It’s hard not to judge others, especially in matters of religion. It’s one thing to judge someone as being lazy or shiftless (whatever that means…I guess it’s the opposite of shiftful) and therefore someone you don’t want to hire to mow your lawn or do your tax preparation, and it’s another thing to judge someone as being an evil, wicked person who is going to hell. And yet we tend to do both all the time. Ok, maybe you don’t (I shouldn’t judge), but I do.
It’s not that I want to judge. It’s very stressful taking on that responsibility. Looking at someone’s every word and deed, stalking them on Facebook, goading them into bad behavior–this is all very taxing. And then God comes along in the end and says all my judging is for naught anyway, since only He gets to issue final judgments anyway. It’d enough to make me give up judging others altogether if I didn’t feel a sense of obligation.
All kidding aside, it is easy to judge, and hard to resist judging, especially when someone’s words, actions, and beliefs are in stark contrast to our own. When someone leaves the LDS Church, for example, it’s not just a matter of “Hey, they just want to do their own thing, no biggie.” It can come across as an insult or a threat. When someone says “I’m leaving the Church because I found out it’s not true,” it feels like they’re saying “I’m smart and you’re an idiot. If you were smart like me you’d leave the Church too.” It’s easy to get defensive and as a means of defending one’s feelings to then move to judging. “Oh yeah? Well you’re the one who’s an idiot, and you’re going to hell!” We start to almost hope those who offend us find judgment sooner rather than later. We hope their mistakes are proven to them in obvious ways. We are sometimes disappointed when they seem to be happy and doing well in life, despite not living as we think they should.
It seems to me the less a member of the LDS Church is sure of his convictions, the more likely he is to be judgmental of those who leave the Church, while those I know who have the strongest beliefs in the LDS faith are the least judgmental and kindest to those who leave the Church. My experiences are anecdotal, and I lack any sort of data for this, but perhaps it rings true for you as well. For the sake of discussion, let’s just assume I’m right and the data would back me up.
If true, I believe the reason those who have the strongest testimonies tend to be the least judgmental is directly correlated to their knowledge of LDS doctrine. Let’s examine some statements about how we should treat those who leave the fold or reject the teachings of the Church:
“Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind.”
Joseph Smith Jr., History of the Church, 5:23–24.
Hardly the harsh judgment some people receive from friends and family. Here’s another:
“Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God; wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.”
1 Nephi 10:21
Maybe I’m interpreting this incorrectly, but it sounds like those who will be found unclean are those who “[seek] to do wickedly…” I don’t know about you, but most of the people I know who have left the Church, or aren’t members of the Church, are not seeking to do wickedly. They generally seem to be seeking to do what’s right, but have different ideas about what that is than we as Mormons may have. It sounds to me like as long as their intent is to do good, then they’re in the clear from at least the most dire consequences of not being a Mormon, if not all of them.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve actually not seen much firsthand of the type of judgment I allude to above. I mostly know it exists based on secondhand accounts. The kind of “judgment” I’ve seen might more correctly be labeled as concern. I’ve seen parents who are concerned about the choices their children make, because they’re worried about their children’s happiness in this life as well as in the next. For me, I worry about my children sinning the same way I worry about them not learning how to read, or leaning against the window of our 5th floor apartment. I see behavior that I know will or can lead to painful consequences, and wish they would make different choices because I love them and want them to be happy.
But is even this concern sometimes misplaced, or overdone? Perhaps the most comforting doctrine is that which teaches we are only responsible for our choices, and that means real choices. Someone may choose not to get baptized or to leave the Church, but do they know the full import of that decision? By our own beliefs it’s almost axiomatic that they do not understand the choice they are making. If they did, they would choose differently. The only people who would choose to leave the Church, having a full understanding of what they are doing, are those who are doomed to an eternity in outer darkness with Satan and his minions because they have come out in open rebellion against God. This choice cannot be made without considerable knowledge, more knowledge than I believe most of us have. And yet we sometimes tend to judge others as though their decisions were made with this level of knowledge.
I believe in a merciful, loving God, who wants as many of his children as possible to return to him. He can’t bend the rules, but I believe he uses all his power to encourage his children to come back to him. He does everything that can possibly be done without forcing them. He’s not looking for excuses to judge and punish us. He’s looking for excuses to make us happy. If we’re not happy, it’s either a temporary condition given to us by God because he knows in the long run we’ll be happier for it, or it’s something we’ve brought upon ourselves. Or more likely it’s both.
This isn’t to say we should excuse sin in ourselves or others, but we should look to God and Christ as examples of how to treat others who sin as well as ourselves when we sin. Christ’s admonition to the adulterous woman brought before him was simple, “Go and sin no more.” That’s a pretty good recipe for happiness. Christ wasn’t judgmental, wrathful, or angry. He loved that woman, and wanted her to be happy. He would say the same thing to us. And He, of all people, has the right to judge us harshly.
For me, it boils down to what Joseph Smith said. My job is not to judge, it’s to love. If someone thinks I’m evil for being a Mormon and believe I’m going to hell, I should love them. If someone leaves the Church and rejects what I believe, I should love them. Judging people doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help me. If I feel “Well somebody needs to judge these people and hold them responsible!” then rest assured, Someone will, and He’ll do it perfectly. No need to worry about anyone but yourself. If you must worry, then worry only to the extent that it prompts you to love others and bring them cookies. That’s what I’ve learned on this matter. What would you add?