Of all the spiritual messes we might step in plodding through mortality, the big “J-word” is one of the goopiest. We all know the scriptures say “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”(Matthew 7:1; 3 Nephi 14:1; Luke 6:37) And yet, the Lord has given us clear instruction through the prophets, commandments and principles we must follow if we would please him. We have been counseled to associate with others who share our standards, and we have been clearly taught that there are many behaviors and situations that we ought to avoid in order to keep the companionship of the Holy Spirit. All of this seems to necessitate our passing judgment frequently, not to mention the several references throughout the scriptures that tell us explicitly to judge (Leviticus 19:15; Mosiah 26:29; Alma 41:14—to name just a few). Is this a reprise of the Garden of Eden where we are given two contradictory instructions? Thankfully, no.
While the beautiful teaching of not casting stones is ever-close to us, and “judge not” rings in our ears, it is easy to become confused as to how we are to “lay hold of every good thing” without somehow determining what is good and what is not. A broader study of judgment will clarify the matter. Remember, Heavenly Father has instructed us to judge and promised that our judgments may be sure and true:
"For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil" (Moroni 7:15-17)
What we find as we study and contemplate the matter is that judging is as natural to our functioning as breath is. The Lord knows this, and has lovingly provided instruction as to how to do it correctly. In fact, the earlier-cited verse Matthew 7:1 is clarified in footnote a to read, “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment.” The task, then, is for us to learn to curb that rascally natural man and judge righteously, to ensure our safety and growth and help others as we are called to do. Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave excellent instruction as to how we accomplish this in an article in the August 1999 Ensign titled, “Judge Not” And Judging. In this talk he goes into detail about what righteous judging entails, more detail and with greater insight than I can here provide, though I’ll do my best!
Of course we know that anything we attempt must be done under the guidance of the Spirit in order to be right. Beyond this, a judgment is righteous when it falls within our purview and when we strive to hear the facts of the matter. It is these that I will focus on a bit here, though there are a few more qualifications a judgment must meet in order to be righteous. There are men the Lord has called and set apart to act as judges in Israel—Bishops—who are tasked with passing judgment on those in their wards. These people have a stewardship that is unique and lasts as long as they hold their calling. For the rest of us, judging may be a bit trickier.
When a friend or family member appears to be erring we may feel it our duty to point this out to her. Think how often someone has been harshly candid in expressing a personal opinion “for your own good,” or been—I love this term—brutally honest because he just cares so, so much. One danger in these situations is that the judge rarely has enough information to form a reasonable opinion, and, at least in my experience, the good created by such ignorant utterings is swamped by the bad. Frequently this individual is quick to drop pronouncements, advice, and observations, but just as quickly retreats when the beneficiary of these offers any response, sometimes declaring something like, I don’t need to hear all this negativity; I have the right to my opinion and you arguing won’t change my mind! This is a trap that is so easy to fall into, especially given the social nature of human beings and our responsibility to be each other’s keepers. Nothing could be more inherently negative than a personal judgment made by one determined to remain unaware of the facts. As a general rule it is best to remember that if we are willing to step into a circumstance that really doesn’t concern us, we must be willing to hear the facts of the matter. Elder Oaks speaks at length of the importance of judging only after receiving these facts, and quotes essayist William George Jordan as calling the suspension of judgment until the receipt of facts “the supreme form of charity.” (“The Supreme Charity of The World” The Kingship of Self-Control)
If withholding imprudent snap judgments is supremely charitable, then offering them is a supreme cruelty, harming those they are made against as well as those who make them. Since judging circumstances and situations, even, in some select cases people, is necessary to a successful life, it is a potential area of weakness that the father of all lies is just too eager to exploit. How much damage is done by a critical judgment of another spoken to the wrong person? How may reputations, even lives have been shredded by those with “the best of intentions?” And even when a person’s larger reputation is not damaged, is an interpersonal relationship ever made stronger when one party passes judgment, criticizing the other with no real information? The passer of such judgment also suffers alienation from others, and from the Spirit. Satan often succeeds in making us feel very justified, even righteous (or, at least self-righteous) in passing these judgments, and it is so easy to be lulled and deceived as we hurt others, perhaps those we care about the most. I thank the Lord for teaching me this truth, though the lesson was very far from pleasant.
Elder Oaks quotes Jordan again as saying, “There is but one quality necessary for the perfect understanding of character, one quality that, if man have it, he may dare to judge—that is, omniscience.” (“The Supreme Charity of The World” The Kingship of Self-Control) While we certainly must sometimes judge without all the facts to ensure our safety or that of our family—for example if a person is accused of a violent crime that, if guilty may pose a danger of repeating, in most situations our judging without any facts, evidence, or truth is only harmful to all involved, and may cause far greater pain than we can know. Just as it is in our nature to judge, it is also in our nature to judge unrighteously, shallowly. Remember, “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”(1 Samuel 16:7)
As we move about our sisters and brothers on this earth it is important that we check ourselves, seeking Father’s guidance when we hear a judgment enter our heads. If it is beyond the scope of our responsibility, if we are unwilling to hear the perspective of the person it is about, or if there is any hint of self-righteousness rather than true righteousness in it we can be sure that it as a whole is unrighteous.