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How is it Possible to Judge?

February 22, 2013

last_judgementTrying to discern the motives of others, attempting to protect our backs, and striving to distinguish right from wrong are so much a part of most people’s lives, that the suggestion of a heart that does not judge seems strange and even impossible. Yet, when we feel close to Christ, when we sense His love for us and our neighbor, how can we pick up the first stone to cast at someone else? Clinical psychologists are well aware of the fact that therapy is nearly impossible without a nonjudgmental environment. So how can Christians be healing presences in this broken world if they set themselves up as judges of other people’s sins? We are taught to hate the sin, but love the sinner. And yet, we find ourselves labeling sinners through judgment and not really loving them at all. How, then, is it possible not to judge them? Only in Christ Jesus and through Christ Jesus.

The Lord Christ’s commandments have power and grace that enable us to move mountains, including the mountain of judging other people. Being nonjudgmental is not an option for someone struggling to be a Christian. The Gospels and the Church Fathers are clear on this point. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, “One should not be startled or astonished because God the Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son. And the Son teaches us, “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned.” Likewise the Apostle says, “judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come.” And “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” And yet people neglect weeping over their sins and take away judgment from the Son. As though they were sinless, they judge and condemn one another. Heaven was amazed at this and the earth shuddered, but people in their stubbornness are not ashamed.” (Chapters on Love, 3, 54)

The Church Fathers realize that the commandment not to judge was no easy task for those of us who are so shamelessly and stubbornly eager to pull the mote out of our brother’s eye. They also offer some helpful advice. Saint Ephraim would advise calling to remembrance Lot who lived amidst such pride and debauchery, but both remained apart from sin and from judging sinners (Admonition 8) as well as the Prophet Samuel who remained humble before the Priest Eli even after God had revealed to the prophet about the priest’s spiritual condition.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mention the teaching of Saint Dorotheos of Gaza. Whenever he “would notice a brother failing in some way to lead a Christian life, he would say to himself, ‘Woe is me, him today and surely me tomorrow.’ Thus, whenever observation would bring harm rather than benefit, the saint would deftly switch from a critical observer mode to a repentant introspective frame of mind.”

To not judge others is integral to the process of purification from the passions, illumination by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and deification in Christ. How can we overcome the passions, while being concerned with the passions of our neighbor? How can we say the Jesus prayer asking for His mercy while we refuse to show mercy to others? How can the grace of God make us godlike when we choose to imitate the Adversary who points out the failings of others? No, a heart that judges is a heart that does not function properly from a Christian perspective. The entire Christian process of healing is blocked to someone who judges others. On the one hand, we refuse to judge others for God’s sake (Saint John Chrysostom, Epistle to the Hebrews, PG 63.88) and for our sake, given that our sins are also forgiven through a refusal to judge others (Saint Athanasios the Great, Questions to Antiochius the Duke, PG 28.645). On the other hand, we avoid the plague of judging others, because, as Saint John Chrysostom taught elsewhere, in judging others we are committing a wrong much worst than just failing to take an account of our own failings, we allow the deception that we are better than we actually are to enter into our soul and we poison the disposition of our soul towards our neighbor with hostility. We become blind hypocrites and a breed of vipers, not better, but far worst than the Pharisees of old (Homily 23 on Matthew).

The fathers, of course, do make some distinctions. Saint Asterios notes that the commandment not to judge does not mean we do not recognize that the actions of others can bring us gratitude or sorrow (Homily 13). Saint John of Damascus remarks that the commandment does not mean that we do not distinguish between truth and falsehood in matters of the faith (On the Virtues and the Vices, PG 95.95). And Saint Basil the Great observes that those who have others under their charge do judge to the extent that they need to exhort, correct, and reprove their children for the sake of spiritual growth. (Short Rule 146). And yet if we are honest, our problem with judging is not in such innocent situations as those referred to by Saints John Damascus and Basil the Great. Why is this the case? One Athonite father and friend once told me something that provides an answer: “Monks never sin, except when they forget.” Forgetfulness of who we are and Who God is seems to be at the heart of judging our brother. Remembrance of God is the beginning of the cure; forgetfulness is the beginning of the disease. If we judge others and say the prayer, we can be assured that the prayer is not being said from the heart. In that case, it is simply time to repent of judging another, to pray for that person, to place ourselves below that person in our thought, and to ask for God to have mercy on us all.

