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I thought I was good at not judging others, until …

In my religious community, we have no local paid clergy, so most Sundays two members of the congregation preach the sermons. This is roughly the sermon I might have given had I been asked to speak recently — if I were willing to be as self-disclosing and vulnerable in person as I am in writing for an audience that doesn’t know me personally. New Testament quotations are from the Thomas Wayment translation, and I’ve changed some of the vocabulary I would use to avoid denominational jargon.

One of the most difficult challenges many of us face as followers of Jesus Christ is following His command not to judge others. In fact, our propensity to judge others is one of the most serious problems facing our church today: A recent study by researcher Jana Reiss found that the sense of being judged was the No. 1 reason given by women who had left our denomination, and the sense of being judged was also the No. 1 reason given by millennials who had left.

That Jesus told us not to judge others is clear. But that we often judge others is just as clear. And the list of what we judge others for is long. Women in particular are often judged by the clothes they wear, how much skin they show, how much they weigh. Gays often report that they are judged simply for being who they are. Single adults are often judged for not doing enough to get married. Some couples are judged for not having children. Others may feel judged for use of alcohol or mowing their lawns on Sunday. Those questioning their faith are judged for not praying or studying hard enough. And the list could go on indefinitely.

And while others have been judging away, I used to think I was pretty good at not joining them. After all, I firmly believe that there is a place is the Church for all of God’s children. I have my gay friends whom I admire, and it wouldn’t cross my mind to be critical of anyone for the way he or she dresses. Invite me out for drinks after dinner, and I’d be glad to join you as long as the bartender can deliver me a Diet Coke. It wasn’t all that long ago that I could read what Jesus had to say about accepting people and sincerely say, “I’ve got this.”

But as I have learned the hard way over the last year or so, was I ever wrong. The truth is, I’m no better at not judging than I am of those I’ve criticized for the way they judge others. Before I explain, I want to talk about what is meant by judging others and review some of Jesus’ teachings on the matter. Then after talking about how I’ve failed to practice what I’ve preached, I’ll make some suggestions about ways we can follow what I call the principle of acceptance and thus become more loving to those around us.

Jesus’ most direct teaching on judging is found in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged,” Jesus said. And he gives a reason not to judge: “For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

We can see Jesus practicing what he preached in the well-known story about the adulterous woman. Some of the religious leaders were planning to stone the woman according to the laws of the day, but they left after Jesus told them that the first stone should be thrown by the one without sin. Once he was alone with the woman, he told her, “Neither do I condemn you.” In Greek, the word for “condemn” comes from the verb for “judge” and means simply to judge against. A few verses later, Jesus told the people: “You judge according to the outward appearance: I do not judge anyone.”

Jesus was sometimes criticized for his refusal to judge others. All four gospels tell a story about a woman anointing Jesus with an extremely expensive perfume — we’re talking about the equivalent of thousands of dollars for a small container. And while there are significant differences in the accounts, in the gospel of Luke, the woman is described as a sinner — and to be blunt about it, women in that era could obtain that kind of wealth only through prostitution, and it was that type of activity that gave them the label of sinner. Those in the room said Jesus shouldn’t even be around such a woman. But what did Jesus do? He praised her for the love she had shown.

As Jesus was nearing the end of his mortal life, he provided his most poignant example of not judging as he pleaded with God on behalf of those killing him. “Father, forgive them,” he said, “for they do not know what they are doing.” Those executing Jesus were clearly in the wrong, yet he refused to say that they weren’t worthy of God’s forgiveness — in fact, quite the opposite.

Some years afterward, Jesus’ admonition against judging was taught by Paul. “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else,” the apostle wrote the Christians in Rome. Echoing the words of Jesus, he added: “For when you judge another, you condemn yourself because as the judge you are doing the same thing.”

Perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves: What does it mean to judge others? From what I can tell, whenever scriptures talk about judging others, there is an implied failure to see other people as God seems them, as having intrinsic value, intrinsic worthiness, simply because they are God’s creation.

One of the strongest and most convicting sermons I’ve heard about judging others came from church leader Robert C. Gray in a 2018 sermon. He told the story of spending a final night at the deathbed of his sister, someone who did not live up to his ideas of living the gospel. He said:

On the evening of her passing, in a room with her children present, I gave her a blessing to peacefully return home. At that moment I realized I had too often defined my sister’s life in terms of her trials and [church] inactivity. As I placed my hands on her head that evening, I received a severe rebuke from the Spirit. I was made acutely aware of her goodness and allowed to see her as God saw her — not as someone who struggled with the gospel and life but as someone who had to deal with difficult issues I did not have. I saw her as a magnificent mother who, despite great obstacles, had raised four beautiful, amazing children. I saw her as the friend to our mother who took time to watch over and be a companion to her after our father passed away. During that final evening with my sister, I believe God was asking me, “Can’t you see that everyone around you is a sacred being?”

