What if instead of judging others, we saw their failings as our own?
Some years back I read Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music is My Mistress. A statement he made about withholding judgement of others really stuck with me.
“We should recognize that everybody is capable of making a mistake,” he said, “and we should not raise any more hell about somebody else’s mistakes than we expect to be raised when we make one. Who does not make mistakes? Who is not limited? Everybody but God.”
A better musician than ethicist, Ellington did not draw out the thought much further than that, but there is a important idea hiding under the surface of his observation, one that pertains to our common plight as people.
My friend Matt Vest recently pointed me to a statement by Tikhon of Zadonsk that fills in the gaps of Ellington’s thought.
To look upon another — his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects — is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important: do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you’d never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.
Tikhon’s understanding of the Golden Rule is more thoroughly expressed than Ellington’s but they both hinge on the same thought. None of us is better than another. All of us have failings. Sympathy should soften our judgmental edge.
That said, it is not enough to say that we all sin and therefore we ought to give each other a pass — which is how some treat the scriptural injunction against casting judgment. What Tikhon says that if we judge our brother, we are judging ourselves. We all suffer together. But we don’t get on by sweeping things under the rug. We don’t need a pass. We need grace and repentance.
This is the full meaning of doing unto others, as it relates to judging them. It’s the full meaning of bearing one another’s burdens. We don’t condemn the gossip, the glutton, the griper, or the groper. We instead pray for their healing (and ours). The unkind, the undisciplined, the unchaste, the ungodly need grace just like we do. If we are doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves, we will pray for their salvation as we hope for our own.
As Duke Ellington said, only God is without fault. And only God can save those who fall short of his glory. That includes the person screwing up and the person judging him for it.