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10 Comments
  1. frthomas permalink

    Here is what I hear you saying:

    •We are talking “about a both” and not an “either or” in terms of loving unconditionally and also holding people accountable when the relationship warrants it.
    •The villain in the piece is intention of the heart. Is the intention to kill or to save the other person? Is it to belittle, lessen, and elevate ourselves and absolve ourselves or to truly seek the highest good for the other person?
    •The old saying, “hate the sin and love the sinner” requires us to actually DO that not just say it which is a road of self-sacrifice most are not willing to travel and cannot really be travelled except by the grace of God in the heart of a person who is coming to know ever more deeply not only their own sin but the overwhelming mercy of God for them. It is this mercy received that then becomes the mercy we offer to other “write off” in our judgmentalism wrapped in the cloak of “Godly exhortation.”
    •There are no easy answers regarding when I am judging and when I am rightly holding people accountable and when I am wrongly withholding a word of accountability. The answer is lies in a matrix of dynamic relationship not formulas (relationship with God, with spiritual father/mother, the fellowship of brothers and sisters with whom we share daily life, the person who is the potential object of my judgment, the communion of the saints, etc.).
    •All of this is incredibly frustrating for the passion dominated, linear, Enlightenment influenced Christian.

    Is that something of what you are saying or have I misunderstood you?

    Fr. Thomas

    • Fr. Thomas,

      Thank you so much for your own insightful comments. Yes, I think you have produced a fine translation of the fathers’ teachings on judging. I think your statement “holding people accountable when the relationship warrants it” is important. There are many cases when the relationship does not warrant it. And outside of the clear examples of parents and their young children as well as priests and their flocks, it is best to be wary of what we should hold others to. Loving unconditionally is certainly unconditional as is holding ourselves accountable to others and to God. As far as the accounts of others are concerned, however, we tread carefully and lovingly if we tread at all. No there are no easy answers, but the heart can sense when what is being done or said is being done from love with kindness and compassion. Simplicity is, of course, a great virtue. Those monks who literally managed to not judge anyone, to hold no one to account for anything, were simple, guileless souls that reached salvation to a large extent by their refusal to ever judge anyone and by their commitment to always judge themselves. The result was an abyss of humility and from humility and abundance of holiness. Of course, simple monks have such a luxury. But for those whose circumstances allow it, such a way is truly blessed.

      Fr. Alexis

  2. Dave permalink

    Still difficult to understand. After all the act of directly killing and innocent human being is wrong. This is a judgment. Someone who does this has sinned. This is another judgment. Why the person did it i.e. reading the person heart is unknowable and thus can not be judged in reality but yet is done when the act is conflated with the person’s heart. I think that makes sense. So actions are subject to judgment and are evaluated accordingly but the person can only be judged by the Son who knows the heart completely. I will continue to ponder …

    • Dave, I think this can be clarified by understanding that we are called to discernment of right from wrong, but we are not to condemn others for their sins (as far as we can discern those), but to realize ours are greater (as far as we know) and pray for God to have mercy on all. We are to refrain from judgment, not in the sense of exercising discernment, but in the sense of condemnation of others for their sins.

      The author can correct me if I’m mistaken.

  3. susan permalink

    at some point in a Christian’s life, the decision to live now according to what we know is right has to be made and of then acted on and put on as a way of life. myself as an example: i am fifty years old. every stone placed in front of me i have turned over in the pursuit of the truth. fifty years of stones. to continually be “frustrated” in search of the truth is merely a spritually immature way to continue to choose the wrong way of thinking. starting here and now we must stop ruminating over the wrong way and choose the right way. we know what the right way is!

    • Thank you for your comment, Susan. You are so very right that the moment that we choose the right way and stop ruminating over the wrong way is decisive and marks the real beginning of the Christian life.

      Fr. Alexis

  4. norman collins permalink

    the necessity of qualifying the simple formula, hate the sin, love the sinner, causes me to question it’s validity , surely disaproval is important in human affairs , otherwise moral laxity wins? do we not sit on juries? judgment by God in scripture does not see such a clear separation between a person and their sin.”out of a person’s heart “etc.
    equally, the fashion of using the word unconditional can be heard as, I can do what I want and you still love me. Surely to care for one’s friends is to tell them when appropriate, that a certain action is ill advised or morally wrong , isn’t Jesus’s call to repentance something that we have to do and also proclaim, being confident in the church’s understanding of what is righteousness. the task is how to that without entertaining negative emotions towards others.. Symeon

  5. Thank you so much, Symeon, for your thoughtful comments. When we look at patristic statements or advice, such as hate the sin and love the sinner, I think it helps to look more at the motivational intention of the statement, rather than its universal applicability to all situations. The purpose of the statement is to become loving, forgiving, peaceful, humble, and prayerful in that network of relationships that make up our lives. It is not about the rule of law or the needs of society. It’s not even about the universal need for repentance, but about my own personal need for repentance. I don’t believe that such a statement would prevent someone from advising a friend that fire will burn, nor would it prevent a feeling of sadness when someone falls or fails in some way. And we can speak from that feeling of sadness. I am not sure who is ever helped by righteous indignation. I suspect no one. And I think that is what you are saying about not entertaining negative emotions towards others and what the fathers are saying in the formula, however simple, hate the sin, but love the sinner.

    Fr. Alexis

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  1. Justice Does Not Belong to the Christian Way of Life | Ancient Christian Wisdom

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