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Concerning Radical Non-Judgment
Embracing the difficult ascetic task of focusing only upon one's own sins in an increasingly connected and nosy world.
Something that has always startled me living in America is how quickly we, as self-proclaimed Bible-believing Christians in the US, excuse ourselves from some of the more severe commands of the Bible while simultaneously expecting others to live up to these difficult standards.
I admit, I’ve been a repeat offender of this myself. In my mid-twenties, I became a staunch defender of Reformed Protestant theology, and to my shame was all the more insufferable for it. I often found myself criticizing more mainline Protestant denominations for abandoning Church history (the irony is not lost on me) in exchange for the acceptance of society at large. So very frequently my interlocutors would interrupt some of my more judgmental rants with merely saying “judge not!”, to which I generally responded with my canned response. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It went something like this:
When we’re commanded not to judge, we’re commanded not to judge hypocritically! The Bible never tells us not to judge at all, but rather to ensure that when we do criticize the actions of another - calling out the speck in their eye - that we do not engage in the same actions - having a log in our own eye. Since I have never done X, then I’m perfectly justified in condemning others for participating in X!
-Me, c. 2013
This minimizing the severity of the Bible’s teachings when applied to one’s self is extremely common in the western world, and it happens whether it’s a Puritan excusing their propensity towards hating their neighbor or a mainline Lutheran winking at their own sexual deviancy. I say this not to condemn either such person. I’ve been both at one point or another, and I’m willing to guess that most of us, even lifelong Orthodox or Catholics, have probably thought “is this something I really need to confess?” while our Priest is reading the prayers before confession.
As I continue to read through the Church Fathers, in particular the Desert Fathers, I am continually reminded that the fundamentalism that I largely grew up in did not always have the correct approach to things. Dare I say it, from my former Protestant perspective, those cheeky liberals had the right idea sometimes, regardless of their own flawed ways in pointing it out.
The more I read, the more I’m convinced. “This is my body, this is my blood”, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off”, and “If you love me, keep my commandments” actually mean those things. Much in the same way when Jesus says that we shouldn’t judge our neighbor He means that we shouldn’t judge our neighbor.
Allow me to demonstrate why I’ve come to believe this.
Judge not, that you be not judged.
For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you again.
And why behold you the speck that is in your brother's eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?
Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull the speck out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in your own eye?
You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the speck out of your brother's eye.
Notice the command here doesn’t say that we shouldn’t judge hypocritically. Jesus emphatically calls those who judge hypocrites not if they have a log in their eye, but rather because they have a log in their eye.
We are told that the measure by which we measure others will be used to measure ourselves. I and many others have taken this as a means to excuse our judgements of others rather than allowing this text to serve as a terrifying warning for our souls.
Just imagine if God were to judge our actions with the same standard by which we judge our political opponents? The psalm comes to mind If Thou should mark iniquities, O Lord, who would stand?
To that end, St. Augustine has some salient advice:
I suppose the command here to be no other than that we should always put the best interpretation on such actions as seem doubtful with what mind they were done.
-St. Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Matthew
Imagine if God looking upon our actions was to take the best possible interpretation of our deeds instead of looking for ways to point out the obvious flaws in our lives. That possibility, indeed that promise, is worth pursuing! To do otherwise is to bring further judgement upon one’s self:
That is, it is not the other, says Christ, that you condemn, but yourself, and you are making the judgment-seat dreadful to yourself, and the account strict. As then in the forgiveness of our sins the beginnings are from us, so also in this judgment, it is by ourselves that the measures of our condemnation are laid down. You see, we ought not to upbraid nor trample upon them, but to admonish; not to revile, but to advise; not to assail with pride, but to correct with tenderness.
-St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Matthew
St. John shows us the true way of measuring the others’ actions here. We do not condemn, berate, or revile. We do not look upon the actions of others through our own pride. Instead, we tenderly advise and admonish. Therefore we need not turn a blind eye to the sin around us, but we must view it in proper context, not pretending we are above it.
But why do you judge your brother? or why do you despise your brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
For it is written, As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.
St. Paul emphasizes in Romans that we will all face judgment, so we should not judge one another and instead focus on ensuring no one creates a stumbling block for another. Commenting on this passage, Ambrosiaster writes:
Since we are not going to give account of each other, says Paul, let us not condemn one another…
-Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles
The implication here is that at the judgment seat, we will all face God based upon our own lives. Every knee will bow, and everyone will give their own account to the Lord. As such, we need not demand an account from those around us. To do so would be to put ourselves in the place of God.
