Judging Righteous Judgement: Part 1, “Lord, whom can I safely hate?”

Eons ago in internet time, I wrote a post about the inevitability (and possible positives) of human discrimination. Whatever you may think of our origins, humans dominate the planet because of our superior pattern-recognition skills. Often these skills lead us to conclude things like “garbage spontaneously generates maggots”, but occasionally we come up with Newtonian laws and so forth. Discrimination is a necessary step in any rational inquiry. We have to determine which solutions to pursue, which beliefs to leave unquestioned, and the rationale behind both. It has made us pretty powerful, but, like all powers, it is frequently misused.

There is nothing interesting or new in the above, except this: we so easily identify others’ misuse of discrimination and justify our own use of it, that it calls into question the idea of righteous judgement entirely. But it must exist. Even if humans are incapable of righteous judgement, God will separate us at the judgement bar, which is the ultimate discrimination. His ways are not our ways, but is there any way that we can better emulate him in judgement? I don’t know, but I think it is worthwhile to make the attempt. What we find will be determined by what we are looking for, so first we must set a goal. In this case, I’ve chosen definition as the initial goal. What, exactly, is righteous judgement?

The phrase itself comes from Joseph Smith’s revelatory paraphrase of the admonition in Matthew 7:1. The text, as translated in the King James Version, reads, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The chapter that follows is a treatise on judgement. The Joseph Smith translation of the verse is, “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment.” The JST also notes that this is directed to his disciples (rather than the regular people listening), but I’m going to set aside hierarchical concerns for now, because judgement is a human universal. That said, it is interesting to note that this particular biblical text (refracted through Joseph’s translation), removes judgement from the purview of most people, perhaps acknowledging how bad we are at it.

So, what is righteous judgement? Initially, we might say something like, “To judge as God would judge.” But that is an impossible task. We don’t know enough, and aren’t compassionate or just enough to accomplish that. However, our lack doesn’t entirely rule it out. After all, we all feel capable of loving another, even though we are not capable of loving as God does. So perhaps the definition should be “To judge as closely to how God would judge as possible.”

Thus our next question, “How would God judge?” If we accept that our human notions of right and wrong are limited by our culture, immediate situation, notions of the future, and a thousand thousand other factors, conscious and unconscious, then we accept the fact that simply following our ideas of what a person should do in a situation will not enlighten us as to what God would do. So we take a look at whatever information we have received from God directly or that we believe other people have received from God, looking for clues about how God would judge (applying, I should add, our awesome pattern-recognition skills). We forage in scripture, media, rumor, and prayer, looking for evidence that will point to how God wills. You might be tempted to see this as a measure of sycophancy or self-justification, but I prefer to think of it as something like love and admiration. If we love and admire our Father in Heaven, then we seek to live in a manner that demonstrates our love by emulating Him. But to emulate, you have to scour the available material, like an adolescent going through Tiger Beat, looking for every detail that we might adopt in our adoration.

As incredible pattern-recognition machines and, therefore, natural-born discriminators, one of the patterns that we more easily discern is “us” vs. “them.” We seem to enjoy searching for beliefs, characteristics, and qualities that allow us to group people into categories. As I argued long ago, we often do this to save time. So if, for instance, I recognize you as a fellow Latter-day Saint (perhaps by noting the outline of your garments, your Utah license plate, and your “Mormons for Obama” bumper sticker), I will be much more likely to joke with you about high councilor speakers than otherwise. And God has spoken in times past about broad groups. Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Philistines, and the State of Illinois have all, at one time or another, enjoyed blanket condemnation by people speaking, as they say, on behalf of the Lord. Or, setting aside cultural or geographic origins, there is a lengthy list of behaviors that have been declared sinful by the Lord. We don’t doubt that doing things that go against God’s will estrange us from Him. Who wants that? Who would condone it?

If we can identify behaviors or other factors that distinguish the estranged from the beloved, we feel like we can guarantee a place by God’s side. So separating ourselves from those who engage in estranging behaviors and clearly articulating those estranging behaviors could be a relatively straightforward means for engaging in righteous judgement. Again, however, we discover God operating by criteria that are not apparent. He downplays and disparages our abilities to discern what exactly an estranging behavior is and frequently spends time or calls prophets from amongst the estranged. If we are to “judge as closely to how God would judge as possible,” the criteria we can use appears to be inadequate and the criteria God uses appears to be inaccessible. We simply may be incapable of judging as God would.

