The Jimmy Savile of Religions
Christianity has a terrible reputation. In spite being the womb of Western values, Christianity is the Jimmy Savile of religions. Sigmund Freud famously blamed Christianity for the repression of the Western conscience, and a lot of pub wisdom would claim the same. Many a young mother in Scotland would saddle her guilt squarely on the shoulders of Free Presbyterian grandparents, and though seldom stated, the general populace is in agreement – Christianity is why we all hate ourselves so much.
For a guy who represents the religion of self-loathing, the apostle Paul makes some astounding statements. Among them is the assertion in I Corinthians 4:3, ‘I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.’ Did you hear that? The words bear repeating: Paul doesn’t even judge himself. The statement is like an iceberg spotted off the coast of Spain. Where did it come from, and what does it mean?
The Meaning of the Phrase – ‘I Do Not Judge Myself’
What does Paul mean? The first option is that Paul is forbidding any form of self-examination. Perhaps he is a life coach seeking to establish self-esteem by affirming the inner person. Thus he does not judge himself because, to do so, would be to compromise his worth and value in his own eyes. Nope. Sorry Joel Osteen. This cannot be what Paul means. His teaching as a whole endorses the spiritual benefits of self-reflection and critique. After all, how could we put our sin to death if we never took time to dig it out, scrutinise it, and poison it with the blood of the cross.
Option two is that Paul is an advocate of secular freedom. Perhaps more than being an apostle of Jesus, Paul was a harbinger of secular values. Freedom, to us, is the freedom to do as we please so long as we don’t infringe upon the rights of anyone else. Maybe this is what Paul means by saying he doesn’t judge himself. Nah. One need only look at I Cor. 6:19-20 to conclude the argument. Freedom for Paul is a consequence of slavery to Christ. There is no independence for Christians. Paul is not an evangelist of modern freedom; he is a prophet calling sinners to repentance.
A third path – maybe Paul is declaring the church to be a cease-fire zone where all judgment of sin is forbidden. The church, in other words, is a safe area where all condemnation is treated with the contempt of a deadly virus. Again this simply cannot be. In I Corinthians 5:12-13 Paul fearlessly quotes, ‘Expel the wicked man from among you’. Paul is not afraid of church discipline.
So what does Paul mean when he says ‘I do not judge myself’? Here it is: Paul is saying that I refuse to judge the sum value of my life before God – my success, my effectiveness, my comprehensive worth. Christ alone is my final audience. He alone gives the verdict.
The Message in Context
It’s hard for us to believe that first generation Christians looked at Paul as a failure. But they did. His rhetorical ability was ho-hum; his day job was embarrassing; his appearance and lifestyle were humiliating; and his measurable results were laughable. Thus to ambitious Greeks, Romans, and Jews in Corinth, all eager to climb the social ladder, attachment to Paul was a social burden. They preferred the soaring ability of Apollos or the eye-witness street cred of Peter to the emaciated visage of Paul, who appeared more like spiritual refuse than budding leadership.
Now Paul’s tack to counter the prejudice of the Corinthians had two moves. The first was to convince them that they were using the wrong tool to measure success. They were judging him, others, and themselves by the wisdom of the world (1:26). Thus they were evaluating Paul by his appearance, by his gifting, and by the visible results of his preaching. Against this, Paul reminds them that the only valid measure of spiritual success is the cross (1:18). Moreover, the cross is utter foolishness to the world. What to the world looked like an epic failure, the execution of a would-be leader (Jesus), was in fact the definitive victory of God over sin. And so it is with any follower of Jesus. Inevitably the way of the cross subverts the wisdom and values of the world. Therefore, weakness, personal limitations, and trials are ironically not signs of failure or judgment but of the power of God working in and through a Christian. In other words, the very things that offended the sensibilities of the Corinthians were the signs of authenticity that ought to have validated the ministry of Paul.
Paul’s second move is to deflate the arrogance of the Corinthians by reminding them that God did not appoint them to be the Christ. They lack the perspective, authority and criteria to judge Paul. In fact, Paul says more. He is not his own judge. Paul says, ‘My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.’ The mind-set of Paul is that pride and shame have no soil in the human heart to take root in. If pride is a kind of surplus arising from self-commendation, shame is a deficit, the result of self-condemnation. Neither is justifiable for the Christian because the Christian has no right or ability to give a final assessment on himself. The life-statement of Paul might be put as follows: live by the cross and leave the final judgment to Jesus. He alone is the Christ of God who can see the hidden motives of the heart.
The Freedom Not to Give a Final Verdict
There is a difference between judging our behaviour, thoughts and motives in the present and trying to judge the overall quality of our life before God. Every Christian ought regularly to search himself and to identify those areas needing spiritual refurbishment before God. This is an essential Christian discipline. However, the attempt to give a sum valuation of ourselves before God is strictly forbidden. There is never a time when a Christian ought to try to decide whether he is a failure or success in the eyes of God. To do so is to attempt to feed either the lion of pride or the wolf of shame. Neither is a safe pet.
The same could be said of our neighbour. If Paul proscribes being a self-appointed judge, he would say the same concerning our attitudes toward one another. All energy spent trying to weigh the sum value of a neighbour’s life is both pointless and sinful. As mere human beings, we lack the perspective, authority, and criteria to sit as judge over one another. That right belongs to Christ alone.
All of this is a reminder that there is an individual aspect of the Christian life which, in spite of all of the insistence on community in the New Testament, is as undeniable as the moon in the sky. No passage makes the point more memorably than Romans 14: ‘For none of us lives to himself along and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord’. At the end of the day each human life is an individual performance before Christ, and he alone has the prerogative and wisdom to reward each according to his deeds. Paul knew this and as a consequence did not judge himself. We ought to learn from him and do the same.
Who made the heart, ‘tis He alone
Decidedly can try us,
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each string, its various bias:
Then at the balance let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted. (Robert Burns)