One of the most loaded words in the English language is “judgment.” When used in contemporary conversations, it is almost always packed with negative connotations. One of the most frequently cited Bible verses mentions judging, and is found in Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” When these words are invoked in conversation, they usually do a fine job at scuttling a pesky and irritating critic. At other times, however, the mantra “Judge not” simply short circuits our capacity to labor through real disagreement to a richer experience of community. Not all judging is bad. As a matter of fact, there are good kinds of judgment that can actually nourish relationships, protect and strengthen communities, and rescue people who are alienated from a creeping and haunting loneliness.
Before I explain how this is even possible, let me highlight five kinds of bad judgment:
First, there’s a kind of judgment that is simply a bare assertion of a moral, theological or intellectual boundary. When a person makes this kind of judgment, they simply declare to another person what is good without showing how their judgment relates to a larger story about life, reality, community, beauty, and God. This is basically telling someone the “what” to do without also telling them the “why.”
One of the reasons that judgment as a bare assertion can be so bewildering, is that it fails to address some of the real questions that people inevitably have when they are being judged. For example, assuming for the moment that the judgment being made is actually correct, here are some of the lingering questions that judgment as a bare assertion simply don’t address:
- If I concede your point and admit that I have failed, what does it mean to be forgiven by those whom I have failed? There’s a kind of bewildering forgiveness that will happily offer me a verbal absolution while simultaneously refusing to re-entrust me with the very opportunities that I had formerly botched. What does it mean to be forgiven while being entrusted with the possibility of a different future?
- How does the standard that you are calling me to in your judgment relate to a larger story about life, reality, community, beauty and God? For example, when I aspire to do what is good, are you calling me to do something that God himself does? Or am I being invited to undertake some moral project in a kind of world in which God himself doesn’t / can’t even do the very good that we are aspiring to?
- Is there a meaningful goal to doing good that doesn’t simply revolve around the preservation of my own self-interests?
- Will I ever inhabit a good land that is unburdened by my own failures and the failures of others?
Judgment as a bare assertion is bad, because it regularly fails to address these questions.
Next, there’s a kind of judgment that is a premature dismissal. This happens when someone prematurely dismisses another person’s position or ideas without listening carefully to what the other person believes and why they believe it.
Another kind of bad judgment (and perhaps one of the nastier kinds) is judgment as contempt. In this kind of judgment, someone will assess the intellectual, theological, or moral failures of another person and simply express disgust for the person who has failed. Dallas Willard offered an insightful critique of contempt in his book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. He says:
To belong is a vital need based on the spiritual nature of the human being. Contempt spits on this pathetically deep need. And, like anger, contempt does not have to be acted out in special ways to be evil. It is inherently poisonous. Just by being what it is, it is withering to the human soul. But when expressed in the contemptuous phrase – in its thousands of forms – or in the equally powerful gesture or look, it stabs the soul to its core and deflates its powers of life. It can hurt so bad and destroy so deeply that murder would almost be a mercy. Its power is also seen in the intensity of the resentment and rage it always evokes (Willard, 153).
Yet another kind of poor judgment is judgment as the unjustified removal of one’s personal presence and compassion. This kind of judgment occurs when someone criticizes another person’s failures, while simultaneously refusing to offer their own personal presence and compassion to the one who has failed. This kind of judgment is sadly quite common. For example, in the days following Mark Sanford’s exposure, David Letterman mustered up his quick-witted skills of comical and satirical gusto, and heaped scorn on Mr. Sanford for his infidelity. Yet at no time in his satirical and giddy screed did Letterman pause to offer his personal presence or compassion to Mark in the midst of his failure.
Tragically, at the very moment Letterman was busily chiding Sanford over his infidelity, he was actively suppressing his own infidelity. His chiding illustrates a final kind of bad judgment: judgment as hypocritical condemnation. This is perhaps the easiest kind of judgment to spot (in others) and happens when one person draws a moral or intellectual line for someone else (and regards the offender as guilty for trespassing the line) while simultaneously violating the same line that one has drawn.
It seems to me, that all of the different kinds of judgment listed above are examples of bad judgment. As I examine my own life, it seems to me that I have personally engaged in each of these kinds of bad judgment. I long for God to renew me in these areas that I have failed.
At the beginning of this post, I noted that there are good kinds of judgment that can actually nourish relationships, strengthen communities, and rescue from a haunting loneliness. In part 2, I’ll seek to sketch a brief portrait of how this can be.
 This, I believe is the kind of judgment that Jesus was critiquing in Matthew 7:1, because he immediately says to the one engaged in a kind of prohibited judgment (Matt. 7:4-5), “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Sadly, Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not…”) is often employed to mean, “Don’t tell me that I have an obligation to a standard that I haven’t personally embraced.” The problem with this kind of short-sighted protest, is that it naively assumes that the only duties a person has, is the ones that he/she has agreed to assume. This is quite simply nonsense, and no community can coherently function with this kind of naïve disregard for one’s personal duties. If you doubt what I’m saying here, simply teach your own children that they have no obligation to regard standards that they haven’t personally embraced. If you teach this, any infatuation that you presently have with non-judgmentalism will soon vanish.