Judge Not? (Lest Ye Be Reasonable)

I must admit… one thing that I do enjoy is dislodging popular clichés. The most recent to rouse my attention: “I try not to judge people / Don’t judge me / You can’t judge another person, only God can do that.” There seems to be an overarching—and mostly misunderstood—theme behind all of these, which makes them all increasingly prevalent in our colloquial speech today. Although I could certainly say a lot about each of them, I’ll try to keep it focused.

In reality, all of these statements are true—if taken in terms of their linguistic composition. In other words, it is true that we ought not judge other people, that others ought not judge us, and that you really cannot judge other people. However, the meaning in human conversation is deeper than the definitions of words; the sense of what is being conveyed can be quite different than what is actually being said. Therein lies the issue.

Typically—if my social skills are rightly honed—when someone blurts out, “I don’t judge people,” it’s usually followed by something like, “as long as they don’t hurt me, I don’t care what they do,” or, “we’re all free to do what we like.” You will notice that the focus shifts, seemingly without explanation, from judging a person to judging an action; “I don’t judge people because I won’t judge their actions.” This mentality is not only flawed in terms of logical value, but is particularly dangerous to both the person “not judging” and the person “not being judged.”

As human beings, we function primarily by way of our intellect; our rational capacity discerns what is good or bad, and we thereby determine what to do in certain situations. In short, if we choose not to view the good or bad around us, we essentially betray what it means to be human, and are therefore stunted in growing and acting with prudence and wisdom. However, if we choose to accept the reality of choice (strangely enough, something stressed very much by these same ones who “don’t judge actions”), we must in some way judge the actions of those around us and, likewise, ourselves.

Judging another person’s acts does not equal judging the other person’s soul or intentions; God alone can do this. However, in creating us as rational beings, God expects that we should judge actions so that we can verify the truth and beauty he has given us in his infinite goodness. In Catholic terms, we might say: “Condemn the sin, not the sinner.” By this principle, we are perfectly justified in judging another’s acts, so long as we do not presume to judge his or her soul, which is reserved to God alone. The challenge, then, is staying within the bounds of just judgment, while at the same time not abandoning judgment altogether.