Maybe we miss the point entirely by injecting ourselves into the commandment. If we will be judged by the judgement we mete out, perhaps we shouldn’t apply our own inadequate judgement at all. The key to judging righteously could be to allow the spirit of discernment or the Holy Ghost to whisper to you, allowing you to see as God sees and, thereby, judge His judgement. Unfortunately, the promptings of the Spirit are frequently difficult to separate from the promptings of our own little hearts, especially when they may align. We often look for permission to do our own will, rather than sincerely seeking the Lord’s.

In the end, it may be that judging righteously is as impossible as being perfect. It could easily be the sort of commandment that is meant more to remind us of our inadequacies, rather than develop us into superjudges. I tend to assume that judgement must necessarily be ad hoc, reliant on a combination of authorized resources, spiritual inspiration, contextual understanding, and more than a little luck. But more on that next time. For now, what do you believe judging righteously consists of or looks like?


  1. “Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” i.e. we should use good judgment, never let others take advantage of us, etc. but never use judgement to harm another.

    My two cents.

  2. Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; (D&C 121:43)

    And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matthew 7:3 & 3 Nephi 14:3)

    This is how I see it. Most of us are not qualified to judge simply because we have our own problems we should be dealing with. We also all have very limited spheres where we are tasked to judge and give aid. In the times where we must judge, it should be done with an eye toward helping that person to improve, and showing your love for them as your brother or sister no matter what they decide to do from then forward. Good is increased through invitation, not constraint.

  3. Shawn H says:

    What Paul just said

  4. J. Stapley says:

    To judge as Christ judges requires Christlike empathy. Any amount of empathy we can foster increases the likelihood that we are approaching Christ.

  5. Capozaino says:

    So much for that whole “stop it” thing.

  6. J., is empathy a natural thing? What I mean is, do we learn it, or *can* we learn it? There is a deeper question circling the drain that I hesitate to ask in this forum. Perhaps there is an extreme example that may help. There seem to be fairly common disorders that may make it very difficult for someone to engage empathy, beyond say, a learned response, or copying behavior. In other words, “oh, I should probably say this now because someone else did or my wife coached me to say it,” etc., etc. Are only the “genuinely” empathic fit to judge?

  7. Alf O'Mega says:

    Maybe the best thing we can do is defer judgment as long as possible. Wheat and tares, doncha know.

    (This observation brought to you by a cheerful atheist tare sown among Mormon wheat.)

  8. as charitably as possible

    1 Corinthians 13 is powerful and multi-faceted, and it’s so easy to rationalize away in real life.

  9. I think judging righteously also involves knowing the facts, which is a bit hard because of our own perceptions, misconceptions, bias, prejudice, and so forth.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    WVS, the predicament of the psychopath is really interesting, at least in my little construction of atonement, and Mormon cosmology. Someone physically incapable of charity. But yes, I think that the psychopath is incapable of Christlike judgement. The degree to which empathy is a vector (perhaps not unlike will) is a key factor to any real Mormon imitatio Christi. That said, down that path lies a very Catholic salvifici dolores, that I’m uncertain about. So there you go.

  11. I could write an entire post on this, since it is one topic which has occupied me deeply over the last several years, as I recover from an abusive marriage, failing to save that marriage, and watching my ex find happiness while I still struggle from the destruction of my whole world.

    I stayed in my marriage despite everything because I didn’t want to judge, at least in part. Since then I think I have learned a few things about judgment, what is righteous judgment and what is not. Though it is rather complicated, as simply put as possible, I believe that judgment of behavior and patterns is necessary for us to learn to discern between good and evil. That is a major task that is laid before us in this mortal life, and we must learn all we can. That is not the same, however, as final judgment of a person.

