Praying for grace instead of judging others

Duke Ellington

Dontworry/Jafeluv, Wikimedia Commons.

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.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://www.godsabsolutelove.com Patricia Zell

    The way I see it–only God has the necessary knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to correctly judge anyone. And, His judgments will bring life to us all. Our biggest problems are hearing His voice and attending to His words. Our focus should be on Him and not on our fellow human beings.

  • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

    I think that’s mostly right. But there’s a tension here. We can’t help but notice sin and in some instances call it out. That’s identification of wrongdoing and that’s inescapable. But condemnation is different, and that’s what we need to guard against.

  • http://aparchedsoul.com Grayson Pope

    Love the quote by Tikhon! That’s great.

    Great post too, Joel. This has got to be one of the most challenging things to deal with day in and day out. For some reason, we expect perfection from those that can never give it. It’s a problem at work, in marriages, and in friendships.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I’m with you. I’m a very judgmental person by inclination. It’s one of many places in my heart that needs serious work.

  • http://www.distillingwords.com Chris Lovie-Tyler

    “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.”

    Thanks for the balanced treatment of this subject, Joel.

    For some reason, I’m incredibly judgemental, too. (Maybe it’s more common than we think.) But I also recognise my own potential to go wrong – just as wrong as any other human being.

    As you say, we all need the medicine of grace and repentence. We need to take a spoonful first, then kindly spoon to others.

  • TM

    Why don’t you refer to Tikhon as St. Tikhon?

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I usually don’t identify saints as such because I have a lot of Protestant readers who don’t have a ready framework for that. I figure Orthodox and Catholic readers can include it when they read, whether it’s Paul, Irenaeus, Basil the Great, or whoever. And it reduces some unnecessary confusion for Orthodox and Catholic readers as well whose communions don’t recognize one person or another, such as Tikhon, as a saint.

      I look upon them as such and trust that I’m giving less cause for offense or confusion by leaving it out.

  • http://lifeworthserving.wordpress.com/ Cherie Clayton

    A quote I read from a book recently said something along the lines of “If we focus so much of our time on others faults, we become blind to our sin.” hit me hard. When we see other brother and sisters in Christ fall and fail, we need to remember that we too could be in the same place they are….and for whatever reason, whether it’s God’s grace or where we are in our walk with God…we need to come along side and love them. There are many Christians who judge others and write them off because they seem to be failing, falling, and stumbling through their walk with the Lord. If we were to truly look past their stumbling and look at their heart…really take the time to invest in a relationship with them…I think we would find that they are no different than we are. I often tell myself this one truth when I am tempted to judge others, “There must be a story behind what I am seeing.” We all have a story, a reason, a hurt, a pain, a heartbreak behind what we do. If it was not for the grace of God….there go I!

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I agree. You captured it exactly. It has to be offensive to God as well because he’s at work in each person’s life, and the progress of that work can’t be understood by an outsider (and often enough not the individual on whom God is working either). So passing judgement might amount to calling God a failure for not bringing So-and-So up to snuff on our timetable. That’s no good.

  • http://www.forthelifeoftheworld.com Adam Saverian

    How do you work in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 where Paul says that the Church is to judge those within her, and excommunicate, and shun, those persisting in certain sins (sexual immorality)?

    Certainly there is some place for corporate judgment.

    • http://lifeworthserving.wordpress.com/ Cherie Clayton

      If I’m not mistaken, those verses were dealing with people who would POSE as believers but were not truly of the faith and being sexually immoral…more so incest and such. I think Jesus would want us to protect our little ones from those who are making NO effort to change their sexually immoral ways.

      I also think that when we are called in the bible to judge…maybe it’s not so much judge as in condemn…but judge using discernment.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      The above piece is directed to individual believers, for whom judging (in the sense of condemning others) is risky business. But as an institutional and corporate body the church does have the power and even responsibility to judge in this way.

      That’s what’s going on in Matthew 16.19 and 18.18 with the apostolic power to bind and loose. That’s what’s going on in the wider passage in Matthew 18.15-20. Note verse 17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus is saying the church has the power to effectively write someone off. The hope is first in restoration, but if that’s impossible Christ directs the remedy of excommunication.

      As you point out, 1 Corinthians 5 provides the same picture; Paul says the church there should excommunicate a person for unrepentant sexual sin. The man is subsequently restored to fellowship after repentance (2 Corinthians 2.5-11), which I want to come back to in a moment.

