Righteous Judgment

KC Kerngrace, love, Mormon, obedience, scripture 9 Comments

The seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew begins with:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Jesus follows up this remark with:

“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

The attentive latter-day saint will look in the footnotes, and remark that the Joseph Smith Translation renders these verses as:

“Now these are the words which Jesus taught his disciples that they should say unto the people. Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment.”

So what may have been originally taken as license to adopt an “anything goes” policy suddenly is bounded with the provision of “righteous.”

But what does this really mean?  I think that many feel that it means to judge something if it isn’t righteous, or judge someone if they are not righteous.  But is this the intent of the commandment?

Humanity’s ability to distiguish right from wrong is in essence the ability to judge.  It is a prerequisite to anyone’s capacity to develop any moral values.  In this sense, judging is absolutely crucial our spiritual development, and indispensible in our personal lives.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, himself having a background in law, gave some important insights about judgment and judging in the August 1999 Ensign.  He distinguishes “final” from “intermediate” judgments in saying that:

“There are two kinds of judging: final judgments, which we are forbidden to make, and intermediate judgments, which we are directed to make, but upon righteous principles.”

The idea that judgments are to be based on “righteous” principles is not unique to the JST or the Brethren.  The King James Bible recounts Jesus’ words as:

“Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” (John 7:24)

As we try to determine what is meant by “righteous judgement,” this verse shows that it is reasonable to assume that it involves looking past “appearance,” or what/how things/people may seem to be.

Whenever people of divergent ideological persuasions get together to exchange ideas, to debate,  or simply to spar, there seems to be a good deal of judging going on.  How much of this is righteous judgment?  How much of it is—for lack of a better term—“wicked” judgment?

To what level is love and compassion compatible with judgement?  Can “righteous judgement” be expressed to someone you vehemently disagree with or disapprove of without being condemnetory or self righteous?

The Hymn “Lord I Would Follow Thee” (#220) contains the poignant line:

“Who am I to judge another, when I walk imperfectly?”

The humility implied in those words is truly admirable, but should we also be wary of giving carte-blanche to influences that we may believe are evil, hurtful, or otherwise detrimental?

I’d be very interested to get your thoughts regarding this idea of “righteous judgement”, particularly as to how it applies to our interactions with others in diverse or even divisive settings and environments.

Comments 9

  1. KC,

    We judge on a daily basis. I see a guy smoking, and I immediately make a judgment that I would rather not go near that guy. I see a group of people drinking beer and immediately make a judgment that I don’t really want to go talk to them. It’s moral judgments I have pre-made. It is a judgment of the situation, not of their eternal status. That smoker may eventually end up in the Celestial Kingdom and I may end up in the Terrestrial. But, my own choice, based on what I see in the here and now, I choose not to associate with that person due to the cigarette.

    Furthermore, if a close friend begins to smoke, I can make a judgment of his smoking. I can go to him and say, “Look, Bob, smoking is bad for you, and you know it. Stop now before you get addicted.” That judgment call has nothing to do with his eternal status, but the here and now.

    If I were to say to Bob, “you’re not a good member of the church, and you may be in trouble. You may not make it to the Celestial Kingdom if you keep smoking.” That’s when I get into trouble. That’s when I judge unrighteously. It is not my place to judge the qualifications of membership in the church, or the eternities. If I were the Bishop, dully appointed by church authorities to do so, then yes, I can make that judgment call. Otherwise no.

  2. The word “righteous” (at its most basic level) simply means “in a right (or correct) manner”. Therefore, “judging righteously” simply means “judging correctly”. In our legal system, that means the ideal is gathering ALL the facts and making sure the judgment matches the full situation behind the action. We differentiate legal judgments all the time based on mitigating circumstances, since those circumstances really do play a role in the actions of the accused.

    This is critical to moral judgments – or judgments of any kind, really. Whenever we make decisions based on partial or biased understandings of the overall situation, we risk making a judgment that is not “righteous” – in the case of moral judgments, “right with God”. Therefore, it is imperative that we have as much of the full picture as possible prior to forming an opinion about someone that constitutes a judgment.

    The best explanation I have heard for this outlook is the need to see each person as much as possible like God sees that person. Iow, if there are things about someone of which I am unaware that would alter the way I view their actions, then I need to make sure my judgments err on the side of leniency – that I am merciful in my decisions and reach conclusions that are as close to how God would judge as is possible without being harsher than God would be. If I make a mistake, it is better to have that mistake be one of mercy rather than what I perceive to be justice.

    If anyone is interested, I wrote a series of posts about this basic topic on my own blog. They can be found under “mercy” in the topics list or in the May 2008 listings. One of them was on this exact verse.