The Saints on Judgement
The commentaries on Scripture above are not alone. The idea that we are not to judge at all is much more prevalent in Orthodox thought than I would have ever guessed. From the very earliest times of the Church - the ante-Nicene Fathers, the Desert Fathers, etc - up through even the most recently canonized Saints, and even living elders are all universal in their call to this radical instruction towards non-judgment.
Humble yourself before God and people. Don’t indulge in vainglory, don’t judge anyone, that God not judge you...
-Abbot Nikon Vorobiev, Abbot Nikon Letters to Spiritual Children p.84
And so, one must ask the Lord for humility. Humility cannot coexist with judging one’s neighbor or taking offense. If we accuse others or get offended when our feelings are hurt, then we have no humility at all. The holy ascetics sincerely thanked those who hurt and mistreated them, for by enduring this they learned humility.
Our task is to seek out humility, which is impossible if we place ourselves over others in judgment. Additionally, this is fostered through not taking offense when we are mistreated. Indirectly, taking offense is judging the actions of others, and so this radical way of living fosters in us a spirit of humility.
Compassion for others and sympathy for their failings will bring the heart closer to the heart of God than any form of judging.
-St. Hesychius the Presbyter
Compassion is more godly than condemnation. This is evident in John 3:16-18. If God’s purpose in coming into the world was for love and not condemnation, then it follows that we are drawn closer to God through similar action.
Do not be irritated either with those who sin or those who offend; do not have a passion for noticing every sin in your neighbor, and for judging him, as we are in the habit of doing. Everyone shall give an answer to God for himself … Especially do not look with evil intention upon the sins of your elders, which do not regard you; "to his own master he standeth or falleth." Correct your own sins, amend your own life.
-St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ p.151
Our focus should be on our own sin. Speaking for myself, I know that I have enough material in that regard to keep me busy for a while without focusing elsewhere. I don’t have to look beyond myself to see enough evil in the world that merits attention.
Thankfully, we can ask God to give us humility and work on correcting our own sins, and trusting that He is perfect and just in matters of others’ sins. We can rest assured that nothing will go unnoticed and unanswered for. God has taken the burden of judgment from us.
Strive to do everything in opposition to that which the bodiless enemy wishes you to do. He incites you to pride, to self-glorification, and to judging your brother — you must humble yourself to the ground and ashes, judge yourself as severely as possible, and praise your brother in your heart.
-St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ p.453
Our most severe judgment should always be reserved for ourselves. This makes practical sense. We are all more acutely aware of the content, depth, and severity of our own sins more than those of others. We may not know the intention of others, but we always know our own. If we focus our ire inward towards our own sin and give our praises to others, then God will humble us.
When we hear anything bad said of anyone, then, inwardly comparing him with ourselves, we say in our heart: “I am not such; I am perfection in comparison to him,” and thinking thus of ourselves and inwardly judging others, we are delighted at our superiority over others. This is the pride of Satan; this is the stench of the carnal, sinful man. May such thoughts flee from the soul! Let us consider ourselves as the worst of all men!
-St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ p.468
Above we saw how judgment takes many forms. It’s most obvious being condemnation of others. But the more subtle manifestations of judgment exist as well. In taking offense, we are judging the actions of others towards us and judging their merit, and here St. John tells us that comparing ourselves to others is also a judgment of their value and ours. The remedy is a simple barometer: we are the worst of all sinners! This objective measurement removes the need for comparison, and fosters humility within us. To that extreme end, Abba Xanthios assesses himself in this way:
A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.
Practicing non-judgment benefits us in numerous ways. in addition to fostering humility, it can alleviate our own judgment:
Do not judge others, for this alone will intercede for us during any judgement before God.
-St. Macarius of Optina
It allows our prayers to be heard by God:
In order to obtain from God what we ask for in prayer, we must ask Him in a spirit of humility and avoid judging anyone.
-Elder Sergei of Vanves, Elder Sergei of Vanves: Life & Teachings p.95
It destroys our pride and unhappiness:
Be careful not to judge anyone. Judgement of your neighbor is linked to pride, and pride is our number one enemy; all our unhappiness comes from it.
-Elder Sergei of Vanves, Elder Sergei of Vanves: Life & Teachings p.105
It allows us to live simply:
Living simply means not judging. Do not judge anyone. For example, here comes Elikonida. She passed by, and that is all. This is what thinking simply means. Otherwise, at seeing Elikonida passing by, you could think about her bad side: she is such and such, her character is thus and so. That is not simple.