      There’s another relevant passage in 2 Thessalonians 3. Paul tells the church there to disassociate from those who disobey his directives, particularly those idling about and stirring up trouble in the community. “If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter,” says Paul, “note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (verse 14). He’s telling the congregation to shun the person, and considering the corporate nature of the eucharistic assembly, that would imply the person was cut off from communion.

      But what’s helpful to also note is what Paul says next: “Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (verse 15).

      That’s the same note he strikes in 1 and 2 Corinthians regarding the man under discipline. As Paul says, “[Y]ou are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5.5). As terrible as the first part of that statement sounds, the second part clearly shows Paul’s intent. Excommunication is not only for the good of the body (by removing flagrant wrongdoing), but also in hopes of saving the soul of the wrongdoer (by forcing him to reckon with his sin).

      In this we can see that restoration is ultimately the hope. And so we find Paul ready to receive the man back into the church. “[Y]ou should . . . turn to forgive and comfort him,” Paul later says, “or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Cor 2.7-8). The one excommunicated is not the enemy, as Paul says; he’s a brother. That makes the excommunication all the more tragic in one sense, but it also expresses the spirit of proper discipline and judgment.

      God is not willing that any should perish, and neither is his church.

      • http://www.forthelifeoftheworld.com Adam Saverian

        Wonderfully put. I asked because having recently become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church I have noticed a tendency among some laymen to confuse the ecclesial, and civil, obligations found in Scripture with those regarding individuals.

  • http://www.forthelifeoftheworld.com Adam Saverian

    How do you work in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 where Paul says that the Church is to judge those within her, and excommunicate, and shun, those persisting in certain sins (sexual immorality)?

    Certainly there is some place for corporate judgment.

    • http://lifeworthserving.wordpress.com/ Cherie Clayton

      If I’m not mistaken, those verses were dealing with people who would POSE as believers but were not truly of the faith and being sexually immoral…more so incest and such. I think Jesus would want us to protect our little ones from those who are making NO effort to change their sexually immoral ways.

      I also think that when we are called in the bible to judge…maybe it’s not so much judge as in condemn…but judge using discernment.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      The above piece is directed to individual believers, for whom judging (in the sense of condemning others) is risky business. But as an institutional and corporate body the church does have the power and even responsibility to judge in this way.

      That’s what’s going on in Matthew 16.19 and 18.18 with the apostolic power to bind and loose. That’s what’s going on in the wider passage in Matthew 18.15-20. Note verse 17: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus is saying the church has the power to effectively write someone off. The hope is first in restoration, but if that’s impossible Christ directs the remedy of excommunication.

      As you point out, 1 Corinthians 5 provides the same picture; Paul says the church there should excommunicate a person for unrepentant sexual sin. The man is subsequently restored to fellowship after repentance (2 Corinthians 2.5-11), which I want to come back to in a moment.

      There’s another relevant passage in 2 Thessalonians 3. Paul tells the church there to disassociate from those who disobey his directives, particularly those idling about and stirring up trouble in the community. “If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter,” says Paul, “note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (verse 14). He’s telling the congregation to shun the person, and considering the corporate nature of the eucharistic assembly, that would imply the person was cut off from communion.

      But what’s helpful to also note is what Paul says next: “Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (verse 15).

      That’s the same note he strikes in 1 and 2 Corinthians regarding the man under discipline. As Paul says, “[Y]ou are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5.5). As terrible as the first part of that statement sounds, the second part clearly shows Paul’s intent. Excommunication is not only for the good of the body (by removing flagrant wrongdoing), but also in hopes of saving the soul of the wrongdoer (by forcing him to reckon with his sin).

      In this we can see that restoration is ultimately the hope. And so we find Paul ready to receive the man back into the church. “[Y]ou should . . . turn to forgive and comfort him,” Paul later says, “or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Cor 2.7-8). The one excommunicated is not the enemy, as Paul says; he’s a brother. That makes the excommunication all the more tragic in one sense, but it also expresses the spirit of proper discipline and judgment.

      God is not willing that any should perish, and neither is his church.

      • http://www.forthelifeoftheworld.com Adam Saverian

        Wonderfully put. I asked because having recently become a catechumen in the Orthodox Church I have noticed a tendency among some laymen to confuse the ecclesial, and civil, obligations found in Scripture with those regarding individuals.

  • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

    I agree. You captured it exactly. It has to be offensive to God as well because he’s at work in each person’s life, and the progress of that work can’t be understood by an outsider (and often enough not the individual on whom God is working either). So passing judgement might amount to calling God a failure for not bringing So-and-So up to snuff on our timetable. That’s no good.


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