How to Be a Judgment-Free Zone: Jesus on Judgment, Part 4


In an earlier post I wrote that seeing, understanding, and discerning are intuitive, things we do automatically and instinctively, but judgment is a choice.

I believe that to be true, but it isn’t obvious. For most of us, judging itself FEELS instinctive. We do it so fast we aren’t aware we’re doing it.

So Jesus’s command, “Do not judge,” calls us to slow down and notice what we’re doing, and then to choose to do differently.

In practice it will mean a lot of backtracking: observe, judge, then consciously break the judgment and go backward in my thinking until I arrive somewhere else: to a place of receiving but not of judging.

I find this challenging (see my earlier confession that this is, bar none, the most difficult of Jesus’s commands for me to consistently walk out), so I have spent a lot of time trying to learn how to do it.

I’ll confess: hard as it is, it’s also rewarding. Being judge and jury is a lot of responsibility, and it’s heavy. We aren’t equipped or empowered to act like God in this respect, so when we quit doing it, we’ll find life is lighter and more free. We are freed up to love better, give more generously, and focus on what really matters.

This is, in a nutshell, what humility will do for us. Pride is the heaviest weight there is. And ultimately, this thing of judging/not judging is a matter of walking in pride or walking in humility.

(“Humility” = the glad acceptance that we are not God.)

The Wisdom of Slowing Down

My best advice for becoming a judgment-free zone is this: slow down the process that comes before judgment, and learn to stay there.

It turns out that we’re not as good at this intuitive process as we think we are anyway. We think we see. But do we? Really?

For many thousands of years humanity saw the sun rising and falling and concluded that it circled the earth. They could plainly see this to be true.

Except they couldn’t. They didn’t see as clearly as they thought they did, because they lacked information that was not, at that time, available to them.

When they were finally able to gain that information, their sight deepened, and their understanding grew.

In the same way, we think we understand what we see. But do we, really?

I see a homeless man sitting on the corner, and I think I understand a host of things about him, about his life, about the conditions that put him there. But here again it’s likely that I don’t understand as well as I think I do.

I can’t see all the factors, much less truly comprehend them.

This is kind of the point of the “log and speck” analogy. We all have something in our eye.

Discernment, as a spiritual gift, is an interesting case. But here again, there are limits. I can sometimes discern the spirit a person is speaking from—whether it’s their flesh, the Spirit of God, or something demonic. But on the back of that discernment I’m tempted to make a host of assumptions about the person and what’s really going on, many of which may be unfounded.

God doesn’t give us limitless discernment of one another (or even of ourselves at times); that access is limited to himself. Here too, I don’t see all that I think I see.

So I am learning not to judge.

I’m learning to walk in greater humility, to recognize that my information is always too limited, my understanding too subjective, my discernment too shallow.

When it comes to the hearts and lives of other people, God tells us what we need to know, but not usually much beyond that. And since we are NOT the judge, since that responsibility has NOT been given to us, what we need to know isn’t really a whole lot.

Alternate Paths

But judgment is a bad habit that takes up a lot of room in our lives. If we jettison it, what then? What are supposed to do with the information we get if we’re NOT supposed to judge on the basis of it?

I suggest three things:

This can be done with circumstances as well as with people, and it’s a little safer to practice on the former.

For example, when you wake up and it’s raining and you wanted to go for a walk, don’t immediately snap to a judgment: “This is bad!”

Observe the rain. Look at it. Listen to the thoughts you’re thinking about it, the knee-jerk responses rising up inside of you. And inquire about them.

Inquire about the rain: what it’s there for, what it’s doing. Inquire about yourself and your feelings: why do you think this is bad? What exactly is your negative association—is it physical, emotional, linked to a memory, a matter of thwarted desire (you wanted to go for a walk and now you can’t)?

Inquire of “bad.” Question it. Is it bad? Or could this be good? Could the rain be an opportunity for you—to rest, to reflect, to spend some extra time doing something else, or even to go outside and get wet and remember when you were a kid and you loved to splash in the puddles?

Is it an opportunity for you to recover the joy of playing in the rain?

My friend Peta Roberts told me, “Every morning I pray, ‘Father, I receive every gift you have for me today, and I ask you to help me to recognize them.’”

Sometimes gifts don’t immediately look like gifts. Our quick, knee-jerk judgments may end up causing us to overlook a lot of them, and suffer a lot of bad moods besides.

We can do the same with people. Remember, we don’t have to judge them. We’re not even supposed to, so that pressure is off. We can instead listen, look, inquire.

Slow down that process. Learn to live in it. Don’t get to the end. See it, not as a roadway that ends in inevitable judgment, but as a path that meanders through understanding and connection and grace.

And an unexpected consequence? When you quit judging others, you’ll find it easier to quit judging yourself. Learning to listen, look, and inquire applies to YOU, too. We don’t know our own hearts. That’s a universal truth. But it might help if we slowed down and paid attention.

One more thought: jumping to judgment is a convenient way to avoid getting really truthful about things. Inquiry leads to discovery, maybe of things we don’t want to see and don’t want to know. Judgment allows us to slap a label on things and thus cover them up; we never have to go the distance or look at what makes us uncomfortable.

Pharisees didn’t spend time asking what was really going on with prostitutes.

Or with themselves.

A Word for Our Time

We live in a time of extreme polarization, where we all think we understand each other and we don’t like what we see.

Maybe more than ever, Jesus’s words here offer us something vital.

If we’ll actually DO them, if we’ll get up the gumption to face our own pride and jealousy and constant comparison and distaste for honest examination, if we’ll do the hard and disciplined work of backtracking on our judgments and staying in the questions, it could change the conversation we’re having spiritually, politically, morally, ethnically, and economically.

Jesus’s words are an open door on the traps we’ve built for ourselves.

I hope we’ll walk through it.

(This is Part 81 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

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