So what is true and good judgment and how do we practice it?
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“Don’t judge me.”
We’ve all heard it. Maybe we’ve even said it.
The inevitable followup is, “You do you. I’ll do me.” Or even worse, “I’m just living my truth. You live yours.” The first phrase at least makes me laugh, the second only makes me shake my head.
There is a helpful virtue buried in the attitude that underlies those sayings, though.
An overly judgmental attitude, for me at least, is a crutch. I judge others in order to deflect attention from my own shortcomings. I’m like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain, frantically pulling levers to distract you so you don’t notice how arrogant and annoying I am. As long as I do this, we can focus on how much help you need. I benefit from the temporary (and illusory) boost in self-satisfaction.
This is why Christ is clear that a judgmental attitude is harmful, and even advises, “Don’t judge.” The same standard we apply to others will inevitably be applied to us, so it’s best to exercise mercy and kindness. A simple way to phrase it might be to say there’s virtue in minding one’s own business, particularly since we rarely have the inside knowledge or access to details necessary to make a good judgment about others.
This, however, doesn’t mean that refusing to make any judgment about anything at all is the pinnacle of morality.
In order to make choices, any choices at all, we must judge good from bad. It’s necessary to adhere to some sort of collective truth which, even as it’s acknowledged we all fall short of it (so let’s be nice about it), is nevertheless a real, objective standard. Every action is motivated by a value. A person of integrity will align actions and values. In other words, we make choices every day, and it would be best if we try to make those choices moral.
We will all be judged
Particularly as Catholics, we have a set of shared values, a goal set before us, a description of the sort of people we are called to become. That standard, to put it succinctly, is the imitation of Christ. Our goal is to be like him, and this includes valuing what he values. I hesitate to point this out, but at the second advent of Christ, his coming at the end of days, he will arrive as Judge. Even if I manage to browbeat everyone around me into witholding judgment about me and I manage to deny any sense of shame or guilt, there’s still no escaping. We will all be judged. That’s an Advent promise.
The season of Advent is all about preparing for judgment. We’re sweeping the house and putting everything in order. This means that we must use judgment. Most of all, a spiritual healthy person judges their own actions with introspection and honesty. Beyond that, though, pastors are judges in the confessional, in their role providing sound moral advice, and at times in the pulpit when difficult truths need to be spoken. Parents judge the actions of their children and apply appropriate discipline. Friends, even, ought to be holding each other accountable, like iron sharpening iron.
I don’t like being called to account any more than anyone else, but I’ve benefitted tremendously in the past and have been glad it’s happened. Being judged is a sobering experience, but when it comes from a person you trust, who is doing it out of love, it’s always beneficial.
The struggle for self improvement
I find the widespread ban in our society on judgment to be nothing more than a clever way of avoiding the struggle for self improvement. It’s a symptom of spiritual exhaustion. If you don’t look inside yourself you don’t ever have to make any changes. It may also be the result of a lack of genuine connections with other people we trust enough to tell us the truth when we need to hear it.
It’s an odd phenomenon for our particular day and age because, even as we utter the phrase “Don’t judge me,” like it’s a mic-drop, we gleefully participate in online cancel culture, which is peak judgmentalism. These instances of mob justice very rarely end up with a just conclusion. They’re more performative actions to cement group-think and identify the in-crowd than anything else. And even when an issue is accurately called out in a public forum, forgiveness is hard to come by for the accused. Forgiveness is almost impossible. Once you’re out, you’re out.
This form of judgmentalism, which is based not in objective moral codes but rather in trying to fit in with the crowd, is a phenomenon be wary of and avoided. It has very little to do with judgment exercised as a virtue, which is rooted in truth and love. So what is true and good judgment and how do we practice it?
Here, Advent is key
First, we are reminded in Advent that when Christ was born on Christmas, even though he lived an innocently, he was unfairly judged all his life. That’s our warning.
Second, we are reminded in Advent that Christ is returning again to judge the living and the dead and he will do so accurately and fairly. That’s our hope.
When we make judgments, which we all must do every day about our own actions and even sometimes about other people, there are a few principles to keep in mind. These are based in both the warning and hope of Advent.
Judge yourself first. Judge others much less eagerly. Keep in mind that we often lack information and context to form opinions. We have prejudice and are led astray by emotion. Don’t allow gossip to poison your judgment. Think it through, slowly and patiently. Strive to see the good in others. Judge with generosity and always assume others have the best intentions. Allow for mercy. Judgment doesn’t mean lack of forgiveness. Judge less and allow God to judge more. We really don’t need to have opinions about everything. Leave it to God.
All of this isn’t to say that we need to judge less. Quite the opposite, we need to judge more, but better, with more patience, kindness, and love. This is the lesson of Advent, that we will inevitably be judged at the end of this world but, if we prepare carefully, we’ll be judged ready for the next world.