We Must Overcome the Temptation To Rash Judgment

We Must Overcome the Temptation To Rash Judgment October 29, 2019

Holy Man Love Prophet Spiritual Lord Christ Jesus / Max Pixel

Jesus made it clear. Christians are not to be judgmental:

Judge not, that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt. 7:2-3 RSV).

Christians should not be looking at others in order to find reasons to criticize them. This is especially true concerning their eternal fate, for that is a judgment which is left to God alone. Nonetheless, even when we are not dealing with people’s eternal fate, we must resist being judgmental. We should not be possessed by a spirit looking to denounce others. When there is need, when some grave injustice has been done, the demands justice can and should be invoked, but we should not be looking into the private lives of others, examining it with a critical eye, looking for some reason to condemn them.

Why? Because acting in such a way we show a fatal flaw in our own character: we have lost the fundamental virtue of charity. Jesus explained that the one we should judge, the one we should examine, is ourselves. We should be critical of ourselves, looking to improve ourselves. When we have a log in our own eye, when we fail to seek out justice and follow the law dictated by love, not only will our criticism of others be unjust, they will serve as a deflection and scapegoat for our true problem, the problem of our own iniquity. Just as those who live by the sword shall die by the sword, so those who live by judgment will find the grasp of judgment upon them and their own lives, highlighting their own faults in return.

Julianus Pomerius, a fifth century priest from Gaul, and probably one of the teachers of St. Caesarius of Arles, understood this. The more we look to others and their own sins, the further we are from the reform we need in our own lives. Such judgmentalism is a distraction, not just because we avoid our own sins, but it also becomes the means by which we ignore the true needs of others:

It is fact that a man is ignorant of his own sin, which he ought to acknowledge and mourn, as long as he pries and probes into those of others. But if, turning to himself, he looks to his own morals, he seeks not what he may especially blame in others but what he may grieve for in himself. We should, then, not be prompt to rebuke the faults of our brethren but sorrow over them so that, carrying our burdens for one another, we can fulfill the law of Christ, who surely did not chide our sins but who bore them as the Evangelist says: Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sins of the world. [1]

Instead of holding a judgmental spirit against others, we should rather meet with them in the spirit of compassion. Certainly, if there is a serious issue of injustice, where social justice is neglected, we are to work to rectify that injustice, denouncing it in no uncertain terms. But more importantly, we should be concerned about helping those who have been unjustly harmed by such injustice. Nonetheless, when we are talking about personal sins which do not cause such direct harm towards others, we must be charitable. Instead of using someone’s weakness as a way to denigrate them, we must rather look at them with eyes of compassion and love. Is there something we can do to help them, to take their burden away? Being on the receiving end of chastisement and rebuke tends to make people fall away in despair. This is why we must shoulder their burden with solidarity and grace. We must raise them up. We must comfort them.  Yes, when we can see their spiritual weakness, we can feel sorrow about it, but the response should not be of judgment and condemnation but of comfort and exhortation. We should be more grieved with our own sins, our own failings, and work to overcome them instead of focusing on the faults of others. If we only produce rotten fruit ourselves, why should we look to the slight blemishes seen in the fruit of others? If we eat rotten fruit, we might get sick and even die from it; those fruits with minor blemishes are, despite their looks, fine to eat. This, then, is what happens when we look to and focus on the others, seeking something to criticize in them: we ignore the rotten spiritual fruit of our own lives, the hate, the anger, the envy, the sloth, or the like which we would like to ignore, as we look towards something insignificant in others and make more out of their deeds than they are worth. We might find ourselves perishing because we are concerned with the minor faults of others.

There are, to be sure, times, in which we might need to correct others. This is not in dispute. Grave injustice must be rectified. Those who promote such injustice must be stopped. But a judgmental attitude is not concerned about justice; it is concerned, rather, in discovering a reason to undermine someone else, to lower the respect others give to them.

Gossip is often a source for the spreading of disinformation which lead to such a judgemental degradation of others. When we are about to talk about others, we should ask ourselves, is such talk necessary? Does it do anyone good? What reason do we have talking about others? Just because we have witnessed something does not mean we need to tell others about it. We must look into our hearts and figure out why we speak about others. According to the Desert Fathers, even if what we say is not an attempt to pass judgment but just to talk about something we have seen, if some inordinate passion lies behind our speech, then it is as if we are guilty of slander:

A brother asked one of the elders to give an opinion on a hypothetical question: “Suppose I see somebody doing something, and I describe it to someone else,” he said. “In my opinion, I am not passing judgment. We are only talking [about it], so it is not slander, even in the logismos.” The elder said, “If you have a passionate impulse, then it is slander. But if one is free of passion, it is not slander. But it is better to keep silent so that evil not be increased.”[2]

It is better to keep silent because it is better to avoid all forms of malice. We should not desire to speak ill of anyone:

Do not speak evil against one another, brethren. He that speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbor? (Jas. 4:11-12 RSV)

How can James say that speaking ill of another is the same as speaking against the law and judging the law? Because it violates the law, not just the commandment not to bear false witness, but the greater commandment and foundation of the law, the law of love. The whole of the law, the dictates of the law, can be seen as commentary on this root law, the command to love others. If we disregard the law of love, we judge it unworthy of our obedience.

A judgmental spirit, a spirit filled with contention, ignores the law. At best, it tries to use the dead letter of the law to overturn the spirit of the law. It seeks to use the law against itself as it uses various parts of the law to denigrate the dignity of others. Jesus showed us the way beyond this. He told us that we must promote the good of others. He stayed with sinners, emphasizing their dignity, and in his love and respect for them, he bore the burdens of their heart, allowing them to be transformed. Jesus’ critics, on the other hand, loved to judge sinners instead of loving them, and for this reason, they did not help transform the sinner but rather sought their destruction. The spirit of judgment often gives the pretense of concern for the other, but all it offers is a way for us to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves to what we think is worse in others; it suggests not only are we good enough are we are, we should be praised for our own greatness. The true Christian response, that which Jesus would have us do, is to judge ourselves, to find out how we can improve ourselves and reflect even more the implications of the love of God for the whole world.

[1] Julianus Pomerius, The Contemplative Life. Trans. Mary Josephine Suelzer, PhD (Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1947), 68.

[2] John Wortley, trans., The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Collegeville, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2012), 141.


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