Satan’s Sifter: Why Judging Others Is Always Wrong

“Simon, Simon, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.” I find those words some of the most troubling in all scripture. I know what happened next.

The night of Christ’s execution was the night of Peter’s sifting. The overconfident man whose passion for Christ was so strong he proclaimed that even if all others fell away, he never would, fell in devastating ways.

Satan’s sifter exposes weakness.

Peter’s every act that night illustrates this. First, Christ asked his inner circle, Peter, James and John, to stay awake while He prayed for strength to endure His own “sifting.” And while the Lord sweat blood in the garden, Peter couldn’t overcome his need for sleep. He nodded off.

Cavalier d’Arpino, Christ Taken Prisoner

Then, possibly fueled by the desire to prove himself in a second chance, Peter tried to defend Christ by violence, slicing off a servant’s ear when the Lord was arrested.

And finally, warming his hands at the fire just outside Christ’s trial, Peter denied even knowing the Lord three times, the last time with curses. He caught the glance of the Lord to whom he’d sworn undying allegiance. He had abandoned Christ completely, and he ran away and wept.

Next comes the accusing.

The night of Satan’s sifting left Peter exposed, broken and alone. The “Rock” no doubt accused himself in the darkness: he couldn’t stay awake, couldn’t honor Christ’s commitment to the Father’s will and couldn’t stand up for Him in His hour of trial. He had even cursed the One he knew to be “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Peter’s sifting terrifies and exposes me. His failures are my own.

But God always turns evil to good, and scripture speaks of sifting of another kind.

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked that he might have you, that he might sift you like wheat but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail, and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

Caravaggio, The Denial of St. Peter

The scriptures refer more than once to the sifting or winnowing of the Lord, a sifting that destroys the chaff, that gathers the grain, that purifies the harvest. The Old Testament prophets foretold the day of the Lord’s sifting; John the Baptist announced its coming in the person of Jesus Christ.

One can see the winnowing as threatening, especially in the times when we’re clinging to, rather than sorry for the chaff within our hearts. But in the light of Peter’s infidelities, we see that Christ is only after the outcome of the sifting: When you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.

Sure, the chaff will be burned. Satan’s sifting is Peter’s purification. Christ isn’t interested in humiliating his friend. He allows our “sifting” because he’s going for the grain.

When you have turned, strengthen your brethren.

We all love the stories of the merciful Christ. We love the Lord who saw our sins before we even fell away and loved us anyway. If He could see Peter’s sin in advance and still encourage him, then maybe there’s hope for us.

He knows “the flesh is weak.”

But we’re less likely to remember that the flesh is weak when we judge others.

We hold their “chaff” before our eyes, exposing and accusing. When we do this, we’re applying Satan’s sifter.

Satan sifted Peter with the intent of darkness, to separate Peter from Christ, to lead him to despair, to hold up the “chaff” exposed by the winnowing and use it as evidence against the Lord’s passionate friend.

Our judgements do the very same thing.

Gossiping conversation–“Did you hear he got a DUI?” “Did you know she had an affair?” “Can you believe he lied to me?”–no matter how carefully couched in words of pity or prayer, always separates the guilty party from the rest of us, as if we’re above that sin, as if we have a right to our voyeurism and our condemnation.

Nursing the resentment, anger and superiority of judgment in the silence of the heart also puts Satan’s sifter to work as we replay the scenes of our wounding, condemning the one who wronged us over and over again.

El Greco, The Tears of St. Peter

God turns the sifting to our favor. The difference is His purpose. He’s pefectly aware that the chaff is there, but that doesn’t mean any of us is unredeemable.

When the sifting exposes a failure, God looks to the heart, inviting it to be made clean. He knows who will weep tears of healing humility, leaving a potent grain, full of future fruit, bouncing in His sifter.

When Fr. Michael Gaitley, in You Did It to Me: A Practical Guide to Mercy in Action, describes a merciful vs. a judgmental outlook, he’s encouraging us to sift the way God does, to go for the grain:

The merciful outlook doesn’t pretend that sin and annoyances aren’t there…The merciful outlook makes a strategic choice to go past them…to what St. Ignatius would call “the greater good.” It chooses mercy over justice and trusts in the power of mercy to bring about an even greater good.out of evil.

Millet, The Winnower

Christ taught us to “judge not” so that we would not be judged. Trading in Satan’s sifter and choosing to look for the good in others lifts us all higher.

When, because of personal responsibility or a role of authority we must expose a failure, we must do so with the intent of healing and restoration rather than diminishment and destruction.

The rest of the time, there’s no need to expose and accuse. When we do, we’re on the side of the Scatterer, forgetting that the Gatherer is our Savior.

There’s only one true Judge, and it isn’t us. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and we can trust that his winnowing will be just at the final reckoning.

That’s why judging others is always wrong.

Let’s pray for grace to stop.

Reads & Other Seeds

“I will be my brother’s keeper, not the one who judges him.” All the songs on Sparrowfare’s Spotify playlist “Brother’s Keeper” were selected to help us abandon judgment and embrace mercy. Listen here, follow and share!

From the Sparrowfare archives: May Your Name Be Safe in My Mouth.

The merciful outlook (going for the grain, or strength-based approaches to problem-solving) is richly supported by research. Dr. Chris Kaczor’s The Gospel of Happiness:  Rediscover Your Faith through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology is a good introduction to the principles of positive psychology and how they intersect with the life of faith. He’s interviewed by Kris McGregor on Discerning Heart’s Inside the Pages here.

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