    Believing that someone is evil or worthless is unrighteous judgment. If we seek to judge with humility, recognizing our imperfection of knowledge in judgment, and if we judge only with the hope and intent of helping ourselves and others come to know the Savior better, it is righteous judgment. For many reasons which I can’t go into here, that judgment is vital for our own journey back to God.

    As I have also learned a lot about psychopathy, I believe that lack of empathy is not an ultimate deterrent to judging righteously. Empathy is a tool that we can use, and it is certainly harder to judge without it. However, I believe that those who lack the ability to feel empathy can often learn it. And if they are so far on the antisocial personality disorder spectrum that they cannot, I believe that is only a challenge that God has set for them. Most people with ASPD learn to cope and act like people with the ability to empathize. They learn other ways of accomplishing the same ends.

  12. I also should add that I believe we need to avoid the temptation to place ourselves in the role of judge and decide we know what someone’s ultimate end will be. We need to be willing to leave final judgment to God, even as we must make various judgments here and now – and before anyone dismisses that as obvious, it’s very difficult to do fully.

    What will happen to the people who flew the planes into the Twin Towers? I don’t know. What will happen to Jeffry Dahmer? I don’t know. I don’t understand fully to what extent I am accountable for my own actions (“the incalculable mathematics of grace”, as a former professor once said), much less how God will judge anyone else.

    I have written 51 posts that are tagged as relevant to “judging” on my personal blog, so I’m not going to provide a link to one this time. You’re welcome, Steve.

  13. We mostly judge unrighteously, because we don’t know all the facts and don’t understand the person. We should mostly just not do it. Some people are called to be judges, and therefore have the right to receive revelation for that purpose; everyone else is unqualified and unprepared to judge righteously. There are few situations where judging another person is really required, and as bad as we are at it, we should just learn not to do it at all. Unfortunately, this is one thing that most people will never learn.

  14. Finally! I’m sure I have missed other expositions such as this pointing out how incorrect both the wording and the interpretation of Matthew 7 regarding “judging.” But, this is the first I have come across. I have been amazed (and disappointed) for at least the past 40 years by the flawed (especially with regard to the simplistic and narrow) “mote and beam” exhortations given us by our (inspired?) General Authorities and official lesson manuals. Such an interpretation, that always focuses on “for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged,” has always been nonsensical.

    I must admit I had never noticed the correction Joseph made in his JST–but I am not a GA or manual author. What I did notice, about 40 years ago, is that Moroni 7 gets it right. And, so I have long been disappointed by the authoritative and erroneous doctrine that has been promulgated in the face of such easily accessible clarification. Now I learn that the JST also gets it right! Being judged by (a perfect) God using a flawed, selfish, or irrational standard of judgement because that is how I judged (insert “others” here–the only type of “judgement” ever mentioned by these learned ones, and by most of the comments above) is not possible.

  15. littletinymouse says:

    Dallin H Oaks gave a great talk – Judge Not and Judging (http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=576) – in which he calls these “righteous judgements” we are to make intermediate judgements, and gives 5 principles that should guide them and a couple of examples.

    In the first edition of the Ensign N Eldon Tanner wrote to the kids – “How can you learn to keep the commandment to love one another, your parents, your brothers and sisters, your friends? Someone said that we learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, and just so, we learn to love by loving.” Paul wrote of “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” to the Hebrews. Maybe it’s the same for righteous judgement, the only way to learn to do it properly is to really try and do it, within the limits and boundaries suggested by and according to Elder Oaks’ 5 principles?

    I also suspect that truly righteous judgements and God’s final judgements might be a lot less discriminatory than we are partial to believing.

  16. I would prefer “discernment” over “discrimination”. A lot less baggage to worry about…

    There is no possible way to avoid judgement in countless matters that impinge on our existence. There is always an inherent risk in trying to understand and judge things. This is one of the reasons we strive for constant inspiration from the Holy Ghost. Because the natural man is an enemy to God, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit…

  17. Nothing new I suppose, but there seem to be quite a number of false ideas being considered here…
    Popular misconceptions regarding agency

  18. Jim, I love Pres. Packer and many of the things he has taught over the years, but that one, among others, . . .

    I respect his right to see things that way. ‘Nuff said.

