Leadership & Self-Deception: A Spiritual Perspective

All things are possible when we realize the truth is not trapped by what we see on the outside– Jason Upton

Two weeks ago, I wrote an extensive 5 part series of reflection on the book Leadership and Self-Deception. It perhaps is the most important book that I’ve read in the last five years, and I can’t think of anything that has done more to change my perspective on my own life and relationships. Though the book is not rooted in any theological or spiritual tradition, I could not help but reflect on its similarities to spiritual concepts such as sin, brokenness, nonjudgment and forgiveness. Here, I reflect on the book from the teachings of Jesus and Eastern religion.

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-6

The Bible repeatedly cautions us about judging. That’s not because it is wrong to make judgments, but because we are not very good at making them. We have a hard time seeing beneath the surface, and since things are seldom what they appear to be, our judgments are usually mistaken. This is particularly true when it comes to judging people. You may have noticed how those whose lives look pretty good are often masking a private turmoil, and those who look completely chaotic are often living out of an inner core that is actually quite healthy and strong.

Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands his disciples, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1). This verse has been used by people for centuries to justify the attempt by some to rob Christianity of any moral or spiritual discernment whatsoever, with little morality left other than “If it feels good, do it” and “Do whatever you want, just don’t harm anyone else.” Perhaps we are not sure what Jesus means, but this surely is not what he means. In fact, he had just spent a whole sermon laying out his moral code for his followers. In the verses shortly after these in chapter 7, Jesus tells his disciples to watch out for false prophets who are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15-23) who bite and devour people and do not live according to the principles of non-violence, forgiveness and love that Jesus had laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. So if one is to oppose such false prophets and lift up the moral standard of the Sermon on the Mount, one cannot claim that Jesus is advocating a life without morals in these verses.

So what does Jesus mean then by his instruction to not judge? I believe the answer lies in the Greek verb “to judge” which also carries the meaning of “to express an opinion about, especially in an unfavorable sense.” So, rather than instructing us to eschew all morals, Jesus is teaching us to not hold an opinion about certain things, to just let it be, to let some things be a mystery, to just accept, or at least to be patient in forming an opinion. As my friend Dale Pauls writes,”I believe Jesus is cautioning us against our automatic, knee-jerk impulse to judge everything and everyone that we hear or see without carefully evaluating the whole picture.” We quickly make judgments about everything and everyone as like / dislike, good / bad, moral or immoral [Insert pictures here of DMV, George Bush, Bill Clinton, McDonald’s fries]. Jesus is not calling us to refrain from making any judgments but to refrain from unthinking, impulsive judgments. In the words of the authors of Leadership, Jesus calls us to stop the blame game.

Said another way … I believe Jesus is asking us again to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. To live a cross-shaped life is to live a life that gives up the need to hold up one’s self as the litmus test of all that is good, fair, right and moral. There is only one who is perfect, and he is hanging on the cross. It certainly isn’t me. To deny self is to see all of life including the world, things and people other than through the lenses of “me” so that our eyes are opened to God, to otherness, to something outside ourselves and to the way we will the world to be. If we can live a cross-shaped life where we are no longer at the center of the universe, and in particular our relationships, then we can begin see people from another perspective than my own judgments and opinions. Given everything Jesus said about judging and about the lifestyle of a disciple in the Sermon on the Mount, I think that is what Jesus is commanding us to do here: to give up the quick impulse to size up everything and everyone with a label, with a stereotype or an expectation. When you do that, you can’t see the image of God in the person, or often the work of God in the person – all you can see is the label. In the words of The Arbinger Institute, we begin to see others as objects of our need rather than persons with their own dignity, humanity and limitations.

It isn’t just the church that is judgmental. Our society is judgmental too. Our politics and our society seem to have gotten meaner. Whether liberal, conservative, or in between, our public discourse in the newspaper, television and radio are filled with moralizing, judgmental, finger-pointing, labeling, polarizing, and judgmental moral busybodies who can’t seem to refrain from their judgments. Sooner or later, everyone is judged – and often, even themselves. And often those same individuals find themselves under scrutiny for their own sins. I think that is what Jesus means when he says, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” I think I would prefer a short measure! Those who judge and blame the most are often those most guilty of self-betrayal, and often for the very things that they criticize.

Jesus goes on to say, “Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4-5). I think we are learning not to look down on others with whom we disagree because we have learned the hard way that almost all judgment involves a character problem, and usually hypocrisy. Perhaps drawing on his experience in the carpentry shop, Jesus noted how silly we look when we judge. Self-betrayal is usually at the heart of judgment.

