Written by Vladimir Moss



     We are all familiar with the commandment: “Judge not, that ye be not judged”, and how difficult it is to fulfill. There are at least four powerful reasons why one must proceed with extreme caution in attempting to judge others:-

1.     It is likely that one will be a hypocrite. This is the danger that the Lord places most emphasis on in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7.1-4). Apart from the fact that hypocrisy entails its own (severe) judgement, it prevents one from being accurate: a person with a big plank, or sin, in his own eye, will be unable to see what he thinks is the big sin in his neighbour’s eye – although it may in fact be no more than a speck by comparison with his own.

2.     It may not be one’s place to judge. Some people are obliged by their position to judge: priests in relation to parishioners, parents in relation to children, teachers in relation to students, etc. Outside such relationships, it is not necessarily wrong to judge, but it must be done with great caution. A man can – and sometimes must – rebuke his brother for a certain major sin, and if his brother refuses to listen to him, he can take the matter to a higher authority, the Church (Matthew 18.15-17). But he must be sure that he knows what he is talking about in the first place. One of the vices of our democratic, egalitarian civilization is that ignorant people, uneducated people and very young people are encouraged to make judgements about people and situations about which they can know next to nothing. This is most obvious in politics – how can an 18-year-old voter make a judgement about who should rule the country? He may have the “right” according to democratic theory. But does he have the competence, the knowledge, the judgement? By no means… But even worse than that is the way in which children are encouraged to judge their parents and teachers.

3.     Judging another implies that you know something important which your neighbour does not know or is refusing to know. That may be true, but it necessarily implies a certain superiority in knowledge. And that engenders pride – “knowledge puffs up”, as St. Paul says. Those who judge therefore have to guard themselves with humility and meekness to an exceptional degree.

4.     Those who judge have to be sure that their judging will in fact produce good fruit in the person judged. So often the opposite happens: since the rebuke is delivered with pride or in anger, it only makes things worse. Better in such cases to keep silent. St. Arsenius the Great, who was famed for his silence, said that he had never regretted keeping silent rather than speaking. Of course, sometimes keeping silence is the same as to betray God, especially in matters of the faith, when speaking up to judge the heretics is our Christian duty – even if the heretics do not listen to us, but revile us and persecute us. Nevertheless, we must always weigh up the probable consequences of our words…


     So it is difficult and dangerous to judge sin: in order to do it without sin oneself, one has to know the Law of God, know the sinner and know one’s place. Let us explore the second aspect of this triad: knowing the sinner. It will be argued here that it is in fact, not simply difficult and dangerous, but strictly impossible to know the sinner. Hence the wise adage that we must hate the sin but love the sinner, leaving the judgement of his person, as opposed to his deeds, to God alone. In other words, we must at all costs, even when obliged to judge a man’s actions, avoid delivering a final, categorical verdict on the man himself.

     The first reason for this is obvious: he may repent. And this may happen so quickly, that he may have repented of his sin even before we have finished judging him! But even if he delays to repent until he is on the edge of death, we must refrain from judging. The Good Thief was worthy of condemnation in his life; but at his death he displayed both perfect faith and perfect repentance and was the first to enter Paradise. The ancient Greeks had a saying: call no man happy until he is dead. The Christian equivalent might be: call no man damned until he is dead. And even then, only when the Supreme Judge has delivered His verdict in an unequivocal way, through the only organ on earth that “has the mind of Christ” – that is, through the judgement of His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

     The second, still more pertinent reason why it is impossible to judge a man categorically is that it is given to no mere mortal to know, and precisely weigh up the significance of, all the infinite number of factors that must be considered in any profound and truly just estimate of a human being. 

     Let us look at some of these factors:

(a)  Genetic Makeup. We are all fallen; in all of us, our human nature has been damaged in various ways. Only our ancestors Adam and Eve were born without any flaws in their nature – which is one of the reasons why their sin, committed on the basis, as it were, of a flawless, sinless nature, was considered so serious by God and merited such a terrible punishment. Our damaged genes mean that we are prone to sin – to lust, to anger, to actions of all kinds that are contrary to our original, unfallen nature. And some more than others. One man has a stronger libido than another. Another is more prone to anger. Again, some men are born with debilitating diseases which affect their lives in various ways. Some are more intelligent than others. All these factors have to be taken into account in the just judgement of any man, and may mitigate the severity of his judgement. Moreover, it can be argued that the genetic stock of humanity has deteriorated down the ages, so that those who come later are disadvantaged in the struggle against sin by comparison with those who lived in earlier times. The Just Judge will take all these factors into account from a position of omniscience that no man can even remotely hope to emulate.

(b)        Physical Environment. Early mankind lived in a fallen, but still largely unpolluted physical environment, in which it was easy to see and glorify the works of God, learning about Him from the book of nature. As civilization has “progressed”, that environment has become more polluted; the works of God have been pushed into the background, as it were; and into the foreground have come instead the works of man, promoting his vainglory. Some men in our time have lived all their lives in squalid, ugly and noisy cities, hardly able to see the beauties of nature, from which our ancestors derived so much knowledge and consolation. From the Tower of Babel to the Twin Towers of New York and all the achievements of modern science and technology, everything around us as it were cries out: “This is our human achievement! Aren’t we great!” The Just Judge undoubtedly takes all this into account.

(c)        Social Environment. Early, traditional societies discouraged the grosser forms of sin that have become so common – and approved - today. The young grew up in environments that in general offered far fewer enticements to sin than in today’s society. In many pagan societies, disobedience of children to parents was punishable by death; fornication and adultery were also punished severely. Of course, pagan religion itself encouraged serious sins, such as sacrifice to demons. But the fact that the pagans had not been taught about the true God mitigated their guilt, even though it did not completely excuse their sins. For “in bygone generation,” as St. Paul said, “God allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless, He did not leave Himself without witness…” (Acts 14.16-17). With the coming of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel, the excuses that the pagans had were removed, and the guilt of unbelief became greater. Nevertheless, a man brought up in a pagan or heretical society is judged differently from one born in an Orthodox Christian society. Now he is able to come to the truth faith with God’s help; but it is more difficult for him than for one who has had the Gospel preached to him since childhood, who has received the Holy Mysteries, and who has seen the example of true Christians around him. God can save a man even in the most unpromising of situations, and even the most disadvantaged of men are guilty of not using their free will towards God and not perceiving that light that enlightens every man that comes into the world. But only God knows how guilty they are…

     When we take all these factors into account, it is obvious that only God can judge a man, because only He knows the exact strength of all these factors, positive and negative, that lead a man to salvation or condemnation. We can – we must – judge sin to be sin; but we cannot possibly assess how guilty a sinner is. When it comes to judging sinful men, the only thing we can be sure of is that if we judge ourselves, we shall not be judged (I Corinthians 11.31)…


December 2/15, 2017.

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