I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors by now that all religious people are intolerant, motivated by hatred, and determined to induce shame and guilt in everyone else—the hypocrites. After all, it was Jesus who said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” And if Jesus wouldn’t judge, then who are we to do so?
Well… the rumor mill is pretty confused. Mostly about the word “judge,” and what it means. (It’s also confused about “tolerant” … but we’re going to talk about judging right now.)
Here’s where the rumor mill is right: some kinds of judgments ARE bad. We should not be making pronouncements about people’s eternal destination—Heaven or Hell—based on their actions or opinions. That kind of judgment, judging souls, belongs to God alone. Only He has complete knowledge of their heart and their history. Only He has the wisdom and right to distribute perfect justice and mercy. We, with our limited understanding and perspective, are never competent to judge a whole person—and thank goodness. I couldn’t handle that heavy a responsibility. Instead, God calls on us to love our neighbor, which is plenty difficult enough.
But loving our neighbor doesn’t mean affirming every decision they make, either. This is where the “who are you to judge?!” crowd gets it totally wrong. Jesus did warn us against judging other people, and he was big on forgiveness—but his forgiveness always had a follow-up. Remember the woman caught in adultery? When the crowd wanted to stone her to death, Jesus told them to let whomever was without sin cast the first stone. After the crowd dispersed, Jesus told the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
(Gosh, Jesus. To imply that her adultery was a sin… how judgmental!)
Jesus loves the woman. He does not write her off as a person or define her by her adultery. But he does not approve of her affairs, either, and tells her to stop them—they are sinful. They are wrong.
God loves all of us, all the time, unconditionally. He is Love itself, and He made each and every one of us intentionally and purposefully. He sustains us every minute. His love for us is infinite, incomprehensible, and never-ending… but that doesn’t mean He approves of everything we do. How could He? Perfect love can’t include perfect indifference.
It’s a classic case of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” (Except that phrase is unfortunately often twisted to mean, “hate the sin, spew hatred gleefully at the sinner, and call it a loving correction.” That’s not good, either. Failing to truly love the sinner is worse than failing to recognize the sin.)
God loves us but hates our sin. He asks us to do better. Denying the reality of sin is not being tolerant; it’s dangerous and damaging. When we sin, it’s not like a legal offense against the rules God wrote down for us; sin does active damage to our souls and those around us. Sin hurts. Willfully blinding ourselves to its effects does not actually lessen them. When God tells us not to sin, that is a message of love, of protection, like when a parent tells their children not to touch the hot stove. It’ll burn you!
So while we should not be judging other people, we can and should be judging actions. We have a responsibility to ourselves and others to discern right from wrong, to avoid sin and make moral choices.
Acknowledging that some things are bad to do, that we should not do those things, is not an act of hatred. It is a judgment of sorts, but not a condemnation of anyone. After all, we are all sinners. No one is perfect, and our remembrance of our own failings should help us have compassion on other people whose actions we cannot approve. We have not always acted rightly, either. But the way to recovery is to for each of us to face our failures, acknowledge them, ask forgiveness, and try to do better in the future. That’s how we find redemption—not by pretending that we didn’t do anything wrong in the first place.
And so people of faith continue to affirm that certain things are wrong: murder, lying, abortion, euthanasia, sex outside of marriage, persecuting or bullying other people, stealing, being selfish, skipping Mass for no reason… the whole gamut. To resist sin, we have to know what it is, and that means judging some things as bad to do.
But even as we insist these actions are bad, we have to resist the self-satisfied impulse to condemn to eternal torment the people who have done them. That’s not our job. It’s not our right. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and has an innate dignity that we have to recognize and respect even when we absolutely detest the things they are doing. We have to remember that God loves them even while they sin, and that we are supposed to love them, too.
Judge not (other people’s souls), lest ye be judged.
But go, and sin no more.