There is perhaps no more iconic symbol of modern social life today than the thumbs up symbol used on numerous media platforms. With merely a tap of these buttons, we declare to the world what we like or dislike, or of what things we approve or disapprove.
So embedded is public approval in our culture that getting the most likes, the most views, or the most followers has become its own phenomenon. Taken to the extreme, we end up with absurdities such as the Kiki (“InMyFeelings”) Challenge where people jump out of moving vehicles to dance while on video – all for the approval of a virtual audience.
Here in America, public opinion is a beast like none other in modern American life that has both lifted up unlikely heroes as well as taken down the powerful. The mood of the masses has at times even trumped the order of established institutions such as politics, criminal justice, public media, and religion – affecting outcomes in people’s lives in the blink of an eye with the swiftness of the Internet.
Interestingly, the earliest recorded use of the “turned thumb” was in ancient Rome, where it served to pass judgement on a defeated gladiator. Back then, the turn of a wrist meant the difference between life and death for the fallen. In reflection, how much different is this for us today? Thankfully, we have yet to construct any blood sport arenas here in the United States (though our insatiable desire for reality-based entertainment portends an ominous direction in this regard). Nevertheless, we as a society routinely pass judgment on matters of great consequence in the lives of others, often with little regard to relevant facts or without concern for the ensuing fallout and collateral damage the tide of our collective opinion brings. This kind of toxic talk can take shape as thoughtless gossip, or perhaps public shaming, or even with outright malice in the weaponized form of slander.
What are the implications when we pass judgement on others?
We take justice out of the hands of God and the institutions ordained by him.
When voters recall a judge over unpopular (but legal) verdicts, or people/media publically condemn those presumed innocent until proven guilty, we short-circuit a God-ordained means of ensuring equity and justice in a system that carefully weighs the facts as well as aggravating and mitigating factors to ensure appropriate outcomes for the alleged offender and victim. Through these actions, we usurp justice from the appointed authorities and place it in the hands of the “mob” as it were. This is the same brand of extrajudicial “justice” that has produced lynchings in the past, and pushes for harsh and unjust (but popular) treatment of certain unpopular groups or classes of individuals in the present.
Paul, writing to believers in Rome, whose rule was as antithetical to Christianity as ever was seen in the ancient world, nevertheless admonished his readers with this:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Romans 13:1-2 NIV
Even if we disagree with a verdict or are outraged at an alleged offense, we must leave judgement to those with whom we have entrusted the right to make those decisions. Doing so shows respect for God, who ultimately will ensure perfect justice is executed in due time (Romans 12:19).
We dehumanize those whom we pass judgement on.
Often, when we are provoked to condemn someone, we see only the offense of the other individual, we don’t see the person. This act of dehumanizing people is an affront to God, because they, too, are made in his image (James 3:9). Every person is of immeasurable worth to God, otherwise he would not have sent his only son Jesus to die a cruel substitutionary death to redeem us back.
Romans 5:8 says this:
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We are all equal before God in this matter. God’s love for you is the same as it is for me, as it is for the worst criminal locked away in the most secure prison. By nature, we all stray from the perfect will of God, from which there is only one hope:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6 NIV
We unwittingly pass judgement on ourselves.
When we act out of self-righteousness in passing judgement on others, we place ourselves in danger of experiencing the just and righteous judgement of God.
Proverbs puts it like this:
The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21 NIV
To paraphrase, in whatever way we treat others with our tongue, for good or for evil, has the power of blessing and cursing, whether to promote life in that person or to sow seeds leading to their downfall, and those that partake in this behavior will one day be the recipients of the very same blessings or curses they have uttered on others.
Jesus bluntly laid down this reality in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 NIV
Trust me, we do not want God to measure us by our own yardstick….because we will always find ourselves coming up short!
So why should we treat others seemingly better than they deserve (in our eyes)? It’s simple, because our ideas of justice are often skewed by our own personal experiences and perspectives, which frequently are out of alignment with God’s perspective.
James, the brother of Jesus, said this in his epistle:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-13 NIV
We, as individuals redeemed from God’s just wrath ourselves, should allow no place for condemnation with respect to others. It is nothing short of hypocrisy if we continue to self-righteously pass judgment in light of what it took to secure our own pardon.
Jesus couldn’t have made this point clearer and has the last word on this matter when he gave us this parable:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[i] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew:18:21-35