So what happens when we judge others? As Jesus said, as Paul said, as Elder Gray experienced, we bring judgment on ourselves. Sometimes that judgment comes from God; the concepts of forgiveness and not judging are closely related, and Jesus said that we need to forgive others if we expect God to forgive us. And sometimes that judgment comes from within. When we allow our judgments to block us from seeing the divinity in others, we are also unable to see that divinity, that intrinsic value, in ourselves.

That certainly has been my experience. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I have found that judging others isn’t useful for making me happy or feeling better about myself. In fact, it does just the opposite. I suspect that at some level when we condemn others for falling short we remind ourselves of how we fall short.

It took a worldwide pandemic to show me that I am as capable of judging others as anyone else is, maybe even more so. You see, I’m one of those who took the spread of the novel coronavirus seriously from almost the beginning. I started socially distancing and washing my hands almost as soon as scientists believed they were effective in slowing the spread of SARS‑CoV‑2. I was wearing a mask at work weeks before my employer required me to, and out in public months before I was required to by our state government. I sharply limited my social interactions, even with family, in the cause of protection for myself and those around me. And that, in my act of judging others, made me feel superior.

I believed then, and I believe now, that those were the right things to do. I believed then, and I believe now, that those who ignored and even flaunted the best medical advice available, and those who continue to do the same today, were and are in the wrong. But those types of judgments — scientific and political judgments — were never the problem. What became a problem was the personal judgment I applied to those who didn’t believe or act as I did. I came to see too many other people as my enemies, and I came to see them as in some way as of less inherent value than I am, as something less than sacred beings. The beam in my eye was the bitterness I developed toward others.

The type of judging Jesus warned about doesn’t have anything to do with whether I was right or whether others were wrong. That type of judging he warned about keeps us from loving other people. Love, as the apostle Paul wrote, is patient and kind, and not arrogant, rude, self-serving, resentful or spiteful. But I found myself growing inpatient and unkind, as well as arrogant and those other attributes Paul condemned. That’s what judging does to us. One of the purposes for us being on Earth is to grow to love in the way God loves, and looking down on others keeps us from doing just that. It’s easy for us to love people who think like we do, but it’s not as easy to love those or who do things that bother or even endanger us. But that’s exactly the type of love that God has consistently demonstrated to us.

So how do we keep from judging others? I’m going to offer three suggestions, although it would probably be possible to write a book on the matter:

First, let us seek to follow the example set by our Savior. As Elder Gay said in the sermon I’ve already quoted:

The Savior looked upon the Samaritan, the adulterer, the tax collector, the leper, the mentally ill, and the sinner with the same eyes. All were children of His Father. All were redeemable. Can you imagine Him turning away from someone with doubts about their place in God’s kingdom or from anyone afflicted in any manner? I cannot. In the eyes of Christ, each soul is of infinite worth. No one is preordained to fail. Eternal life is possible for all. From the Spirit’s rebuke at my sister’s bedside, I learned a great lesson: that as we see as He sees, ours will be a double victory — redemption of those we touch and redemption of ourselves.

A second suggestion is to not make assumptions about why other people think what they think or do what they do. The truth is that we never can know fully what motivates another person. Most of us have probably had the experience of judging someone unkindly for being rude or inattentive only to find out later that the person had recently suffered a traumatic event, such as a death in the family. When someone mistreats us, it’s arrogant to assume that the behavior is about us at all.

Since I first read one of her books a few years ago, I have appreciated the words of researcher Brené Brown. She wrote, quoting her husband, Steve Alley:

All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should be or could be.

I find this remarkably similar to Jesus’ call for forgiveness for his tormenters. Of course, the people torturing him knew what they were doing! They had to know it was wrong. But Jesus could see beyond what might have appeared obvious.

Finally, may we remember that none of us is perfect. As another church leader, Dieter Uchtdorf, pointed out in one of his best-known sermons, there’s an important lesson to be found in a bumper sticker he once saw. It said simply: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”

Elder Uchtdorf went on to say:

We must recognize that we are all imperfect — that we are beggars before God. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy — to be forgiven for the mistakes we have made and the sins we have committed? Because we all depend on the mercy of God, how can we deny to others any measure of the grace we so desperately desire for ourselves?

In the end, the command to not judge others is merely an application of the Golden Rule, to treat others as we wish to be treated. None of us like to be judged, so let us not do the same to others. I speak in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Photo by Mahdi Bafande via Unsplash.

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