I remember driving through Yellowstone National Park while crossing the country as part of a choral group during one summer break from high school. We were traveling from Minneapolis to Seattle, and Yellowstone was simply a lovely diversion along the way. Many sights struck me but the one that lingers most vividly is a wide wasteland of burned-out hills eerily humbled by their bare slopes, charred stumps sorry divets where vast woodland once proudly stood. A forest fire had ravaged the park ten years earlier, but the scene looked remarkably fresh, black limbs evoking a sense of smoldering devastation. It lasted for miles as we traversed the highway, and I watched from my bus seat until the Mars-like landscape grew less foreign to me, the absence of majestic forested crests less tragic.
During our brief visit there, we inquired with a ranger about the damage. We were astonished to hear her esteem the fire as a vital and natural re-setting of nature’s balance, dying vegetation purged to stimulate new life from the soil. The destruction we saw, she said, was a necessary casualty of a profound re-birth happening underfoot. While we mourned the perceived loss, a purer form of life was taking root, heat provoking seed to sprout. Without fire, new life would not be possible for all the aging clutter crowding out sun, water and fresh oxygen.
I think of that still when I read in the bible about judgment, an oft misunderstood condemnation to death rather than an anticipation of the life it refines. Much like nature’s organic shedding of that which chokes life, judgment intends to clear away death for restoration. While we often interpret judgment to be a raging doom that sweeps our souls into a final fiery verdict, we forget that it is intended to discern purity, to refine righteousness, sin burned down to reveal the fireproof Spirit of those who have been forgiven. The tragedy is not that the death that starves us is burned away but that we often neglect the reconciled life growing in its place.
Judgment becomes necessary in the face of sin; atonement becomes necessary in the face of judgment. The cross itself was not a condemnation to death but of it, Jesus becoming a plumb line, an accurate measure of innocence (Isaiah 28:16-18). A cleansing fire, judgment is the perfect blend of justice, the restoring of accurate measure, and mercy, the patient provision of the cross that allows our measure to be perfect. As pardoned people, we forget that our righteousness is meant to be a testimony of Who we’ve been given. Rather, we often wield it as a weapon to condemn what we don’t like. Our words rarely reflect the amazing way we’ve been loved but instead sentence others, even within our most intimate relationships.
We use the word “judge” to justify ourselves, but without a profound heart exam of the one whom we convict, we’ve merely accused and, startlingly, embodied our enemy, participating in his death work: “Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” (Zech 3:1-4)
Where judgment tests purity, condemnation claims none. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom 10:14-15) Rather, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.” (James 2:12) Our words are meant to be an invitation to freedom, a weapon against the Accuser, and a representation of the pure measure with which God longs to judge us.
Recently, I was given the most humbling privilege to help my five year old daughter make her first public faith statement, an invitation to Christ to become her rescue. We celebrated as a family over hot dogs and candlelight. I am certain that what inspired her to choose this freedom was a proper invitation into it. She was not convinced by my constant admonishment to clean her room, use her manners, bring her dishes to the sink, wash her hands and share with others. She simply responded to the truest story at work in her family, the few times we’ve mustered an apology, prayed over each other, battled fear by the Word, offered to one another a second chance to make a better choice, administered painful but necessary correction, held spontaneous praise parties and retained a tireless commitment to the truth.
A wise man (who happens to be my father) said recently during a remarkable musing over the invitation extended by a close friend to love deeply and radically, “Sometimes we are so worried about compromising our values that we forget to love each other.” This risk seems so real and, yet, a commitment to loving one another is not a discarding of the truth but a declaration of it, a loud call to life in all near hearts, a fierce testimony to the wonderful restoration available by the fire that sparks re-birth.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” (Luke 6:37-38)
“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.” (1 Cor 4:3-5)
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:9-12)