During the past 13 years, I've occasionally used this column to cast a negative spotlight on scoundrels, rascals and scallywags. I've named names while criticizing political pundits for their hateful rhetoric. I've panned plundering preachers, censured meandering athletes and disparaged dissolute entertainers.
My ruminations caused a few readers to insist that I apologize for my judgmental stance toward their darling celebrity. Invariably my critics measure my words against Matthew 7:1, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."
One of my writing subjects echoed sentiments from that verse this past week during a CNN interview. George Zimmerman, who has a better-than-average experience with the sting of judgment, complained to the reporter that he's "still accused of being a racist ..." Apparently he's taking comfort in the belief that God will be his final judge. "I know that ultimately, he's the only judge that I have to answer to. He knows what happened. I know what happened. So I'd leave it up to him."
The problem with using the verse to disqualify your critics is that it loses balance without Jesus' commandment in John 7:24 (New International Version): "Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly."
Lest my sermonizing tone gives you hesitation in reading this particular column, I ask your indulgence long enough to examine the opposite forms of judgment expressed in these two verses. The former verse is an admonition against self-serving judgment; the later verse allows us to make discerningly helpful judgments.
It's useful to understand that the first verse plays a small but important part in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It chastises the hypocrites who use their judgmental pronouncements as a smoke screen to hide their own iniquities. This kind of judging is not restorative as it only serves to help the judge feel better about his or herself.
Over the years, I've heard the verse grafted into a popular philosophy that professes that any kind of judging attitude is wrong. This thinking becomes a flippant way of saying "I'll ignore your shortcomings if you'll ignore mine." To that I respond, "No. I won't give you a free pass from criticism and neither will I expect one in return."
This verse doesn't prevent me from making discernments and sharing those conclusions with others. It doesn't mean that my sin of gluttony, lust or covetousness recuses me from judging someone for stealing, killing or spewing hateful language.
At the end of the day, a world without discerning judgments will become a lawless one. That's why Jesus adds the above-mentioned verse from John's Gospel. It's a weighty and difficult pronouncement that finds modern clarity in the paraphrase, "Don't be nitpickers; use your head - and heart - to discern what is right, to test what is authentically right." (The Message.)
This verse coaches a more self-reflective attitude toward judgment. It calls for us to apply our discernment in a humble manner. That humility only comes when we acknowledge our own shortcomings.
In other words, even though we may be right in our judgments, we acknowledge that there is a place inside of us that is not yet right, a place that will only be made right in the sight of God.
Finally, while I have used this column to share my assessments about the actions of others, I will not take God's place in determining someone's ultimate spiritual fate. Thankfully, that verdict belongs to God, whose judgments I would never assume and whose endless love I can only imagine.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of "No Small Miracles." He is an Air National Guard chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit thechaplain.net.