“The world is not simply divided between judgmental and nonjudgmental people,” writes Terry D. Cooper in his book Making Judgments Without Being Judgmental. If you think it is, you’re caught in the very vortex of black-and-white thinking from which judgmentalism is spun. The reasons we judge, versus the reasons we are judgmental, are as deeply embedded as the popular and polarizing myth that all judging is bad and all tolerance is good. So why don’t we skip the debate altogether? Instead, let’s bust the myth and face the ugly truth. It’s the only way to get better.
Nature vs. Nurture: Why We Judge
By nature, we cannot escape making judgments about people and things, nor should we. Judging is a powerful organization tool that helps us manage our time, our energy, and our resources. Judging is part of choice-making. Cooper suggests that without it we risk floating in a state of “ethical neutrality and moral indifference,” missing the gravitational pull of conviction, which is a necessary foundation to our faith-life. Theologian Oswald Chambers writes a breath-snaring description of the special nature of conviction in My Utmost for His Highest: “Conviction of sin is one of the rarest things that ever strikes a man. It is the threshold of an understanding of God. . . . [W]hen the Holy Spirit rouses the conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not his relationship with men that bothers him, but his relationship with God.” Making healthy judgments both helps us make good choices about the everyday and helps us stay spiritually in-tune and in-check in our relationship with God and others.
Case in Point
You started judging this article from the first word. Subconsciously, you asked yourself value questions like is this topic important to me? Does the content apply to me? Is its presentation engaging? You might have even made a few mental evaluations about the article’s tone and readability. By the end of the first paragraph, you totaled your answers to determine if it was worth your while to continue reading. If you’re still reading, thanks for hanging around—I think you made a good choice.
Judging gets sticky when we use our value system to draw radical conclusions about people, rather than their behaviors or ideas. Cooper says when we unfairly judge people we place them into a category that makes life more manageable for ourselves. We turn judgment into judgmentalism when we are frightened by differences between ourselves and others, feel insecure, and our private sins risk public exposure.
Think of judgment like a baseball bat. The bat is created and intended for a specific recreational purpose. But should a bat holder’s safety be threatened, the bat can easily double as a weapon, bunting heads instead of baseballs. So how do we use the tool of judgment and not the weapon? First we need to determine some characteristics that differentiate healthy and harmful judgment.
Concern vs. Callous
As I often like to point out, you and I are crazy different. It’s a pretty cool thing God did on purpose. And we love to celebrate that diversity—at least in theory. How we act, or rather react, might be a better determinate of what we actually believe about differences. If we’re honest, we might see we only “love” diversity when it fits within our dominating theology or set of values. And if we look just a little deeper—feelings deep—we might recognize that most things outside of those beliefs actually make us a little uncomfortable, scared even. Differing opinions and perspectives have the potential to confuse us and rock the foundation of our carefully constructed mental world.
And that’s when we snap.
We snap to judgmentalism when the things we believe passionately—the things we perhaps base our identities upon—are challenged. If that’s really true, who wants to be wrong? Wrongness threatens identity. Rather than seek to understand, we resist acknowledging our fallibility by quickly constructing defensive walls and launching offensive verbal attacks. We resort to “nothing but” statements: “she’s nothing but a liar,” and “he’s nothing but a cheat.” Healthy judgment, however, involves care and concern for others and seeks to understand their position. It has learned how to separate people from the things they do.
Case in Point
Consider my following adaptation from the book of John (8:1-11).
She stumbled as the community leaders pushed her in front of the jeering crowd. Finding her footing, she kept shoulders slumped and head low; her hair curtained her crimson cheeks, sponged their salty rivulets. She had been caught, exposed. She stood bare in her public shame.
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” the leaders asked, placing Jesus on the judge’s bench, gavel in hand (4-5). What they were really asking was who is right? They were convicting the woman in a duel attempt to condemn Jesus for his claim to be the Son of God. What could he say? How could he make a judgment without responding to the Pharisees in the same judgmental manner?
His response was peculiar: he bent down and doodled in the sand with his finger (6). Murmurs echo through the crowd—some confused, some annoyed. The impatience grew to a mobbing rumble.
“Teacher!” the accusers pressed, “What do you say?”
Finally, Jesus stood. The crowd sucked in a collective breath and the leaders poised their arms across their puffed chests, as they awaited his verdict. “Let any one of you who is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.” Waving them off, he stooped again and continued his doodle (7-8). Silence. Confused and disarmed, the accusers dispersed one-by-one. Jesus waited to address the women until they were alone.
“Woman, where are they?” he asked. “Has no condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. His eyes were kind and his voice was a gentle mix of urgency and authority, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (9-11).
