setting the hay on fire with matches. The combined "parental inquisition" took place-what happened and who did what? As the two sides of the story unfolded it became a "He said, I said" situation accompanied by a "He did, I did" commentary, each accusing the other of fault and assigning blame. Each parent was put in a very difficult position.
The point to this story is simple. With much of what is taking place currently, you and I will never know all of the details. We will never be able to contact each person and discuss with them fully the context and intent of the comments or reasons why decisions were made. Sometimes, we simply do not know all the facts.
The danger here is that the temptation is to form an opinion and make a judgment based on partial or inaccurate information. Rumors of lying or mistreatment are frequently repeated. Claims that this group or that person did "whatever" to "whomever" abound.
I wonder, are righteous judgements being made? If we do not have all the facts, should we judge? Even after listening to both sides of the story, it may be impossible to tell the truth of a matter! As such, it would be an error in judgment to adopt an evaluative, critical and condemnative posture. So doing leads to unjust conclusions which are inappropriate for the deeply converted Christian! Have you noticed that the world is full of opinion and unrighteous judgments (condemnations)!
How Can We Do It?
So, how does the Christian make a wise and righteous judgment without condemning?
First, we make judgments every day, and many times a day at that. We simply look at the physical evidence. A person is smoking a cigarette, and we judge objectively that they are smoking. I believe that is a correct and accurate evaluation. So far, so good.
The next stage of our thinking in this area involves an attitude that so frequently accompanies the cursory "facts." We don't know the terrible battle the smoker is having trying to quit. I know that struggle, as I was hooked on nicotine many years ago. It is so easy to be condemnative not knowing all the facts . It is so easy to rush to judgment. It is so easy to join one side or the other in a situation, thinking we know it all, or by simply believing another person. It is so easy to accept relatively flimsy evidence, or use partial evidence with which to make a decision, and all too often we do just that!
There is a lot of, "He said, I said," these days. I have heard claims accepted and stated as "gospel-truth," with no evidence to support them. Long on opinion and short on facts seems a good way to describe such claims. Too quickly we are willing to accept the gossip we hear from others and believe it without verification. Let me illustrate the point with gossiping:
As a minister, I have to deal with this subject from time to time. When I hear something, or someone comes to me with a "story," I encourage the individual to go back to the person and ask for the source of the information. Every time I have done this to check out the facts, the person heard it from someone else accepting it as true. Invariably, the trail ends there for obvious reasons. On occasion, I have gone back to the originator of the information and asked him or her to produce the facts. Usually, there is a tiny slither of information that is correct, but typically that minute particle of truth is wildly exaggerated, embellished, and distorted. Unjust judgments have been reached and someone ends up being slandered. And on and on it goes!
All these things concern me greatly for it illustrates how much we have to grow spiritually in the area of judging righteously. It also shows me how much we need to learn and apply the principles of God's Word. Society's approach to judging (condemning) is the antithesis of the way of God, and of a Christian's behavior.
How to reach a righteous judgment? In order to do so, it is important to understand three different types of information and what is considered as evidence. Let me explain briefly the three areas of argument, which are fact, value, and policy.
A FACT is a verifiable objective truth. Men earn $20 per hour and women earn $10. The objective verifiable fact is men earn $10 per hour more than women do. No one can argue with that objective fact.
A VALUE is most easily explained by pro-life, pro-choice. I am sure you have seen the news items covering the demonstrations of these groups. Typically, proponents are screaming at each other with their mouths open and their minds closed. Neither is listening to the other and the noise is fearful. Their positions are definitely anchored in a value of "choice" or "life." These positions are arbitrary and personal. No one can make any one else change his or her values and they are the hardest things to influence.
The final area is POLICY . The company has a policy of allowing one week of vacation in the first year of employment, two weeks in the second year, and three from then on. Policies are created so that people know where they stand and what is required of them. These can be changed relatively easily if necessary in many cases.
All "arguments" fall in these three categories. It is important to identify in which category the discussion belongs in order to know how to best approach the situation. If two people are talking and one is using a policy basis and the other is using a value, it simply won't work!
So much of what we hear about lately falls in the category of arguments based on FACT. However, many of the facts are not available for us. We really can't find out the objective truth because it is clouded in "I said, he said" terminology. This leaves us all wondering. We stand in the middle looking left and right unable to reach a righteous judgment. Our own perceptions then come into effect. We decide how to act or what to do about a given situation. Our decision may be right, but our reasons for making the decision may not be. We can end up being unrighteous simply because we assume we know and we really don't!
Perhaps we feel we have heard enough to constitute sufficient evidence for us to act. The reality is we don't really know. We don't really have the evidence and we so easily slip into making an unrighteous judgment! This is so true when emotions are involved in religious matters.
Look at the Evidence
What is evidence? There are four sources of evidence: personal observation, an eyewitness, a written record, and physical evidence. You will notice that hearsay and gossip are not included in the four areas of evidence!
A Christian should carefully review the evidence before he or she accepts it. Some information may be presented as evidence, which may really be hearsay or gossip. Sometimes what we read is partially skewed or biased information. As Christians, we should be careful what we listen to, and how we think about or handle information. We should also be very careful about arriving at firm conclusions and reaching decisions based on partial information. Ask yourself two simple questions: Can I really make a righteous judgment based on what I have? Should I make a major decision based on this information?
When considering some evidence, it is wise to ask the question, What should I do with this information? Is it sufficient information on which to base a major decision? How should I use it? Is it going to be for the benefit, or the detriment, of the other person? Do I need to repeat it? Is it necessary or appropriate for me to say or repeat what I know?
Go to the Source
I have noticed that the truth tends to come out eventually. Typically, situations do become clear in time and often unimportant matters get lost. I recommend that we don't make hasty decisions based on partial information. Pray and ask God to clarify the situation for you and to help you manage it properly in a righteous manner. If you have questions, I advise that you don't call a friend in another state to see what they have "heard." Go to the source if you can. Go to the individual who is involved in the situation with a humble approach seeking their advice. Ask them any specific questions you may have. Explain your concerns to them and they should be more than happy to explain.
Sometimes, after you have done all you can, you still can't verify the facts or sort out the truth, what does the Christian do? As Christians we should weigh all the evidence carefully. Having done so, in my opinion, you should leave it there and not place yourself in a position of making an unrighteous judgment
So, in order to reach a wise and righteous judgment, we need to have sufficient facts, the evidence and godly wisdom. Sometimes there are not enough facts or evidence around for us to accomplish this goal. There may be times when we feel strongly about a situation and are frustrated by it. Those feelings can easily lead us astray when we allow ourselves to give full vent to them. We become too involved with our feelings and loose objectivity. The result is often to strike out with harsh actions and bad decisions. Most times we would be better off to simply leave well enough alone and not make a judgment!
Remember, God will judge us with the same standards we apply to others (Matthew 7:1-2). We might consider looking up a few Scriptures that reveal God's thinking on a matter. Perhaps Ephesians 4:29, Galatians 5:22-25, or Proverbs 6:14-19 might be good guidelines for us to consider in these times that try men's souls. UN