Of all Jesus commandments, there is one that is more unpopular than any other. It’s the one commandment where I’ve heard people say that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. I’ve even heard more excuses for this sin than for sins of the flesh.
What is this sin? The sin of rash judgment of others.
And yes, judging others is a sin. The saints frequently speak of its sinfulness, as does scripture. (If you don’t believe me, I have compiled a small library of verses and quotes at the end of this post to prove it.)
But what about actions?
The most common defense I hear in favor of judging others is, “We can’t judge hearts, but we can judge actions.” That is true. But the problem is, fallen human nature is such that it is almost impossible to separate the two. No sooner have we said, “Joe is living with his girlfriend,” than we begin to think explicitly or implicitly, “Joe is a sinner, and a worse one than I am!” The moment we begin judging the actions of others, we fall into the trap of saying like the Pharisee, “I thank you God that I am not as other men are.”
Is this possible to avoid? Perhaps. But why would you try? Judging the hearts and motives of others is the sin of pride, and it wounds our own souls grievously.
The truth is, the human heart is a complicated thing. There are many people who do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and many who do the wrong things for the right reasons. The fact is, God alone knows what is in our hearts and why we do what we do. He alone can truly judge righteously. That’s why Jesus warned against judging according to appearances (John 7:24)—because appearances can often deceive.
Additionally, no one sins in a vacuum. There are many circumstances and wounds of the heart that often cause us to make sinful choices. Think of the young boy who joins a gang. It is easy to judge him an evil-hearted criminal. But think for a moment about the circumstances that lead him to that point. Perhaps he was raised in a family with no father, to a mother who was a drug addicted prostitute. Maybe he never experienced love from anyone, even once. Perhaps he was beaten and abused. Yet he still longs for family. He gets to know a man who is strong and tough, but who cares about him and is interested in him. Yes, this man is part of a gang, but this young boy sees this gang as more of a family that looks out for each other than as a criminal organization. He wants to belong, he wants to be initiated into a family. And so he starts down a path that leads him to a life of crime.
Is he responsible? In some way, yes, he is. But who’s to say you would have done any different in his circumstances? We see only an evil criminal, taking no account of the brokenness that lead him to that path. We have so little mercy.
The truth is, we deep down believe that we are better than other people, and we are constantly on the lookout for proof of this fact. When we see others sin, we gloat or shake our heads in disappointment. “What a sad sinner they are, I’m so glad I’m not a sinner like that.” It is pharisaic pride, plain and simple.
There is a spiritual law that says that we will receive in exactly the measure we give (Matthew 7:2-3). So if we judge harshly, we can expect the same harsh judgment from God, but if we judge mercifully, we can expect the same mercy from God.
So what’s the alternative?
The alternative is to be hard on yourself, while giving others the benefit of the doubt. It is to believe the best about others, despite appearances, while acknowledging like St. Paul that we ourselves are the chief of sinners. Many saints counsel us to do this, and they tell us the more we learn about our own hearts, the less we will desire to pass judgement on others. “Whatever we see our neighbor do,” says St. Francis de Sales, “we must strive to interpret it in the best manner possible.” That’s what we desire for ourselves, isn’t? For people to give us the benefit of the doubt.
If you must judge someone, judge yourself, for yours is the only heart you can really know. The only reason we judge others so harshly is that we know ourselves so little. I assure you, the more you learn about the layers of sin in your own life, the more you will recoil in horror from ever judging your brother.
An Important Clarification
Now, some of you may be reading this and thinking that I think we should never speak out against sin, or that I am advocating some relativistic, amoral worldview. That is not what I am saying. Sin is sin. When there are corporate sins plaguing the Church or society, sins that endanger other’s souls, we should speak out about them. When heresy was running rampant in the Church, the saints didn’t sit back quietly in the name of withholding judgment, but rather fought the heresy with charity and zeal. There are times when righteous judgement is needed. But judging a sin corporately speaking is different than judging the heart of your brother and condemning him.
It is also important to note that we can encourage those who are living in objectively sinful states to repentance. To do so is a spiritual work of mercy. Even then, we must speak as a sinner to a sinner, not judging motives, but only sinful actions, approaching the other as would a doctor and not a judge. We should be careful not to turn this admonishment into an opportunity for thinking better of ourselves, but rather acknowledging our need for God’s mercy as well.
Scripture and the voice of the saints is clear: Judging the hearts of others is indeed a sin. It is a sin of pride that does grievous damage to our own souls. We must look to the sin in our own hearts first and foremost, rooting out patiently the beam in our eye. And once we begin to do so, we will find that we quickly forget about the speck in our brother’s.
Verses and Quotes
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.” Romans 14:4
“He that speaks evil against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.” James 4:11
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” John 7:24
“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.” Matthew 7:2-3
“Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the doors.” James 5:9
Notes: This is just a sampling. There are many other similar quotes from other great saints.
“Fire and water do not mix, neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater deeds in secret, so that those who would disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes.” – St. John Climacus
“Believe that others are better than you in the depths of their soul, although outwardly you may appear better than they.” – St. Augustine
“If you see your neighbor in sin, don’t look only at this, but also think about what he has done or does that is good, and infrequently trying this in general, while not partially judging, you will find that he is better than you.” – St. Basil the Great
“Those who look well after their own consciences rarely fall into the sin of judging others.” – St. Francis de Sales
“Support and excuse your neighbor with great generosity of heart.” – St. Francs de Sales
“Do not criticize! To speak only of the faults of others does not represent total reality, for every man, in addition to his faults, also has virtues, a good side.” – St. Maximilian Kolbe
“Be gentle to all, and stern with yourself.” – St. Teresa of Avila
“Let us be slow to judge. — Each one sees things from his own point of view, as his mind, with all its limitations, tells him, and through eyes that are often dimmed and clouded by passion. Of what little worth are the judgments of men! Don’t judge without sifting your judgment in prayer.” – St. Josemaria Escriva
“Let us especially resolve not to judge others, not to doubt their good will, to drown evil in an abundance of good, sowing loyal friendship, justice and peace all around us.” – St. Josemaria EscrivaThe Catholic Gentleman.