Is it judgmental to be discerning?

Here’s a question I just want to put out there for discussion, that sorta came up in a recent conversation: is it judgmental to be discerning? Can you correct someone without condemning them (and thereby falling into the Splinter Plank trap)?

Now, I am presuming that many of you will answer in the negative, that it’s not. But if it’s not, why? What’s the direction of your thinking? The reason I ask is, that I’ve got this sneaking suspicion that MANY people struggle with this issue.

And that being said, if it is an issue for you and you feel comfortable enough speaking out, I am interested in hearing your concerns.

16 thoughts on “Is it judgmental to be discerning?

  1. Personally if I think someone’s ‘in error’ (or I just plain disagree, which to me amounts to the same thing) I usually let them be and keep quiet. If I don’t I find I get drawn into ‘comment wars with them, which tells me far more about me than it does about them of their ‘position’.
    Still learning to keep my mouth shut 🙂

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  2. Matt, I find that sharing things discerned is only fruitful if you have earned the right to be heard by the other. And even then, it must be shared as an observation only for their consideration, not as a judgement to which they must respond. This requires to use of “I” statements and refraining from “should” statements.
    Examples from good and bad follow:
    Potentially helpful: “I think that is the most manipulative thing I’ve ever heard you say.” This can be left alone or can lead to a series of clarifying questions, depending on the time and circumstance.
    Rarely helpful: “I can’t believe you said that. How manipulative can you be?” This is judgement and there is no way to walk away and contemplate this without feeling hurt or condemned.
    …my two cents.

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  3. I like the distinction you’re making here, Peggy. I’m not sure I entirely like your examples, though. I think I might try something even softer than your helpful example, like “That sounded a bit manipulative to me.” But you’re right about the other example rarely being helpful.

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  4. This is a good question. Like most good questions, I don’t think there are any easy answers, at least not any easy answers that are also helpful.
    I tend to think it’s possible to offer correction without being condemning, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy thing to do. Of course, I also think it’s important to not only avoid being condemning, but condescending, patronizing, and many other qualities that are both unhelpful and rather unflattering.
    I find myself wondering if that’s the point that Jesus was really trying to make when he talked about the speck and plank. I don’t think his message was so much that we need to be perfect before offering correction to others, but that (1) we need to do it from a position of just another imperfect person and (2) our primary concern should be working on our own imperfections rather than running around trying to “fix” everyone else.
    I think a lot of it also has to do with motives, which heavily influence our attitudes and approaches to correcting someone. I’m far more open to someone who is deeply concerned about me and wants to talk to me about something because they feel I’m hurting myself or others by my actions. An authentic dose of sincere compassion and concern goes a long way in easing the sting of correction. And it shows that the person doing the correction is concerned about more than some abstract moral point.
    The problem lies, however, in the fact that we humans can be rather self-deceptive when it comes motives and attitudes. It’s far too easy to tell ourselves we’re correcting someone “for their own” good without feeling or demonstrating any true compassion. And again, I think that’s where Jesus’s advice about planks and specks comes into play. It encourages us to be more honest about our own motives and behaviors, even when offering another person correction.

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  5. Actually, as I was dwelling further on this a certain scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” came to mind:
    STAN: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’.
    REG: What?!
    LORETTA: It’s my right as a man.
    JUDITH: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
    LORETTA: I want to have babies.
    REG: You want to have babies?!
    LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
    REG: But… you can’t have babies.
    LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.
    REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!”
    Now, less sensitive than we’d all hope to be I trust, but was Reg oppressing Stan? There is a serious question behind this jesting, because I have seen many a religious conversation decend to this level. Consider some of the alternate views of Christ I publish here for instance. Some picturing him as a ancient Egyptian freemason, others picturing him as a muscular soldier. If I caution, “You’re ignoring context”, is that judgemental? If someone replys, “Don’t you oppress me!” should I shy away in postmodern reticence? For me a saying about speaking the truth in love comes to mind.

