Fear of Judgment

As you all know too painfully well, relationships flounder in an environment of judging. Both the Bible and our experience teach us that where judgment reigns relationships are ruined.

At some level, every relationship is assaulted by an aroma of judgment–this sense that we will never measure up to the expectations and demands of another. Critical environments are contexts which (while never explicitly stated) shout: “my approval of you, love for you, and joy in you depends on your ability to measure up to my standards, to become what I need you to become in order for me to be happy.” It’s a context in which achievement precedes acceptance. We’ve all felt this. We’ve felt it at school, in churches, in the workplace, with our friends, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and most painfully, at home with our spouses, our children, our siblings, and our parents. This is why any relationship where criticism is constant, where you always feel like you’re being evaluated and falling short, is an unhappy relationship.

I his book Who Will Deliver Us? Paul Zahl writes:

I wonder if any of us are strong enough to withstand the perceived judgments upon our lives, which touch the fears within. Have you ever tried to win the favor of a person who actively dislikes you? To get him to like you, you may have changed your style of dress. You may have altered your schedule. You may have stopped something you’ve been doing or started something new. You may have carried out their wishes to the last detail. You may tried once, then again, then a thousand times. But you have not won from this person the affirmation you so deeply desire. Judgment steamrolls over most of us.

Can you relate to that? I can.

The deepest fear we have, “the fear beneath all fears”, is the fear of not measuring up, the fear of judgment. It’s this fear that creates the stress and depression of everyday life. And it comes from the fact that down deep we all know we don’t measure up and are therefore deserving of judgment. We’re aware that we fail, that our best is never good enough, that “we’ve been weighed in the balances and been found wanting.”

The judgment of others is a surface echo of a judgment that goes deeper. So if we’re living in an environment or we are in a relationship that feeds this fear of judgment with constant judging, we deflate and detach because it becomes discouragingly exhausting trying to satisfy the demands and appease the judgment of the other. We become depleted of the hope that we can ever attain the affirmation that seems so necessary for us to live and breathe and so the relationship flounders.

The fact is, that relational demand always creates relational detachment. Control produces relational chaos, criticism produces relational commotion.

Most preachers and parents, spouses and siblings, fall prey to the false idea that real change happens when we lay down the law, exercise control, demand good performance, and offer constant constructive criticism. When we do this, we are failing to acknowledge the obvious: “Judgment kills. Only grace makes alive.” We wonder why our spouse, or our children, or our friends, or our colleagues, or our congregants become relationally and emotionally detached from us. It’s because we are feeding their deep fear of judgment by playing the judge, by being the voice of law.

When we feel this weight of judgment against us, we all tend to slip into the slavery of self-salvation: trying to appease the judge (friends, parents, spouse, ourselves) with hard work, good behavior, getting better, achievement, losing weight, and so on. We conclude, “If I can just stay out of trouble and get good grades, maybe my mom and dad will finally approve of me; If I can overcome this addiction, then I’ll be able to accept myself; If I can get thin, maybe my husband will finally think I’m beautiful and pay attention to me; If I can help out more with the kids, maybe my wife won’t criticize me as much; If I can make a name for myself and be successful, maybe I’ll get the respect I long for.” But, as is always the case, self-salvation projects experientially eclipse the only salvation project that can set us free from this oppression. “If we were confident of ultimate acquittal”, says Zahl, “judgment from others would not possess the sting it does.”

The Gospel announces that Jesus came to acquit the guilty. He came to judge and be judged in our place. Christ came to satisfy the deep judgment against us once and for all so that we could be free from the judgement of God, others, and ourselves. He came to give rest to our efforts at trying to deal with judgment on our own. Colossians 2:13-14 announces, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

The Gospel declares that our guilt has been atoned for, the law has been fulfilled. So we don’t need to live under the burden of trying to appease the judgment we feel. In Christ the ultimate demand has been met, the deepest judgment has been satisfied. The atonement of Christ frees us from the fear of judgment.

This story told by my friend and former professor, Steve Brown, illustrates well the radical discrepancy between the ways in which we hold other people hostage in their sin and the unconditional forgiveness that God offers to us in Christ.

Do you remember the story about the little boy who killed his grandmother’s pet duck? He accidentally hit the duck with a rock from his slingshot. The boy didn’t think anybody saw the foul deed, so he buried the duck in the backyard and didn’t tell a soul.

Later, the boy found out that his sister had seen it all. Not only that, she now had the leverage of his secret and used it. Whenever it was the sister’s turn to wash the dishes, take out the garbage or wash the car, she would whisper in his ear, “Remember the duck.” And then the little boy would do what his sister should have done.

There is always a limit to that sort of thing. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore-he’d had it! The boy went to his grandmother and, with great fear, confessed what he had done. To his surprise, she hugged him and thanked him. She said, “I was standing at the kitchen sink and saw the whole thing. I forgave you then. I was just wondering when you were going to get tired of your sister’s blackmail and come to me.”

Jesus took on himself all the judgment we deserve from God so that we could be free from the paralyzing sting of judgment we draw from others.

William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, Tullian is also the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a contributing editor to Leadership Journal.

A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tullian has authored a number of books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway). He travels extensively, speaking at conferences throughout the U.S., and his sermons are broadcast daily on the radio program LIBERATE. As a respected pastor, author, and speaker, Tullian is singularly and passionately devoted to seeing people set free by the radical, amazing power of God's grace.

When he is not reading, studying, preaching, or writing, Tullian enjoys being with people and relaxing with his wife, Kim, and their three children: Gabe, Nate, and Genna. He loves the beach, loves to exercise, and when he has time, he loves to surf.