Both concern and callous are demonstrated in this story. The Pharisees judged the woman by her bad behavior. Pious pride puffed their chests and conveniently blinded them to their own shortcomings. We often criticize and disassociate in order to avoid the “appearance of evil” or being seen as hypocritical. “It is not hypocritical to care for someone who behaves badly,” writes Cal Thomas in a Washington Times article titled “Judgement vs. Judgmentalism.” “In fact, it is the height of love to do so, because you want [them] to have a changed life and attitude. . . . Denouncing that person and condemning him to hell is not likely to make him more open to things that will lead him in the other direction. Who among us has lived a perfect life that would be acceptable to God?”
This is where Jesus shows us how to “love the sinner and not the sin,” as we like to say. Although the woman brought before Jesus was guilty and her actions deserved to be judged, Jesus refused to see her as “nothing but” an adulterer. His gentle and simple reply was heavily and thoughtfully loaded: he showed concern for the woman’s spiritual, physical, and emotional wellbeing as he acknowledged her guilt, admonished her behavior, and spurred her to repentance (Go now and leave your life of sin). Yet his response also spared her dignity; he deflated the crowd’s demand for “justice,” by turning it into a self-reflection exercise. In doing so, he demonstrated healing grace to the woman and defense-dissolving mercy to the crowd.
Charity vs. Contempt
Our attitude toward the fallen, the weak, the different, and the difficult should be one of charity. That is, gracious and tolerant. Just as we throw around how much we “love diversity,” we buzz about the idea of “tolerance.” Unfortunately, it seems that word has been distorted to mean “the antithesis of judging.” But tolerance is not a blind acceptance of another’s position or choices. It doesn’t take a fist-bumping “whatever works for you, man” attitude toward what the Bible clearly tells us is sinful and evil. And it also doesn’t shy away from open disagreement. Dictionary.com offers the following definitions, which cloak the word in an air of respect, openness, and relationship-building curiosity: “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own” and “interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one’s own.”
Unhealthy judgment spews contempt. It shouts You’re way off base! and slings You’re such a fool! It stuffs and tapes people in unfavorably labeled boxes: wacko, crazy, heretic, fundamentalist, liberal. Before you know it, the baseball bat is a weapon. “Reactivity begets reactivity,” says Cooper. But healthy judgment is free to think a person’s ideas are crazy and misguided, but it extends respect and does not feel the need to control thoughts or opinions. It is open to healthy discussion in which views are exchanged, yet not necessarily adopted.
Case in Point
When I met my new coworker Jessica, I thought I knew everything about her within the first five minutes. She didn’t wear makeup. She didn’t pay attention to fashion. She didn’t eat pork. She didn’t watch movies, listen to popular music, or read fiction. She was so shy the mention of her name flushed her cheeks. After a few stilted conversations, I ticked Jessica away on my uber-conservative-crazo-Christian list and dismissed her.
One day, Jessica didn’t show up to work. I later learned she was sick. When she didn’t show up the next two days, I went to her apartment. Jessica didn’t answer the door because she was too sick to get out of bed. She was taken to the hospital where she had emergency surgery. During my week of hospital visits with Jessica, I learned she grew up in an emotionally abusive and controlling family. She wasn’t allowed to have friends outside her family, attend school outside her home—especially not college—or move out of her parent’s house until she was married to a man of her parent’s choosing. Although she was still highly conservative, the Jessica I knew was a college graduate, who was single and living abroad. When she left home, her family cut ties. My new understanding of Jessica grew my respect for her and reshaped my perspective. Underneath her exterior, Jessica was one of the bravest people I’d met.
Curious vs. Close-minded
When we approach new viewpoints respectfully, we learn another component to healthy judgment: our own ideas and beliefs have blind spots. Cooper says judgmentalism insists on absolute certainty. “If it is challenged, it frequently reacts with hostility toward the questioner. It is proud of its conviction and expects immediate agreement.” A person using healthy judgment, however, does not claim to own truth. He realizes he doesn’t have all the answers and he cannot see the bigger, context-giving picture. He removes himself from the judge’s seat, allowing God to reclaim his rightful position, because he knows only God can see into the secret heart-places. As he feels less and less threatened that a different view will shake or change him, he develops a healthy curiosity: I wonder why Mary is so strongly in favor of adoption? What about Joe’s past makes him so resistant to religion? Thus, begins the journey into another’s struggle—a birth place of compassion.
