Judge Not: The Balance of Mercy and Intolerance
In recent times the Lord has increasingly brought to my attention my problem with judging others. It is so very easy to look at the faults and struggles of others and see them as infinitely worse than my own shortcomings. In reading the words of the Church Fathers this seems to be the greatest struggle of the Christian life: to increase in mercy to the extent that we cannot hold anything against our neighbor, seeing them as invariably lovable, while truly viewing our own selves as the chief of sinners [cf. 1 Tim. 1:15]. But while this goal of the Christian faith remains true and noble for us all, this concept is often abused and used as an accusation of intolerance towards those who encourage pursuit of the moral high ground. Christ’s command to “judge not, lest you be judged” [Matt. 7:1] is virtually the only phrase of our Savior known to secular culture; it is a pervasive mantra used to justify a lewd lifestyle that is free of accountability. How can the faithful Christian deal with this tension?
Growing up, I was quite the self-righteous, perfect child. I tended to see myself as better behaved and more mature than my peers with interests in more important, less juvenile amusements. I therefore did not have the pleasure of numerous friendships. Even today I struggle with being too black and white in how I view the world and the people struggling in it, who, despite their flaws, bear the image and likeness of God. It is so tempting and easy to categorize people into various classes and stereotypes in our minds when we know nothing about them, based merely on external impressions, habits, or even something as shallow as political views, when we cannot see their hearts and what they wrestle with internally. It is always amusing to see how many expressive preachers enjoy berating and condemning the use of alcohol and tobacco products as they stand three or four hundred pounds behind the podium. Our luxurious Christian culture fails to see the irony here, whereas a mere skimming of the writings of historic saintly Christians will tell you that the greatest hindrance to spiritual growth and intimacy with God is a full belly.
I was discussing this topic today with a friend over coffee, and we recognized the ubiquitous phenomenon of viewing people through a black and white lens based on conventional views in our culture—particularly among fundamentalist Western Christians. As we approach the season of political elections there is such a pervasive veneration and demonization of various candidates based solely on their proposed methods and without honest consideration of the persons themselves or the motives behind what they advocate, whether or not we agree with their policies. When we read commands in the Scriptures such as “honor all people,” and “honor the King,” [1 Peter 2:17], (who was burning Christians and throwing them to the lions at the time), or
“God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him . . . If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen,” [1 John 4:17, 20],
how then does the believer go on speaking of figures they disagree with as if they are Satan himself?
“REKINDLE THE GIFT OF GOD THAT IS WITHIN YOU” [2 TIMOTHY 1:6]
It seems to me that contemporary Christian culture, particularly in America, has gone through such an over-indoctrination into the absolute, totally depraved condition of humanity, (that all people have a “sinful nature” from birth and are completely undeserving of any love, respect, forgiveness, or charity whatsoever in any capacity), that human beings from this perspective can no longer be seen as a Divine spark, as the image and likeness of God that they are. The beauty of God’s likeness and the flame of His love is tragically obscured and broken in mankind, but—praise God—it is not obliterated [see Tertullian[i]]. The Orthodox Church preserves the historical practice of using incense in all of its services, reminiscent of the Jewish custom of offering up fragrant incense at the altar of the Lord. The priest swings the censer towards the altar with the gifts set upon it, then He walks out of the altar area, censes all of the icons bearing the image of the saints, and then swings the censer towards each person present at the service. This practice declares the reality that the offering God’s people give to Him is no longer confined to a building, because we worship in spirit and in truth. That is, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God [Rom. 12:1], and are thus living altars devoting our entire being to His service since we are the climactic element of Creation bearing His image. If Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden were to enter an Orthodox Church to worship, the priest would cense them, because they are the image of God, bearing His Divine flame, however diminished it may be.
DON’T JUDGE ME
This said, the Church must nevertheless guard against the twisting by nonbelievers of this effort to respect all above ourselves in the love of God into the incarceration of the Christian’s ability to make perceptions and verbal moral judgments, for it is the Church’s duty on earth to provide healing and liberation from “every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” [Heb. 12:1]. The use of the term “judge” is, I believe, being abused when it is used as a chastisement for the Christian’s promotion of virtue and ethics. There seems to be a very big difference in the scriptural nuance of being a “judge” in the sense of holding a position of moral or executive superiority over someone with the right to administer exoneration or condemnation, as opposed to “judging” for oneself, with the utilization of shrewd discernment, what behavior should be imitated and what is in need of “repentance”—of a “course correction.” No Christian desiring Theosis can allow their own conceited delusion to land them in an unconscious undertaking of the former position over others. But the latter effort is one that all are commanded to assume, and our congregations desperately need to be reminded of this in the tumultuous moral chaos of our times:
“Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.’
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” [2 Timothy 2:19-26].