Judging is one of the most persistent obstacles on the path of spiritual life. For most of us it is such an instinctive reaction that unless we make a real effort to catch ourselves, we scarcely notice it until it has taken us down the path to more obvious sins of gossip, slander and condemnation. Anyone who sincerely works to avoid this obstacle will agree with Abba Dorotheus that “very nearly the most difficult of all sins to deal with is judging one’s neighbor.”
And yet this is a cardinal rule of Christian life. Our Saviour Himself in laying down the rules for spiritual life, instructed His followers, Judge not, and ye shall not be judged, condemn not an ye shall not be condemned; forgive and ye shall be forgiven (Luke 6:37). From the very beginning of the Christian era, judging was considered to be one of the most harmful sins within the life of the Church, as she struggled to transform those who came in from the godless and immoral world that surrounded her.
Down therough the centuries, the Church’s Holy Fathers continued to point out the isnfulness of judging. St. John Chrysostom, St. Isidore of Pelusium, St. Athanasius the Great, St. Cyril of Jerusalem – and one can list many others who taught about this sin and warned of its corrosive effect on the soul. But in spite of all their admonitions, we see with dismay that even as it thrives in pagan society, judging is just as firmly rooted in tht Christian community that has been called by Christ to be the moral standard in a world vexed by sin.
Why the emphasis on not judging? Because by judging others we directly encroach on one of the prerogatives of the Holy Trinity. God is Creator; He alone has the right ot judge, for He alone is All-knowing and All-good. We are limited creatures, restricted by time and space. Only those specially gifted are able to penetrate the secrets of the heart, while we most often judge people by their outward actions, habits, looks, lifestyles, etc., all based on external examination and our own subjective – and therefore faulty –experience. Our power of judgement is further handicapped by our sinful nature, our propensity to take notice of our neighbor’s weaknesses. In evaluating others we almost always sin against the Truth. Therefore, warns St. John Climacus, that most skilled guide of Christian souls, “”o not condemn, even if you see with your eyes, for they often deceive””(The Ladder 10:17).
Judging is invariably linked to pride, that “paramount evil.” And it is often accompanied by talkativeness. Those people who have a tendency towards idle talk and judging others have trouble seeing their own faults: And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thy own eye? (Luke 6:41). If we are always at work on our neighbor, we lose the power to correct ourselves.
It is all too easy to make light of judging our neighbor, excusing it as mere “observation”. Such justification only leads the soul into delusion, self-exaltation and eventual perdition. In the opinion of the Holy Fathers, it is “safe” to make such “observations” only if a person has a clean heart and if such observation is for the purpose of edifying. “A charitable and sensible man takes careful note of whatever virtues it sees in anyone.” Too often, however, such “observation” is tainted by negative thoughts: “A fool looks for faults and defects.” (Ladder 10:16).
Because of our limited capacity for true judgement, we don’t know if those we judge may have already repented and received God’s forgiveness – yet we continue to hold the person at his fault! How then shall we escape God’s judgment? If we desire God’s mercy, we too must be merciful, forgiving and generous towards the weakness of others.
Once judging becomes a habit, it can be ruinous, for, as St. John Climacus points out “the Publican was condemned for this very thing.” To prevent its becoming ingrained in our souls, we must struggle more attentively, checking our thoughts and keeping in mind that we shall be held accountable for our every word, our every action. Holy Tradition has given us the image of the Toll Houses where, after our physical death, all the good and all the evil we have done during our earthly sojourn will be revealed.
The sin of judging others is rooted in a lack of love. Love is kind, love “thinketh no evil.” Here is a weapon that will help us defeat not only the sin of judging but a whole host of sins. Though love we can most easily realize our objective – the salvation of our souls. This is what Christ desires. This is why He came to earth.