-Elder Ambrose of Optina
So much of our modern experience is finding ways to “unwind” or to “get away”. Part of the reason we need to do this is because our world fosters a sense of pride in examining everything happening around us. Whether it’s reading up on politics in current events to “keep informed”, comparing our lives to those of our friends and family on social media, or even ensuring that we are viewed as a “spiritual” person by others. This rabid focus is always centered on how others view us or how we view others, and it always manifests itself in some form of pride or another. Instead, we can live simply, noticing the things happening in the world, observing our friends and family, and simply praying as our own prayer rule dictates without worrying about others.
I can personally attest to how less cluttered my own mind is now that I’ve deleted all of my social media accounts and see to it that I don’t watch the news. My knowledge of a given subject rarely makes any real difference in the long run. I could be hyper-focused on the political issue du jour, but would my doing so actually change the current state of affairs? Hardly. And worse, it could create a stumbling block for my neighbor who may disagree with me, causing them to judge me. If my ignorance of current events inadvertently creates a less strict judgment for those around me on Judgment Day, then the only hope could ever have is that I remain prayerful for them in my ignorance of such things!
Our efforts to live this way will not be easy. Attempting to slay our own pride angers our enemy. There will be constant temptation to return to a way of life defined by judgment of others.
The main thing that is required of every person-- do not judge anyone. It seems simple, but begin to fulfill it and it seems difficult. The enemy violently attacks a person and suggests thoughts of judging. The Lord says, "Forgive," while the enemy suggests, "Take vengeance on the offender. He's reviling you, you revile him." You should not listen to the enemy, but must struggle against him
-St. Barsanuphius of Optina
We must always struggle to remain unjudging of our neighbor, remembering that our mind is always being assaulted with the temptation toward suspicion and condemnation.
Alas! When we so judge others, we neither see nor realize that the very origin of our judgment—the suspicion of wrong on the part of others—is actually planted in our mind by the action of our enemy. Nor do we even suspect that he is behind our thoughts, fanning this suspicion into a certainty that the people we judge are as we imagine them to be—even though they are not.
-Fr. Jack Sparks, Victory in the Unseen Warfare p.63
Do not judge or humiliate anyone, even in thought or feeling.
Our non-judgment isn’t just a matter of speech, however. We must strive to resist judgment even in our thinking and in our hearts.
When you are offended, be silent without fail, and you will acquire humility. However, one needs to be silent not only with one’s mouth, but also with one’s heart. Against pride, just as against judging, one needs to fight with silence.
-Archbishop Seraphim (Sobolev) of Bogucharsk
An important weapon in our fight against judgment is silence! When all else fails, we can remain silent and ask God for greater humility. Little by little we can make progress in the spiritual life:
Whoever gains the ability to see his own sinfulness sees not individual sins, but the complete distortion of his soul, which constantly exudes all manner of evil. What’s more, he sees that even his good deeds are saturated with the poison of sin. When a man sees this clearly, and likewise becomes convinced after a thousand incidents that he cannot heal the leprosy of his soul on his own, then he will genuinely (not artificially) humble himself, will stop judging others, and no longer take offense when his feelings are hurt.
-Abbot Nikon Vorobiev, Abbot Nikon Letters to Spiritual Children p.61
And so we have a path forward. We can foster non-judgment within ourselves by refusing to condemn others, compare ourselves to them, or taking offense from them in thought, word, or deed. Slowly this will foster within us humility, but also open us up for more spiritual attacks against which we must struggle.
As time goes on, we can become more aware of our own sin, and how it can be the only object of our judgment.
And so each person ought to judge himself alone and in every respect to be careful and cautious not to analyze other people's way of life and behavior...
-St. John Cassian
This will require different things from each of us. I have become convinced that for me personally, fostering a spirit of radical non-judgment is necessary given my tendency to treat others with vitriol. I simply don’t want to slowly kill my own soul with hatred of others. Thankfully, an understanding of Scripture informed by the fathers, and the spiritual advice of the Saints throughout Church History gives us a path forward toward a better defense on Judgment Day.
For me, it’s deleting social media, ignoring the news, and being a good neighbor to those in my community regardless of who they are. Your mileage may vary.
And as always, ask your priest. I’m not a theologian, I’m just some guy on the internet who has quotes.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant.
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother; for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
-The Prayer of St. Ephraim, emphasis added