Case in Point
Shayla was offended her sister was considering not attending a mutual friend’s bridal shower. “Is she selfish, or am I just judgmental?” she asked. “Well . . .” I hesitated then switched gears, “why do you think your sister doesn’t want to attend the shower?” Shayla’s reply came slowly, thoughtfully, “Well, Nadine is single and she’s not really happy about it. I imagine a bridal shower is another reminder of what she feels is missing in her life.” I asked Shayla why her sister’s potential absence felt so personal. Her gaze traveled to the ceiling and back to me before she shrugged. “Supporting your friends is something that’s really important to you,” I offered. Shayla nodded and explained that showers and weddings were some of the few events that brought her group of high school friends together now that they were older and starting families. “I’ve noticed some of the ways you show your friends you care is by giving gifts and hosting parties, so it also makes sense this feels personal to you. But maybe Nadine shows her friends support in a different way.” An “aha” look lit and softened Shayla’s face as she considered what support looked like to her sister.
Calm Evaluation vs. Critical Reasoning
“Making healthy judgments involves a calm, sober insistence on looking at all the evidence before reaching a conclusion,” says Cooper. In short, it does not rush. Cooper also suggests the opposite of careful judgments are snap decisions. These emotional reactions are often the result of a bruised past. Anything that triggers memories of hurts or injustices can bring a tide of emotion, which, if we’re not aware of, the triggers-points can ebb into ready judgments. Just like I did with my coworker Jessica, we stereotype, we categorize, we dismiss. This mentality also carries distrust toward people’s motives.
Case in Point
When Tom gave his wife Shelly flowers, rather than gush in gratitude, she eyed him suspiciously, I wonder what sort of an apology he’s buttering me up for she thought.
Earlier that day, Tom’s coworker learned his wife was in the hospital as a result of a freak accident. On her way down a flight of stairs, she slipped on their son’s toy truck on the bottom step and fell backwards, fracturing her spine. Although she wasn’t permanently injured, Tom was reminded of the fragility of life and wanted his wife to know how much he appreciated her. After hearing the story, Shelly sheepishly admitted her suspicion and adjusted her marriage-lens, realizing it had blurred some over their years together.
When we allow our fear and anxiety to manipulate our assumptions, our judgment turns an unhealthy, relationship-threatening corner. Some symptoms include refusing to give the benefit of the doubt or claiming certainties about other’s motives. Most are accustomed to carefully considering important decisions, such as what college to go to, who to marry, or what house or car to buy. But if our attitude toward people’s behavior and ideas directly impacts the quality of our relationships with them—either drawing them close to or driving them away from ourselves and ultimately Christ— then shouldn’t we treat our judgments with the same weight as our most important decisions?
Courageous vs. Cowardly
When one comes to carefully evaluated conclusions, they are unafraid to commit to a conviction or decision. They know their identity is not wrapped in their conclusion, because they continually remain open to new ideas. There is no pressure to “get it right.”
We live under the constant assumption we’re wrong and everyone else knows something we don’t.
Unhealthy judgment is fear-driven. It is unreflective and careless, as it is afraid to examine new evidence because doing so has the potential to weaken the structure of our mental framework, which we have built our lives and identity upon. It’s important to note that judgmentalism is not just something we project outward, but many of us struggle with low self-esteem that manifests in silent self-loathing and secret condemnation. We question the validity of our thoughts; we hold rickety opinions we’re hesitant to voice. We live under the constant assumption we’re wrong and everyone else knows something we don’t. Rather than launch offensive attacks, we choose to cower behind our defensive wall and watch our shame-shadows loom large in the rising light. “No one likes his dark soul exposed to the light,” says Thomas in his Washington Times article. “It is one reason some of us wear makeup and nice clothes and blow-dry our hair and why others consider plastic surgery as they age. If we seek to cover external flaws in these ways, how much more would we undertake to hide the internal ones?” Exposing our internal flaws might shake our foundation and bring our whole world crashing down—a terrifying place to be.
Case in Point
Months of perpetual hardship over the last year brought my true view of God to the surface and rattled my comfortable faith. I realized I only believed God was good when life was rosy. When life was hard, I thought he was punishing me and I felt he was cruel and dismissive. I had several choices: I could walk away from God, I could live in denial, or I could brave my inner ugliness. I decided to spend time in counseling, tearing down and rebuilding my perspective of God. It was scary and painful and exhausting. But through discovering the roots of my skewed perceptions, I was able to uncover more of the true, good, and loving nature of God. Sometimes being wrong is the only way to figure out what’s right.
We need to gray some of our black-and-white thinking and welcome grace into our mental space.
When we look inward, we begin to see our judging problem isn’t because of others. It’s because of our own flawed nature. Harsh condemnations of ourselves and others indicate a lack of grace and acceptance in our own lives. To counter, we need to gray some of our black-and-white thinking and welcome grace into our mental space. The heavenly marriage of grace and truth helps us understand we will never fully extinguish our judgmentalism. Rather, through acceptance of our own shortcomings and the cultivation of concern, charity, curiosity, calm evaluation, and courage, we can endeavor to become less judgmental.