I was chatting with some friends at church last week, and we started trying to figure out what Paul meant when he said he didn’t judge himself. Bible-readers know a lot about Paul’s history, and we can come up with plenty of reasons why he might have judgmental, condemning thoughts about himself and his past actions. He persecuted the church of God! Shouldn’t he judge himself for that? And yet it seems that he didn’t.
What did Paul mean when he said “I do not even judge myself”? And what might that mean for us as we look back on our own past sins and failures?
Judicial Investigation of the Self
Paul spends quite a bit of time in his epistles talking about judgement–judgements we’re supposed to make as we exercise discernment, judgements we shouldn’t make since we’re not permitted to condemn others, and judgements that God will make of us at the end times. There are only three passages that I’ve found where Paul specifically addresses self-judgement. We could perhaps include passages about self-examination, but that seems to be a separate concept.
The three passages we’ll look at all use the Greek word krino or one of its derivatives. This word means “to judge, to form an opinion after separating and considering the particulars of a case,” and it can include the passing of judgment as well (Zodhiates’ Word Study Dictionary, entry G2919). A related word, which Paul uses in the passage where he says he doesn’t judge himself, is anakrino. This word means “to judicially investigate,” “examine accurately and carefully,” and “to question in order to pass a judicial sentence” (Zodhiates, G350).
So for me, it is a minor matter that I am judged (anakrino) by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge (anakrino) myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted because of this. The one who judges (anakrino) me is the Lord. So then, do not judge (krino)anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive recognition from God.1 Corinthians 4:3-5, NET
For context, Paul has been talking about divisions in the church (1 Cor. 1:10-17; 2:1-5; 3:1-9) and the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own spiritual journeys (1 Cor. 2:6-16; 3:10-23). We belong to God and ought to follow Him, not some human no matter how impressive his qualifications. So now here in 1 Corinthians 4:1-21, Paul is talking about the apostles’ ministry using a courtroom analogy. He doesn’t care if others presume to “judicially investigate him,” and he doesn’t do that to himself either–that’s something he leaves to God because He’s the one with the perspective needed to pass an accurate and righteous judgment. Finally, Paul gives us warning not to judge (krino) anything before the Lord comes and reveals “the motives of hearts.”
Taking a Proper View of Ourselves
Later in this same letter, Paul returns to the idea of judging ourselves when he’s talking about Passover. This is one of the self-examination passages I mentioned earlier (1 Cor. 11:26-30), but it also talks about self-judgement. Paul starts wrapping that discussion up with these lines:
But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world.1 Corinthians 11:31-32, NET
“Examined” here is diakrino, and Zodhiates says that in this verse it could be translated “if we took a proper view” or “formed a just estimate of ourselves” (G1253). More generally, it means “to separate thoroughly, discriminate, make to differ, judge thoroughly.” It seems from these verses that there is a certain type of self-judgment Paul encourages, but it’s one that involves seeing ourselves accurately rather than seeking to condemn. It works alongside God’s accurate judgement (krino) to make us more and more like Him.
When Paul says he doesn’t judge himself, it doesn’t mean he ignores who he is. He knows he persecuted the church and is only an apostle by God’s grace (1 Cor. 15:9-10; Eph. 3:8). He realizes that he needs to keep moving forward in faith with Jesus’s righteousness applied to him, not become complacent (Phil. 3:8-14). But he doesn’t let a realistic look at himself lead to getting stuck in self-condemnation. Paul knows he has received God’s grace. He knows he has righteousness that comes from Jesus. That’s what lets him say he doesn’t judge himself and isn’t aware of any charge against him.
For us, this seems to indicate that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over past mistakes. When God says He has removed our sins and forgiven us, He really means it (Ps. 103:12; Rom. 3:25). He’s not going to say our sins are gone, covered and paid in full by Jesus’s blood and then hold those over us in a judicial examination of our character. We need to have a realistic view of ourselves and not forget the things that we once did (so that we can learn from them, not do them again, and appreciate the magnitude of God’s forgiveness), but we’re not to keep judging ourselves for things in our pasts.
Avoiding Judgmental Doubt
The final passage where Paul talks about self-judgement is found in Romans. For context, this is the section in chapter 14 where Paul is discussing mutual respect in the church. He exhorts readers not to judge others, but rather to take a close look at their own lives. “Each of us will give an account of himself to God,” and we ought to care more about that than pointing condemning fingers at God’s other servants. It’s our responsibility to “be fully convinced in” our own minds about the choices we make and act in a way guided by faith. (Rom. 14:1-12). We’re also to respect when people make other choices in matters where God hasn’t given clear guidelines one way or the other (the example Paul uses here is eating meat vs. eating only vegetables). Whichever choice we make, though, we need to be careful we don’t act in a way that causes others to stumble. Indeed, we ought to refrain from doing anything that would harm other believers (Rom. 14:13-21).
The faith you have, keep to yourself before God. Blessed is the one who does not judge (krino) himself by what he approves. But the man who doubts is condemned (katakrinio) if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin.Romans 14:22-23, NET
Since it’s linked to doubt, it seems here that not judging yourself is basically the same thing as not letting doubt take you to the point where you aren’t even walking in faith anymore. If we take self-judgement to an unhealthy extreme, then we could be so caught-up in it that we can’t live the vibrant lives of faith that God has planned for us. That leads to being “condemned;” another derivative of krino. It means “to pronounce sentence against, condemn, adjudge guilty” (Zodhiates G2632) and “to judge worthy of punishment” (Thayer).
It’s not easy to live a life of faith if we’re constantly second-guessing and beating ourselves up. Self-examination is vital, and when we discover something in ourselves that isn’t in line with God’s righteousness a certain amount of self-judgment can be productive if it brings us to repentance. But constant self-judgment–condemning ourselves for sins Jesus has already removed or questioning every choice over and over–is not productive. We don’t need to keep tormenting ourselves with past mistakes. Focus on actively engaging in your relationship with God, striving to follow Jesus’s example, and faithfully repenting when you miss the mark. Then, as Paul did, leave the judgement on your life in God’s hands.
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