  19. Okay, John, it’s the 4th of July and you’re using the British spelling for the word “judgment.” I don’t mean to judge you unfairly, but could this be an unconscious manifestation on your part of tyrannical tendencies that us freedom-loving folk should be concerned about?

  20. Leonard R. says:

    I take the call to rightous judgement as a call to learn from the experience of others.

    I.E. – I should not judge other people, because by nature I will do so harshly (I’m more apt to judge their failures than their successes). However, I should observe actions to find that which seems evil, so that I can avoid it (not so I can condemn the person) and observe to find what seems good, so that I can emulate it.

  21. Sharee Hughes says:

    I cannot help but think of Paula Deen in conjunction with the topic of judging. I have never and likely will never use the N” word in my life, but if a black man held a gun at my head, who knows what I might say. Ms. Deen is a product of her time and culture. Yet people have blown her whole case out of proportion and have judged her so harshly she has pretty much lost everything. While I don’t condone her previous racist views and language, I also don’t think she should have been thrown under the bus the way she has been. We are so quick to judge situations in which we do not have a full understanding. The problem with Ms, Deen is the more she talks about it the further she puts her foot into her mouth. But, if she had been overheard taking the Lord’s name in vain, would there have been so much fuss? Offending God should be worse than offending man. And it’s up to God to judge that, too.

  22. Ughhhhh… The difference between judging and having an opinion.

  23. In my view, judging is when you have an opinion about the character of another person based on that person’s actions. You are not qualified nor requested to have such an opinion, and the Lord has specifically suggested that you refrain from doing so, and just love them instead.

  24. JohnnyS says:

    John C,

    I think the last sentence in your third to last paragraph and MCQ’s comment just above cover it for me. I literally cannot comprehend how someone possessing even the smallest degree of humility/empathy could feel at all qualified to judge someone else. And I don’t really even know if there is any consensus on what exactly it means to judge someone. Judging their behavior against an objective standard? Judging their character or motivations? Or something else? I think it’s a very hazardous business to try to project ourselves into someone else’s life and feel that we can speak about their actions/thoughts/motivations with even the least degree of authority. I don’t even know why we would think we should try.

    Also, it might be worth pointing out that, indeed, human beings simply seem incapable of even the most basic common sense/compassionate sorts of judgement. A brief look at the history of even the last few centuries reveals that we are much more likely to reveal our own prejudices than to judge any kind of “righteous judgement.” A quick look at the various groups who, at least in a Western context, were judged unrighteously to the extent of being killed, enslaved, etc., shows us that we tend to judge very harshly/hate those who we perceive to be remotely unlike ourselves. The church itself has regularly exhibited such prejudices; one need look no further than its own troubling history with women, anyone who’s not a caucasian, and homosexuals to see that. I call for more love, less judgement/hate and an abundance of the music of ABBA. That might make things a bit better.

  25. Dale Whiting says:

    This example of righteous judgement, the judgement not only of nations, but of individuals, the sheep who followed Christ’s lead in serving others, and the goats who served themselves, has nothing whatsoever to do with judging those whom we are commanded to serve. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” We judge not lest we fail to serve even the least of His brethren.

    Today and without exceptions, where nations are lifting up there spears against nations, studying war like never before, I’d say we have proven ourselves to be goats, not sheep! Time to re-sharpen our pruning hooks.

  26. jcobabe says:

    Cannot speak for others, but the judgment I always need is to look inward, introspective. Self-loathing is not productive. Only repentance is truly liberating. There is more individuality in those who are more holy. Sin, on the other hand, brings sameness. I always reflect on this consideration at the end of the Temple recommend interview.

  27. Each of us is obligated to make judgements – of others, of situations, of conditions generally – every day of our lives. To the degree we approach Godliness (I know, I know. we’re not even close. but still. . .) we make righteous judgements. My judgements now, as a middle-aged woman, are far more Christ-centric than those of my younger self. No doubt, some days I do better than others. And I’m okay with that.

    I feel there are as many relative degrees of righteous judgement as there are human beings on the earth. I trust God to judge me fairly based on where I am right now and where I will be when we meet again. So, I say, “Judge on, brothers and sisters. And let the spirit be your guide.”

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