Some guy with a plank in his eye is trying to remove a speck of dust from someone else’s eye. Jesus illustrated this once when some religious leaders sought to stone a woman caught in adultery. Jesus told them, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”, and they left one by one in silence. Then Jesus demonstrated what it means not to judge. He first restored her to her God-given dignity and humanity by speaking with her and by protecting her. Then he clearly did call her to a moral life (“Go and sin no more”). But he also made very clear that he did not condemn her. (John 8:11).

It is so easy to blame, but we know better. We know that we often don’t have all the facts when we are inclined to judge someone. We seldom know the whole story or see the bigger picture. And the person we are so quick to condemn we might even applaud if we knew all they had been through to be who they are. To stop our impulse to judge long enough to understand the bigger picture is what I think Jesus means by “Do not judge.” It is not to stop thinking and accept and everything. It is start thinking well, to think with measured balance and perspective, to see the whole picture, to make wise and not quick judgments. It is to get out of the box so we treat others as persons.

I think it is important to remember the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Probably written after the destruction of the Temple by the Roman occupying army in 70 A.D., the Gospel of Matthew spoke to Christians living in a world of oppression, unrest, revolt and violence. So I think Jesus is saying, and Matthew is saying, “That is not the way of Jesus.” The Roman oppressors and the Jewish Zealots want to categorize people and force their way on the opposition. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit … Blessed are the peacemakers . . . Do not retaliate . . . Love your enemies . . Forgive those who wrong you . . . And do not judge.” To paraphrase Jesus through the eyes of Matthew, I think He is saying, “The way things seem to you may not be the way they really are.”

So how do we stop the judging? First of all, back up and take a second look. Seek to really understand a situation or a person. Be merciful, be forgiving, be truthful, but don’t judge. Could there possibly be a good motivation that the person has for their behavior or belief? That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the motivation or the behavior. It just means that you stop your judging long enough to consider it.

Second, watch your thoughts. They are just thoughts after all. You do not have to be ruled by them. They are not the facts. They are just your thoughts. Your worst fears, your dislike for someone, or your frustration with a situation, your disagreement with a person – for the most part, those are just thoughts. As Jon Kabot Zin writes in Wherever You Go, There You Are, when you are tempted to judge, stop, watch the thought and realize it was just a thought. It isn’t necessarily the way things are.

Third, learn to see people and not issues. Life is not neat and tidy, but some people have worked out a theological and moral system that is a lot more neat and tidy than life really is. Life is filled with ambiguity, mystery and situations beyond our understanding. Perhaps we could refrain from the need to judge the complexity. Look into the eyes of those we find immoral, repugnant or wrong and see in their eyes a person with the image of God in them, and not an issue or an agenda. This will demand that you hold to a higher morality that upholds the way and truth of Jesus but in a way that is true to the way life really is and not as we wish it could be.

When we look at our own selves, we see the complexity. We see the broken relationships with our parents, or with our children, or the divorces, or the affairs, or the secret sins. We see the color. But when we evaluate others, we see them only in black and white. To not judge is to extend to others the grace that you know you need for yourself. It is to realize that there is a plank in your own eye, there has been an act first before you get too excited about the dust in someone else’s life.

You have to forgive yourself, and allow God to forgive you too. I have found that the most judgmental people often are people most judgmental of themselves. They never quit hearing the voices of their childhood or of some person whose voice still haunts them, “You are not attractive enough,” “You are not smart enough,” “You are not good enough.” We may in fact repeat these judgments to ourselves, and we become harshly critical of others in the very areas of our own struggle. We may have made mistakes in our home or work life that we regret, and we continue to live in shame or regret. Our shame gives way to blame. The only way you can quit the judging is to stop feeling judged. Forgive yourself and experience the forgiveness of the Forgiver. If you are to stop feeling judged and to walk away from a lifestyle of judging, you have to hear the voice of God who looks down on you and says, “This is my Beloved. The one in whom I am pleased.”

Just like the blaming of others began with our own self-betrayal, so our forgiveness of others begins with the forgiveness of ourselves. This forgiveness ultimately can come from the only One who loves us unconditionally and forever.

Leaders who first are clear on their own self-betrayal are ready to forgive others for their humanity too. Once we step out of the box through nonjudgment and forgiveness, we are ready to lead and live. Most importantly, we finally are ready to love.

One Response to “Leadership & Self-Deception: A Spiritual Perspective”
  1. yoursurprise-bellatio-2 says:

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