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  6. I may be wrong here, but I feel that this issue most often comes it in two general categories for Christians: sexuality and heresy. We tend to want to “speak up” most often in these two instances. If there are others that people can think of, I would like to hear what other issues are most often considered “corrective” issues in our society.
    I think that sexuality is a main issue because the church, over years and years, has never quite known what to do with it. I recently reviewed European Sexualities 1400-1800 on my blog, and I thought the book did a good job of showing just in those 400 years how varied and confusing our thoughts on sexuality were. She also made the good point of talking about how the church has always been relatively ambivalent about the issue (not knowing quite what to do with it or how they should feel about it).
    Thus, because of the church’s long standing ambivalence towards the issue, I think that people don’t know quite what to do with it. I think this leads towards a bit of confusion and I think the talk about motives and attitudes in this department would is helpful.
    Heresy obviously is the other big issue and the lines have been drawn in different places throughout history.

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  7. Jarred…I used that first example as one from real life that was absolutely transformative in the life of a friend. Something that harsh, when said in love (I think of that same saying, Matt!), can clearly cause someone to stop and think and see what they’ve done in a totally different light.
    I do think it hovers around motivation. When we are motivated by love of the other and are remembering the love of the Father in our own lives, we become “safe” — both to those who need to confess something that is not right in their lives as well as to those who have something to speak into our lives.
    Wayne Jacobsen says something that resonates deeply with me about this (my words): until we embrace continual transformation–knowing how much the Father has to look past to unconditionally love us every day, we are not safe persons for those who are hurting or in need of love, grace and mercy.
    Humility is far too rare a trait in a group who have been called to live sacrificially as servants….

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  8. Sorry I’m late responding, Matt. I’ve been out today, but you’ve been on my mind. 🙂
    As I mentioned, this is a puzzle I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about. I haven’t got the answer, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
    It seems to me that there has to be a difference. I can’t avoid making any evaluations. But when I’m discerning (as I use the word) I have an open, loving heart, never anger or sneering or exasperation. While discernment may lead me to avoid someone who is dangerous, for example, it won’t lead me to hate them. While it may lead me to question their ideas, it won’t lead me to make fun of them.
    What seems to work for me is thinking of discernment as something that applies to *me* and my choices. I can check in with myself and see if a particular action is something I want to do, or not. (And that can be a lot of work, sometimes.)
    If it’s about something that I’ve already done, or something that someone else is going to do (and isn’t asking my help in deciding), then it seems like judgment to me, and I prefer to leave that to God.
    (And, to the best of my fallible discernment, God tells me that I’m clean, innocent, loved & good enough, exactly as I am.)

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  9. I’ve had a few thoughts about just this very thing over the last week or so. I can sure relate to the idea that my comments on an issue tell “me far more about me than it does about them of their ‘position’.”
    I think it’s good to judge my own motivations when criticising other people and situations. By judging, I mean evaluating my intentions and conduct against the standard set by Christ. Learning that standard is by a lifetime of study and practical experience, marked by both failure and success in relationship with Christ and relationship to others and to the environment in which I live. By criticising, I mean weighing up. I definitely avoid condemning, unless there is some kind of destructive violation involved.
    I do struggle with discerning when to speak up… mostly erring on the side of reluctance than impetuosity. Perhaps that’s to do with personality as well as with character. Yeah, character. That’s another subject I’ve been contemplating on lately. Maybe a person of admirable character has wisdom to discern how and when “to judge”?

