Sitting in Judgement
Over a number of years now, from time to time I have been asked to sit as a member of various local appeal panels or tribunals. It may sound rather grand but is not really. It is a matter of listening sympathetically and patiently, then trying to arrive at an honest conclusion. Though these hearings are of various types and cover a variety of purposes, they are in essence much the same.
Two sides have a different point of view on some problem, proposed action or topic. They have come to a neutral third party to try and resolve the matter. Both sides present their evidence and arguments, and leave it to the panel to judge who has the more convincing case, and thus, which party should be successful in achieving the object of its desire.
I sat on one such panel the other day. The two sides had each presented their arguments and retired, leaving we three members to decide the case on the strengths of the evidence. Our conclusion would be binding; there was no further appeal.
I idly, thoughtlessly, remarked that being in the position of God making judgements, was an uncomfortable process. The other two members agreed, and we went on to consider the matter, reached our conclusion and went on our way.
I said that my remark about being like God sitting in judgement was idle and thoughtless. It was unconsidered, and it came back to me later that evening as I was sitting relaxed, thinking over the day’s events. I thought about my analogy more carefully.
The Old Testament is full of examples of God as judge. The followers of Moses constantly were being judged. More often than not they were found wanting, and the appropriate punishment meted out. Lot’s wife paid the penalty for disobedience, whereas Solomon passed his test and was granted his reward. The examples are numerous and varied. Old Testament prophets and writers were sure in their vision of God, that of judge and arbitrator. More recently the Victorian, Canon Scott Holland, Anglican scholar and Oxford professor, was able to write his well-known hymn,
“Judge eternal, throned in splendour..”
again a word image of God as a sort of Old Bailey Lord of Appeal, upon whose decisions our fate rested.
A favourite theme of the painters of the renaissance period was of the day of judgement, with God as Judge Supreme sitting above the people who pleaded their case before him – there were no female judges in those days, and no-one had thought to question the maleness of the divine being. There are still some who speak of “the awful day of judgement” to come. The vision of God as a supreme ruler and magistrate is still held as strongly by many today, as was the case in the past.
But let us leave aside the imagery of God as a person, and all the theorising about his or her maleness or femaleness, race or nationality. Is the spirit or creative force for whom we use the shorthand title “God”, and whom we worship, really a judge or arbitrator? For my part the answer has to be no.
Just to make one simple point. Making a judgement in essence is to declare winners and losers. The belief that we are ruled by a God who identifies some of us as losers runs counter to much that is incorporated, implicitly or explicitly, in Christian philosophy. Nor are many of the decisions made about one’s conduct in day to day living such as to draw clear boundaries between that which is right and that which is wrong.
For example, telling the truth is important, but which of us has not been faced with the dilemma of being either frank and honest with the consequence of hurting feelings, or prevaricating in order to be kind. “Thank you for a lovely evening”, we say, rather than, “What a boring time we have had!” A trivial example perhaps, but one that makes a point that, to use a time-worn analogy, if right and wrong are to be regarded as black and white, there is an infinite number of shades of grey in between the extremes. How much poorer life would be if there was no place for some deception. Father Christmas, tooth-fairies, and birthday surprises are part of, what a friend of mine always used to refer to as, “life’s rich pageant”.
Life is full of compromises, and not necessarily because of lack of principle or for personal gain. Those who see God as judge of human behaviour make allowance for this by speaking of a merciful God. A God who will take into account such things as motive, the circumstances of our deviations and transgressions. We are allowed, as the law courts put it, to make a plea in mitigation. That is to say that although we were in the wrong there were special circumstances, and so we should not be treated as severely as would otherwise be the case.
But for my part, I find difficulty with even this interpretation of our relationship with God.
We are here in the world with the opportunity to choose in the area of relationships with one another. There are all sorts of restraints upon our actions. There are the laws of the land which lay down penalties for exceeding the speed limit, for robbery and assault, for deception and fraud, for theft and murder, and so on. But our treatment of one another, our respect for views of others, or, to use a word in an old-fashioned context, our charitable behaviour, is a matter of free choice.
The law cannot make us love one another. There are no statutes which include penalties for surliness. No acts of Parliament have been passed which force cheerfulness upon us. Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Puritans once issued decrees which stopped citizens being too cheerful, as he prohibited dancing or the eating of mince pies, but that’s a different matter. There are no proclamations which compel us forgive slights and wrong-doing.
The uncomfortable feeling which descends upon us when, though we know we have broken no law, we are aware that we have behaved badly, is an indication that a judgement has been made. The judgement in this case is not one made by some outside authority, it is an assessment compiled by ourselves. These self-judgements are a matter of conscience. It is not a judge throned in splendour, but a still small voice within who passes sentence.
I recognise that there is a danger in making a case against God as a judge. One might be seen as arguing that God has no rules, no laws, is a fence-sitter leaving it to us to decide how to behave, or how to conduct our relationships with one another. That is not the case. God is palpably a god of love. It is through love in its various aspects, that we achieve joy and contentment. Our lives are fulfilled, not when we spend our time wielding the censor’s blue pencil, but, when writing encouraging comments..
In very broad terms the laws of God are encapsulated in the commandments. Awe and reverence to the creative force which assembled the universe and all that dwells within, coupled with a true respect for others, is the basis upon which communities and individuals alone can flourish. Love God and love your neighbour in the succinct language of the New Testament.
Perhaps these are not so much laws, as standards to which we should aspire; or rather the necessary conditions to be fulfilled in order that life is complete and satisfying.
If there is no awe and wonder, life becomes empty and meaningless. The wonder of creation, the interdependency of one life upon another and of both upon their environment is a source of astonishment. The vastness of the universe and the structural intricacy of minute organisms both bespeak of creative powers beyond our comprehension. It is not by the imposition of external laws that we feel compelled to bow before such awesome power – to fall and worship – but because by failing to do so our life is incomplete.
Our indifference to, or our hatred of, our fellow beings is not a crime to be punished by a sentence pronounced by a vengeful God. Such attitudes and behaviour are punished, if punishment is the correct word, by what we suffer as a consequence. That is, at best a stunted growth as an individual, and at worst unhappiness and despair. The judge is within us. We sentence ourselves, we restrict our own liberty, confine our own freedom.
The God of the Old Testament, with his fearsome rages, his readiness to call to account, his punishments, was in many ways an easier option than concept of self-judgement. It removed personal responsibility by imposing an framework of acceptable behaviour which the individual either accepted or suffered the consequences.
“To thine own self be true” is not to move away from an acceptance of God but to move nearer to it. It implies a measure of maturity, of responsibility, of trust.
If a child behaves badly, the greatest punishment is often a recognition that some-one he or she loves, perhaps a mother or father, has been made unhappy by the fall from grace. The parent does not cease to love the child, but has been upset by what has happened. The punishment is self-inflicted, remorse brings the situation back to normal.
So it is with God. Our sins do not bring thunderbolts from on high, or fire and brimstone down upon our heads. If we love God then the realisation of our misdemeanours is its own discipline. The subsequent unhappiness is relieved as and when we reconcile ourselves with God.
I do not believe all is stored up for a future day of judgement. We judge our selves continuously, and the extent of our contentment is proportionate to the margins of our errors.
C.J. Rosling 28 January 1995
Fulwood January 1995
Mexborough August 1995
Hucklow March 1996; June 2001
Chesterfield March 1995
Doncaster June 1997
St Patricks day 17 March 2019