How is it Possible to Judge?

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.

About Father Alexios