Choosing Compassion Over Criticism: Why I’m Giving Up Judging Others for Lent

A hand pointing at the sky
Photo by Maayan Nemanov on UnSplash

At a 4:00 p.m. Saturday Mass in Overland Park, Kansas, during the preparation of gifts, I sat on the stiff, dark wooden church pew and reflected on Lent. Earlier that week, a student taking my Christian Ethics course asked what I had given up for the season. It was a routine question, but it felt more genuine since we had been discussing moral virtues, vices, and spirituality that day. I told the class that I had not decided. The students were surprised. I acknowledged that, in the past, I had given up yelling at my children (now teenagers!) with mixed results. 

What came to me during Mass was the thought that I could give up judging other people as the Gospel of Matthew teaches. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2). As the thought arose, I sensed that God began to laugh. Indeed, when I told my ethics students that I had given up judging others, they howled and one student commented, “Professor Hughes, c’mon, you can’t be serious!”

RELATED: Overcoming Judgement in a Divided World

Yes, I get it. We evaluate other people’s actions and their character constantly: for an unkind word, indifference to our needs, suffering behind a slow car or being passed by a fast one, or, worse yet, feeling our good work or integrity is overlooked or forgotten. Our judgments frequently pair with hurt, anger, resentment – pain. Psychology tells us that we tend to attribute more to personal character than to situations and that we know much less about complex situations, actions, and motives than we suppose. I cannot count how many times I’ve made snap judgments about certain students on the first day of class. I might focus on a weird facial expression, a slouched body posture, a face hidden under a hoodie, or a single negative comment and sortput them squarely into a “worthy” or “unworthy” bucket. 

During Lent, I became more attuned to the frequency and quality of my judgments. I habitually sorted actions and persons into different categories — innocent, guilty, deserving, undeserving — so that Jesus’ injunction seemed on a commonsense level to be impossible. Surely, he didn’t mean it! On my daily commute, at times I find myself attributing malicious motives against me by my fellow commuters behind the careless driving or impatient honks without knowing anything about their lives, worries, pressures, etc. And it really makes no sense. But I, along with many of us, can habituate taking offense and then passing harsh judgments too easily and quickly.

Or perhaps Jesus just meant not consigning another person to hell. It is, in fact, easy to think this. But from my Lenten experience and reflection on Matthew, I don’t believe condemnation is the main issue. What’s happening is a more subtle and pervasive way of seeing and assessing others that becomes a blindness to love. So what does this biblical teaching mean?

RELATED: A Practical Guide to Loving Our Enemies

Matthew’s and other biblical references to “judging” seldom mean “do not condemn.” Luke uses a different word for “judge” (krino) and for “condemn” (katadikazete), distinguishing two different acts. Matthew (and Mark) add to the prohibition on judging the caution about how the way we measure others should be the way we measure ourselves. So, condemnation is only one of many responses covered in the ways we judge — not the only way. It seems that the meaning concerns more common interactions and judgments we make. From my own experience this past Lent, this distinction rang true. 

That Lent, I learned that Jesus does not mean ignoring injustice or becoming desensitized to evil and wrongdoing. What I found in self-monitoring my judgment of others — especially behind the wheel — was that when I judged and quickly sorted another person into a negative category, I became less connected to that person, more cut off, more isolated from them and from my own tendency to act likewise. Indeed, one of the key meanings of the Greek term krino aside from “judge,” is “to separate.” If I wanted to see harshness, strictness, looking out to be offended by this look, that remark, his comment or her gesture, I would find them. I saw and judged the other as such. And in so doing, I separated myself from my neighbor and ignored my own harshness, strictness, and ways that I might offend others. 

LISTEN: Getting Back to Basics in a Polarized World

I was not at all aware that the measuring stick I used would be similarly used on me. And that is the tough part. It requires serious self-reflection, knowledge of one’s sinfulness, needing God’s help, mercy, and being constantly on the lookout for goodness to get “judging” right. It requires a type of ego death, one that means a better seeing of another person in all their complexity rather than a fixation on a snapshot in time or a fault, hurt, or offense. A patient gazing and understanding of the other with, what Richard Rohr calls “soft eyes,” rather than an emotional reaction and quick sorting into some form of inferiority. 

Judging others makes it very hard indeed to see Christ’s goodness, kindness, mercy, and love being poured out upon my neighbor and myself every second. Judging can quickly and subtly lend itself to emphasizing what is wrong with the person, the driver, the lack, the negative in a situation. It means seeing the person or group behind such acts as unable to be fully defined and described and named by them as who they are in God. That Lenten lesson is still a work in progress for me. I suspect we all need to practice slowing down, waiting, and letting the goodness of the other reveal itself to us. For that, we’ll need to ask God for help: help to slow my assessments, find more patience, and remember that everyone is an image of incomprehensible love. And finally, I need to trust that, as always, our loving God will deliver and help me to see more lovingly and less critically.