Do you remember Mean Girls, the 2004 teen comedy hit starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams? In the movie, there was one object pivotal to the plot—the Burn Book. The Burn Book was a record of rumors, gossip, secrets, and insults of all the girls and some teachers in school. The contents were eventually exposed and there were serious consequences from all that slander (false and damaging statements about someone), with full-on fights and teachers being suspended.
We may marvel at how anyone could be so cruel as to record such mean things about people. However, as I thought about it, a thought came to mind: Do we have our own Burn Books? Sure, we may not hold actual physical records or voice aloud all our thoughts. But if we were to list down all the thoughts we’ve had about others, let’s just say they would probably not be as pure as we imagined them to be.
In this passage, James is addressing the issue of judging as part of a discussion on conflicts. He does this because slander and inappropriate judging are common causes of conflicts.
It is amazingly easy to criticize or pass judgment on someone, especially in the Christian community. Perhaps someone has been missing church for a few weeks because of an urgent family matter. Instead of expressing our concern and getting in touch with him, we quickly conclude that he’s losing his faith. Someone is diagnosed with cancer, and we surmise that it’s because of a secret sin. On Facebook, we see a picture of a fellow church member at a bar, and start calculating his alcohol intake.
Sometimes, the rumor or secret may well turn out to be true. But whether true or false, the heart of the matter is how we handle that knowledge. If we’re not careful, we use that knowledge to judge another Christian, thus creating conflicts, when the loving way should be to speak to the person in truth, seasoned with grace.
Addressing the judgmental spirit does not mean that the rule of law no longer applies. We still need to abide by God’s law and confront sin. What we’re not supposed to do is to proudly place ourselves above the law. When we criticize with such an attitude, we are actually acting from pride—because we think that we are better. We declare ourselves the lawmakers, when the only one in authority is God, as James states in verse 12.
At the end of Mean Girls, the students involved in the slander are made to face each other, confess and apologize, forgive, and reconcile with each other. It was not an easy resolution, but it was a liberating step towards peace. As brothers and sisters, may we walk in that same pursuit of peace. Let us keep our thoughts and intentions in check and not create mental Burn Books, and let us always seek to restore and heal relationships instead of destroying them.
—Charmain Sim, Malaysia
Questions for reflection
1. What are some ways in which we may judge others without meaning to?
2. What is the difference between being judgmental and being discerning?
How can we discern to uncover real sin without being judgmental?
3. If you uncover a truth about someone’s sin that needs to be addressed, what is the right way to go about it?
Charmain is a dreamer and pseudo-nomad whose life is best described by Hillsong United’s “Captain”. As a daughter of a merchant navy captain, she grew up sailing the seas. She’s now settled in Singapore . . . more or less. She is learning that true discipleship is marked by daily faithfulness and obedience more than sporadic inspiration. She writes because it helps her process experiences, and also because God has called her to it. When she’s not dreaming, Charmain loves an evening in with a bowl of ice-cream, a TV show or book, and her husband.