Paul Prather

Your basest instincts might be to judge, but don’t

As we age, our experiences with seemingly random victories and disasters tend to humble us, if we’re paying attention.
As we age, our experiences with seemingly random victories and disasters tend to humble us, if we’re paying attention. Getty Images/iStockphoto

I’ve written recently about my struggles to follow the basic New Testament tenets of Christianity.

For instance, after 40 years of trying, I still have trouble remembering to be content in all circumstances or to turn the other cheek when I’m offended.

Another Christian commandment that’s equally hard is, “Do not judge.”

I have had more, albeit mixed, success with this one. At least I hope I have.

That’s not because I’m some saint; clearly I’m not.

But for me — and I suspect for a lot of people, whatever their religion or lack thereof — the compulsion to judge other people wanes with age.

The older I get, the less I wag my finger. I might disagree with others’ reasoning. I might think they’ve acted unwisely.

However, I don’t much pass judgment, by which I mean I don’t assess their intrinsic worth, their motives or the condition of their souls. I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m wiser or better. I don’t assume I’d necessarily make a better decision if I were in their situation.

You might feel the same, if you’re of a certain vintage. Or maybe even if you’re not.

As we age, our experiences with seemingly random victories and disasters tend to humble us, if we’re paying attention.

Based on my observations — from judging others in the past and from having been judged — here are a few thoughts on why we shouldn’t give in to this basest of instincts:

We’re probably displaying our own lack of self-worth. Frequently, the things we condemn in others reveal more about us than about whoever we’re criticizing. Our judgments broadcast our own insecurities and our pettiness. Many have noted that we condemn in our neighbors the flaws we hate in ourselves — flaws our listeners already recognize in us. We manifest ourselves as hypocrites.

We’re no better than anyone else. Few human compulsions are stronger than the compulsion to feel superior. But life teaches us we’re not so superior after all. We, too, are stupid, silly and myopic. Maybe we’ve temporarily been lucky. However, luck, like beauty, always fades, and we’re left facing the sad truth.

We sound like jerks. There’s no way to cast ourselves in a humane light when we’re badmouthing other people. Friends may nod and agree with us. They may even enjoy the trash-talk. But they’re not going to trust us enough to confide in us, much less turn their backs on us, because we’ve already revealed who we really are.

We’re inflicting unnecessary pain. Most folks are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have right now, trying to get through their difficulties in one piece. We help nobody by pointing out all the mistakes we think they’ve made — which might not even be mistakes (see the next point). We only make their journey harder than it was.

We never know the whole story. You and I don’t have all the facts. We can’t possibly parse the myriad biological, emotional, familial, financial, cultural and spiritual factors that brought a person to the place he’s in now. We might think we know the story. But we never do — even if that person is in our own family.

We have no idea what we’d do if we were in that person’s situation. I have a relative who suffers from chronic depression. I was long irritated by her lack of willpower. If she wanted to, I said repeatedly, she could adopt a positive attitude, get up off that sofa and go do something productive. Then, in my 40s, I suffered a bout of clinical depression. And for months, I couldn’t get myself off my own sofa.

Until we’ve been where that person is, we have no idea what we’d do. It’s best to shut up.

We should assume that our words will come back to slap us in the face. Do you cluck your tongue at your in-laws’ horrible financial decisions? Guess what? It won’t be long until you make a boneheaded investment and find yourself bankrupt. Do you rail about what inept parents your neighbors are? Just wait. Your kid will end up dropping out of high school and will be living in your basement when he’s 35.

We’re not God. Only the Lord has both the knowledge and the right to judge. Interestingly, Jesus himself — whom Christians believe was God in flesh — declined to pass much judgment. He didn’t come to judge people, he declared in John’s gospel, but to deliver us. That should be a standard for us all, Christians or not.

We’ll be judged by our own standard. Our own judgmentalism is among the few sins Jesus specifically said might provoke God to condemn us.

“Judge not lest you be judged,” he warned. “For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you.”

Yikes. Thus, I try — I emphasize the word try — to err on the side of compassion, because I am in need of a boatload of it.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at