Unbelief and the Judgments of Others

One Sunday when I was a sophomore in high school, our pastor gave a sermon on baptism and invited people to come forward. My parents had not made an issue of the ordinance because they felt they had been baptized too young, and they wanted the decision to come from me. I went forward.

As I knelt, my grandpa’s hand came around my shoulder. It was a decision he had been praying I would make, though he hadn’t ever mentioned it. My dad decided to be baptized again in the same service with me, and I remember several significant friends waiting their turns around the baptistry while I gave my testimony.

It was humbling for me to undergo something so physical in front of the whole church on a Sunday morning, something that left me wet and sputtering. It was also a moment of high commitment in front of my fathers. At the end of my testimony, I said, “I want everyone to know that I’m going to follow Christ for my whole life.”

Later, I learned that some people took my statement as prideful.

I realized why they thought so — my stomach tightening and my spine freezing at the memory of my tone of voice in speaking those words. I regretted sounding so pompous in front of several hundred people at an event I had wanted to honor the Lord. It was humiliating.

I was also angry. As poorly as my words came across, they had no guile. I meant what I said, and I understood as well as someone can at 16 that my commitment would have a price. I felt I had been willfully misunderstood by a group for which loftiness was a big negative. My feeling was (though the exact term wasn’t in currency then), “Do I have to spin my own baptism?”

In Sunday’s sermon, we saw Hannah’s experience of being rebuked by Eli (1 Samuel 1). On top of her other humiliations, the high priest of Israel mistook her prayers for a drunken stupor. She shot back, “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.”

Such destructive judgments can leave you hobbled by unbelief. When the people around you do not regard your searching for Christ as sincere, or worse, when they make accusations that are untrue, you can feel that your  pursuit of godliness makes your life worse rather than better. You can even feel that Christ is unreachable beyond the barrier of judgmentalism.

Some observations:

1. The admonition to ignore the people around you is not wise.

The cliché spouters would have you believe that “it doesn’t matter what other people think,” as if you can build a godly life in isolation.

It does matter what people think. We all know it matters, and there’s no healthy way to ignore such judgments. When you get slapped with a label, you are driven to tear it off — or to prove that it doesn’t matter. You’re lazy. You’re too emotional. You’re proud. Words like these can determine your whole strategy in life.

Hannah didn’t ignore Eli judgment, as if she could rise above it. She confronted the priest’s assumptions.

How can you do the same?

2. The ability to sift a speck of gold out of a pan full of mud is worth having.

I have learned a great deal from criticism, even when it’s unjust. When my baptism testimony sounded proud to some, I tried to see what they saw, and hear what they heard. I tried to hear my voice without the affirmation of my emotions.

I began the arduous work — as yet incomplete — of finding tones that match my best intentions instead of expressing my strongest feelings.

But I learned something far more important from the blow: I can stand back from myself and evaluate. I am not imprisoned in my own point of view. Over time, this realization has given me confidence.

3. The way to deal rightly with judgmental people is to draw near to a gracious God.

Hannah chose to trust God more than God’s representative. Her demand that Eli not consider her worthless was linked tellingly to her declaration, “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” Her sense of worth came from the fact that the Lord listened to her. She had, in other words, a relationship that trumped Eli’s claims.

Nowhere is a high view of God more powerful than in nurturing a healthy view of ourselves. When individuals cultivate a deep fellowship with him — that is, when Christ ceases to be a scorekeeper and becomes a coach — they are able to escape the talons of others’ manipulation and anger.

Small gods make small people. The living God makes large people.

4. Having seen the destructive power of reactive judgment, double-check the way you use your own influence.

Are you Eli too?

There is the poison in the pomposity I am still learning to discard.

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