If you saw a young couple climbing some church steps, the woman laden with a baby on one hip, a large diaper bag on the other side and holding a toddler by the hand, and the man carrying nothing, then the woman struggling to open the ten-foot-tall, heavy cathedral doors for her husband, what would you think? I doubt you would conclude, “Oh, that poor man! No doubt, though he is young and looks perfectly healthy, there must be something wrong with his arms that prevents him from being the gentleman he’d like to be.” I know I wouldn’t think that. I’d probably have thought something more like, “What a jerk! Why doesn’t he help her? What a dysfunctional relationship!”
But in fact the first conclusion was the right one. I know, because I was that young woman, and at the time my husband had a serious nerve condition attacking both his arms. With all the pain, difficulty, and worry it caused, one of the hardest parts was knowing that people were misjudging him wherever we went. We learned about the cross of being misunderstood, often without the power to explain.
When we hear Jesus’ words, “Judge not” in our day, this is not the kind of thing we think of. Judging itself has been misjudged, certainly misunderstood. It’s not judgmental, for instance, to point out when someone is making a mistake. When I was a very new parent, I was with another mom, her toddler in a sling on her back. While my friend was talking, her little girl pulled off a leaf from a low-hanging branch and began sucking on it. Aghast, I still didn’t say anything, presuming my friend thought that her daughter should be able to experience her environment. Then she glanced back and gasped, grabbing the leaf out of her child’s mouth, fearing it was poisonous. I felt awful, that my fear of being seen as judgmental had outweighed my judgment.
No, sometimes it can be a duty to say something to someone, unwelcome as it may be. That’s not judging.
The judging Jesus means is when we usurp God’s place and judge someone’s heart or eternal destiny. We can often know if an action is moral or immoral; what we can’t know is the culpability of the person acting. We don’t know if that person’s conscience was properly formed, we don’t know his circumstances, or her intentions. If that person in childhood was exposed to a great deal of lead, impairing his ability to inhibit his impulses, or to a trauma that left her scarred and needy, how would I know? I can’t look at people and deem that they are going to hell because of this or that. We can’t even judge ourselves properly. Only God knows all the factors; only He can judge.
Most people know this. Our society frowns very gravely (even judgmentally) on the idea of judging others. In fact, many are so afraid of judging, they go to the other extreme and proclaim that almost nobody is a sinner, indeed, practically nothing is a sin anymore. Part of the problem here is that people don’t distinguish between “sin” and “wrongdoing.” We can’t always tell if someone is sinning, even when we can definitively say that they are doing something wrong. Wrongdoing applies to the action, no matter the culpability of the doer. Sin is wrongdoing that the doer knows to be wrong and does anyway. It is not judging to recognize wrongdoing when we see it. Judging is concluding that another has sinned without adequately knowing the person’s mind and intentions.
Yet while our society has a horror of mentioning "sin", at the same time, it’s perfectly all right to talk about others’ choices—or indeed almost anything about them—behind their backs. That isn’t seen as judgmentalism or gossip; that’s just ordinary conversation.
Ironically, while we wouldn't dare judge someone's actions, we have no problem judging someone's heart and intentions. (Yet spiritual writers used to call this "rash judgment.") A coworker, fellow driver, neighbor, or stranger does something, and we impute to them a motive. He wants my job. She did that on purpose. He cut me off to spite me, etc. But how often do we really know why someone did something or if they foresaw or intended its negative impact on us?
We also don’t excuse others they way we do ourselves. If I have trouble being polite, I’m liable to think, I’ve had a rough day; I just can’t help it. We like to think God understands—He’s seen what we’ve just been through—and either He downplays our snappishness or is on our side. But how often do we think this way when someone else is grumpy? Aren’t we more likely to think things like, “Gee whiz, what a grouch!” Or “What does she think, the world revolves around her?” Even when we know the other person has had a difficult day, we don’t make allowances as we would for ourselves, but think, “Yeah, well, we all have tough days sometimes; get over it.”
There are a couple reasons why we do this. We jump to conclusions about others’ motives partly for practical reasons: we do need to be on our guard against those who mean us harm. Also, we don’t want to be anybody’s fool. But we take our terror of gullibility to the point of becoming cynical. We must always remember that we really don’t know what’s going on inside other people. It's not being a Pollyanna to give people the benefit of the doubt; it is taking into account that we don't know everything.
As for excusing our own behavior but not others’, this is often due to a good dose of plain old selfishness. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means taking the time to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and treating others as we treat ourselves.
We’ve got to remember what Jesus said after He said, “Judge not”, namely, "lest you be judged. The measure that you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1–2). In other words, God will be as generous, forgiving, and understanding to us as we are to others.