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11 Brothers and sisters, don’t say evil things about each other. Whoever insults or criticizes a brother or sister insults and criticizes the Law. If you find fault with the Law, you are not a doer of the Law but a judge over it. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, and he is able to save and to destroy. But you who judge your neighbor, who are you?
James didn’t use the word “law” generically to mean just any kind of regulation or requirement. He identified “Love your neighbor as yourself” as “the royal law” (cf. James 2:8), likely because King Jesus defined it as central (cf. Matthew 22:35-40). That’s easy, of course, when my “neighbor” is friendly and agrees with me. But clearly James knew people (and we do, too) who thought that if they disagreed with or disliked the “neighbor,” that royal law no longer applied to them.
Lord Jesus, when I am ready to judge another person, remind me that you know far more about them (and about me) than I do. Let me accept your love and trust you to do the judging. Amen.
A few years ago, I found myself not very proud of some of the words that were coming out of my mouth as I talked to my teenage daughters about some of their fashion choices. I have always worked very hard to be intentional with my words, but even with the best intentions and a lot of effort to search for a way to say something that didn’t feel judgmental, I am afraid I have done just that more than once.
If you’ve ever shared your home with 16 and 19 year old young women, you may have found yourself in a similar predicament a time or two, I’m guessing. I worked very hard not to make “you” statements, and was genuinely trying to come to some understanding about the thought processes behind these choices, not shame them for expressing themselves differently than I might.
With one daughter, I tried an angle of curiosity, asking “Why is that what you’d choose to wear to take the dog to the vet?” The question seemed simple enough to me, but it was met with a foot stomp, a little bit of a hip pop and a well-rehearsed eye-roll. It didn’t really matter what words I chose, or even my tone of voice. The question alone communicated my judgement of the outfit choice.
Another daughter asked for my opinion about a new fashion trend she was trying out. Knowing that I am a terrible liar (so I just don’t even try), she wasn’t accepting of my answer when I said I thought it was “interesting.” She pushed me harder and I, again, tried to come from a place of curiosity. “I haven’t seen that before. Where did you pick that up from?” led to some Pinterest pictures being shared and the return of the question, “But what do you really think about it?”
I was very honest in my response, and the words I couldn’t get out of my head led to a “WOW, mom–really?” I couldn’t take it back, and it was my honest thought, but I wish I’d have taken the fifth on that one.
The following week just happened to be Ash Wednesday, and I had been thinking about what I wanted to give up that year for Lent. After my second comment to a daughter in just as many weeks, I realized it was a divine invitation to give up judgy mom comments for a season and see what I could learn from that.
I learned several things, as you can imagine. I learned they flew out of my mouth faster than I realized some days. I learned that I didn’t always have to be the person to say them–in fact, sometimes the very child I was biting my tongue about would fully name the exact thing I was thinking. In those instances, it was clear to me that my children were listening far more than I had given them credit for. When they communicated the same thing I was thinking it was evidence they were much more self-aware than this Enneagram 1 (the perfectionist) mom had paid attention to.
This passage in James reminds us that nothing good can come when we criticize one another, no matter how well intentioned that criticism might be. It is far easier for us to point our fingers (or words) at another than it is to look in the mirror and work on our own issues. I hope my children know that there is goodness and love and beauty in every single ounce of their being, because that is what I believe with my whole heart. May God’s love drown out any of the hurtful or judgy comments that have come from my mouth. May you also know that despite what anyone else may say to you or about you, it is God who defines your worth and you are and always will be beloved.
*Wright, N. T., Early Christian Letters for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 30). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
** Patrick J. Hartin, study note on James 4:12 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 458NT.