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  10. I hadn’t considered the kind of scenario you’re talking about in your clarification. I think that’s a bit trickier. I’m certainly for criticizing ideas and offering feedback like “you’re taking things out of context.” And it’s much harder to say that sort of thing without making a value judgment because there’s an implicit judgment in the statement, namely that context is important to understanding. (It’s a judgment I happen to share with you.) I’m also not sure that such a value judgment is inappropriate in that situation.
    Of course, I’m also inclined to think that there are bigger issues than being judgmental if you tell someone they’re taking something out of context and they accuse you of oppressing them. The main issue I see there is that you’re in a dialogue where both parties aren’t open to hear what the other is saying. In such a situation, I think that it’s wise to move away from the subject in a graceful manner as soon as possible simply because the conversation isn’t going to go anywhere rather than trying to avoid being judgmental.

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  11. I recently posted a couple of news items in a newsgroup about Muslims attacking Christians in Malaysia and Egypt.
    They were implicitly critical of such attacks, but i don’t think they were “judgemental”.
    The one guy left a comment to the effect that it just goes to show that Muslims are scumbags.
    That’s judgmental.

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  12. Angela, though I agree that discernment should involve self evaluation, I’m not sure we can limit it to that. I’m thinking there should be space to correct one another, the problem is how we go about it.
    Personally I like the language of ‘constructive critique’ versus ‘destructive critique’.
    Constructive critique is aimed at building the other person up, or even better, building you both up. “It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:5) To correct someone in this way with this end in mind is what I would call exercising discernment.
    Destructive critique is about building yourself up at the other’s expense. It’s proud, it’s boastful, it condemns without seeking to save. That’s what I would call judgementalism.
    In practice of course there is often a mix of the two. It is difficult to separate out self. But to my way of thinking the difficultly should not disuade us from aspiring towards constructive critique; what it should do is spur us to always checking how constructive we are being! As we call other Christians to a deeper life in Christ we should be answering the call ourselves.
    There are certain brands of Christianity I have difficulty with (hey you all know that!) and I’ve not always been constructive with my critiques. Sometimes I have been judgmental, very judgemental. But in seeking to move deeper in the ways of discipleship what I’m recognizing as the problem is more the ‘destructive versus constructive’ question than the ‘speaking versus silence’ question. So I continue to critique where I think it’s called for. Where I’ve been less than constructive, well, I accept that’s where people should be critiquing me.

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  13. I am reminded of the story of how Nathan directed David to see the error of his ways and repent by using tact (2 Samuel 12). Now that is not easy and I often like to take the short cut and go into bull-charging-through-china-shop mode which is pretty obvious from some of my blog posts unfortunately especially with some Christian tradition(s) as well.

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  14. My guess is that we’re mostly in agreement. When I talk about discernment being about me, that includes the possibility that someone will consult with me in their own process of discernment, and I’ll help by talking things through with them.
    Where we might not be seeing things the same way is this: I try (but regularly fail) not to decide what someone else should or shouldn’t do. That means I can’t “correct” them. I can help them correct themselves if they want me to, but I can’t know all the factors going on inside them. To me, it’s between them & God to figure it out.
    I can say “Wow, that’s not how I see it,” or “I hope I can avoid doing what I’m seeing this person do,” but I (on a good day) don’t want to tell them what they should do.

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  15. Yes, I suspect we’re circling around the same set of issues even if our approaches aren’t identical. I’m probably a bit more confrontational, but I agree it’s preferable to draw it out of the person than try and inject it into them.
    Some of the people I engage with can be very hard nosed though (not just taking angry Atheists and fundamentalist Christians, try violent nationalistic Hindus as well). To be honest, I’m not convinced they respect too soft an approach. Sometimes I’ve hard to go a few rounds with them to just earn their respect, just to show I’m no wilting flower, afterwhich they sometimes then become more conducing to mutual listening. I seek to get beyond the militancy, and that requires I do more than grandstand on my own position, but it still requires I “stand firm” as the apostle Paul puts it.

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  16. Just wanted to add
    Jesus in Matthew 18 is in the context of discpline though it is normally used at prayer meetings where there are at least in the ones, I have been to about 20 odd people there. I have used it out of context as well, to define Church as anywhere where we are, Jesus is there too.

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