  3. As we mature and gain life experience, most of us are increasingly hesitant to judge others. We simply learn that any number of things can have a huge impact on a person’s thoughts and actions. When we really step back to examine others with a bit of charity, we realize that the vast majority of people are really doing the best they can under the circumstances. One of the most kind-hearted, well-meaning people I know initially seemed to be a rather vicious feminist, to the point of truly hating men. In time, however, it became apparent that she had experienced a major trauma, that greatly affected her. I realized that her negative behaviors were largely linked to that trauma. I learned to see the “real person” behind that trauma response, and found that she was a person of great compassion, who almost always acted with the best of intentions. This changed how I interacted with her, and it seems to have helped create a “safe” feeling for her. Now, I rarely see the kind of negative behaviors that I once thought were her chief characteristics. Treating others with love and compassion will have a much larger influence on them than all the judging and preaching we are capable of.

  4. I think righteous judgment involves three things:

    First, a person must think carefully and prayerfully over the judgment. The Spirit can guide the sincere person. A person may make a mistake, as sincere and loving judgment can only be according to the best of our knowledge, which brings me to the next requirement.

    Second, a person must leave the door open for their judgment to be wrong. They have to realize that they may not be in possession of all the facts. They also have to leave the possibility open for repentance in the other person and not shun or dismiss the other for their behavior.

    Third, a person must never make a judgment on another’s final salvation. That is entirely between Christ and that person. No one else has the right to make that call. Those with priesthood authority and stewardship of that person might have the right to make certain temporal judgments (as was stated in Dan’s comment) but not presume to make a final condemnation.

  5. Interestingly enough, there was a psychology article featured on Slashdot a few weeks ago that claimed that the mind makes a decision up to ten seconds before the conscious mind decides (or is aware of the decision). That has interesting implications for training one’s judgment, as it will require overcoming a lot of subconscious factors.

  6. “As we mature and gain life experience, most of us are increasingly hesitant to judge others.”

    Along the lines of what Nick was saying –Here is a story about a Senator in our state who started her career very judgmental and during the course of her career her views began to change by getting to know the people she was judging.

    Here are some of her quotes that I liked…

    No longer feeling the need to judge people came as a relief. “It’s not in my hands,” she said. “It’s very liberating.” Johnson’s slow revelation allowed her to reconcile with her daughter, Kimberly Harris, who suffered from alcoholism most of her life. “For many of the years in her life, I judged her and I said, ‘Change. You can get over this . . . I finally came to the realization that you have to love her for just what she is right now,” Johnson said.

    When Johnson served in the Arizona House, she had several verbal tussles with Rep. Steve May, an openly gay former member of the Mormon Church. May said Johnson would tell him he was a sinner and wasn’t going to heaven. “She lived in a bubble most of her life, in my opinion,” May said. Johnson remembered May as being “one that is in your face.” She said that in contrast, Cheuvront never asked her to validate his lifestyle. “Ken lives and lets live,” Johnson said, “and I feel that’s probably where I should be, too.”

    Johnson said she has lost the judgmental attitude she used to have with May. “It’s so fun to love people,” she said. “It’s a much better feeling than the other way.”

    I agree that it is much better to just love people for who they are. I have realized that if I save judgment for the people I meet until I get to know them and I keep an open mind I do a lot less judging and a lot more loving.

  7. Obviously, judgment is a broad word, but in the context of judging others’ actions, I have learned to withhold judgment and to question my assumptions. When I am in a situation where it is my job or my role to judge, my first instinct is always to encourage two parties to work it out on their own rather than intervening, but if intervening becomes necessary, I get all the facts and every side to the story (as far as I can) first.

    Nick – well said, and I couldn’t agree more. People are generally doing the best they can at a given time.

    Neal Davis – Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink also tackles this topic (although I don’t buy his “thin-slicing” notion on the whole–life is too complex). You can’t create a negative reaction (it happens subconsciously), but you can dispel it and choose to set it aside. That requires self-awareness.

  8. In your post you stated:

    “So what may have been originally taken as license to adopt an “anything goes” policy suddenly is bounded with the provision of “righteous.””

    I disagree entirely. I understand from this verse that Jesus’ message is to overturn the Law of Moses, yet to recognize that what you do to others will be what people will do to you. That is, one will reap what they sow.

    The inclusion of the word righteous implies a whole different structure for interaction with other people. Indeed, it seems that the qualifier means that mortals are capable of being sufficiently equipped to judge the quality of others and objective enough to take appropriate actions. I am not convinced this is the case.

    There is the issue of what should be judged, and what constitutes appropriate judgment. I understand from the Bible that judgement of actions is entirely appropriate (I would be tempted to call this the Actus Rea), I don’t have any problem with telling my kids that killing people is not acceptable.

    I understand from the Bible that one is not authorized to judge the moral or mental state of the individual (perhaps a person was killing someone to obtain a brass book). Judgment of a person’s mental / moral state is always a roll of the dice. One is hard pressed to distinguish between the burning bosom and heart burn.

    I think the inspired translation is in error at least with respect to judging people – how then could the meek inherit the earth? It doesn’t seem to make sense when considered against the other teachings I believe to be true.

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