Matthew 7.1 is a well-known biblical text. It’s up there with John 3:16. But the former is used more like a club than the latter.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. This is now an American ideal.

The work of sociologist Christian Smith shows just how much it pervades the average American’s imagination when he writes about emerging young adults in his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. In the interviews with young adults that constitute a portion of that book, Smith highlights a certain common characteristic among many of them. Instance after instance an interviewee utters the common statement, “who am I to judge someone else?” or some form of the same. Smith and his co-authors are rather disturbed by the lack of an ability among young adults to offer a rational evaluation of circumstances. While individuals seem to make certain decisions for themselves, they are unwilling to presume that the decision they have made for themselves is the same decision others ought to make too. “Who am I to say?” they will ask.

Following from a point Smith makes in an earlier book, one which draws on the same longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion as does Lost in Transition, Smith argues in Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that much of what American young people claim as their spirituality has been handed down within the tradition they have experienced in their family life. In other words, that “tradition” is most likely meant to mean “from their church.” But, more importantly for my argument here, at any rate, it is from one’s parents. If a young person (teenager or young adult) is regularly articulating such utterances as “Who am I to judge?” we ought to be prompted to think of Bourdieu and his point about habitus and disposition again. Such regular utterances come with practice, and practice occurs in an environment which fosters it. If the family is handing down this value to mimic, it’s no wonder it has taken such a strong hold.

Clearly it is important for us NOT to judge. And to justify our position, we’ll point to Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a problem here that causes us quite a bit of consternation. It’s a bad interpretation of the text. We should ask ourselves, is Jesus really telling us it is utterly sinful to judge? Are we really to make no evaluations whatsoever in this life?

That seems a very thin interpretation of this text, and it gets us into some real trouble. This was the concern of Smith and his co-authors in Lost in Transition. They wondered if young adults could make any substantive evaluations at all. If making judgments seemed to them to be somehow “all wrong,” then how were they going to get through life when faced with kind of moral conundrums one has to face from time to time? How, in fact, if such young people were to eventually start families, would they raise children or discipline them or teach them to lead a particular kind of life if they could not decide on how someone else (in this case, their own child) ought to live?

Mind you however, a good interpretation of Matthew 7.1 doesn’t simply free us to sling at others whatever judgments we want.

What we ought to realize is that we make evaluations and judgments all the time. Evaluations of good, bad, and everything in between are necessary for our very safety and survival, much less for our moral navigation through life. We know in our bones how to stay out of danger (by making judgments of dangerous situations, and doing so without “thinking”). And we know at times moral right and wrong in utterly viscerally ways–situations make us “sick.” But we also make other kinds of judgments. Very often, like I’ve written in the previous three posts, our judgments are of the sinful variety. They are negatively judgmental. They’re not particularly helpful, and certainly not necessary for our safety or survival. And for that we ought to repent. Otherwise, the world is right in calling us hypocrites. It’s that simple.

The rest of the time, to the extent that we are followers of Christ, we are learning to judge rightly and well. I learned early on in my Christian journey a particular term for this: discernment. It’s something of an art. Decisions, evaluations, judgments—they’re often hard. Sometimes they’re borderline undecidable. Maybe that’s why Luther said “sin boldly.”

A few things I’ve found helpful:

  1. Good judgment and evaluation happens in community, not alone. Don’t assume you don’t need help. Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out. Don’t assume you’re done learning.
  2. Good judgment and evaluation takes time. It’s never snappy. It’s never hasty. It’s always aware that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Every time. Period.
  3. Good judgment and evaluation begins with listening and exploring. And perhaps this practice never ends.
  4. Good judgment and evaluation requires habitus formed in the crucible of worship where the people of God have gathered.