Making Appropriate Judgments

We know that we need to make judgments about the actions of other people. Yet the very act of saying that is uncomfortable and I’ve heard New Church people question how to find the balance. That’s because we also know that we have to be respectful of others and their concerns. How do we do this? How do we avoid unfairly judging others and the pain that causes, while standing for what we believe?

In the Word, the Lord supports a non-judgmental attitude:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’ and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

The spirit of fault finding is seen as the plank in our eye that we need to get rid of before we can see clearly what might be wrong with someone else’s behaviour. And the idea that the spirit of judgment we use on others will be turned back to us, should make us hesitant to judge. The Lord makes it clear that He wants us to avoid taking any pleasure in seeing what is wrong with others. And He wants us to search for the good in others, even when we see them doing things we don’t approve of. (Secrets of Heaven 1079) For many of us, it is a lifetime’s work to remove that judgmental spirit and to look at others with eyes of love.

Yet we also know that we have to make judgments. The Lord speaks directly about this in Married Love, where He explains the ‘judge not that you be not judged’ statement:

‘This cannot in the least mean judging of someone's moral and civil life in the world, but judging of someone's spiritual and heavenly life. Who does not see that if people were not allowed to judge of the moral life of those dwelling with them in the world, society would collapse?’ (Married Love 523)

This teaching is part of a significant body of teachings about the need to judge the actions of others. And strikingly, this teaching adds that we can judge their moral behaviour! It is okay to say someone is wrong for breaking the Ten Commandments and in fact, if we don’t take those stands, society will fall. It’s also striking that judging someone’s moral life involves looking at the person’s intention as well as at behaviours. But, the passage continues:

‘To judge what the inner mind or soul is like within, thus what a person's spiritual state is and so his fate after death – of this one is not permitted to judge, because it is known to the Lord alone. Nor does the Lord reveal it until after death... A general judgment is allowed, such as the following, ‘If you are in your inward qualities as you appear in your outward ones, you will be saved or condemned.’ But a specific judgment – as for example to say, ‘You are of this or that character in your inward qualities, therefore you will be saved or condemned’ – is not allowed.’

With this qualification, the Lord brings us back to intentions. We can and should deplore behaviour that is harmful to others and that is against the Lord’s commandments. But we withhold inappropriate judgment of a person when we don’t call them evil for their actions – we hope that they didn’t know any better; we hope their better self wishes they’d made a wiser decision or we look to other aspects of their character that suggest they might have many good qualities.

It’s hard to hold the middle line. It’s easier to say, “don’t judge anyone for anything” or to say, “I call good good and evil evil and that’s all there is to it.” But the Lord asks us to find the balance. Notice when good and evil are done, but do so with eyes of compassion, looking for the good in those same people. Most of all, we must search our own spirits to make sure we are not taking any delight in the judgments we may make. “Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:6)