Learning to Love, Not Judge

For a good ten years, I didn’t confess being judgmental.  Not because I was a saint or because I was too hardened a sinner, but simply because of a poor definition.  I thought that “judging” someone meant condemning him to hell and I’m really good at not condemning people to hell.  I’m so aware of God’s mercy and his desperate desire for each soul that I’m not even willing to consign Hitler to hell with certainty–and the Church is with me on this one.1

But I’m starting to realize that judging–the sinful variety–is broader than that.  And so pervasive.  Reading through the comments on my post on kids at church (which has 15,000 unique visitors and 1000 facebook likes and I’m seriously freaking out over here) has been moving and powerful and convicting.  But it’s also shown me just how easy it is to get caught up in what other people are doing wrong.2  This got me thinking about Mother Teresa’s famous quotation:

It’s so hard not to be angry at someone when all you see is how his behavior falls short of what you think it ought to be.  And the angrier you get, the harder it is to love him or even to love yourself.  I’ve found, in a few specific relationships particularly, that it became nearly impossible not to be constantly furious at people until I changed.  I had to stop praying that their behavior would change and start praying that I would stop obsessing over it.

I realized in prayer today that I am a super-judgmental person.  I’m just judging hearts, not souls.

Yeah, that makes it okay.

But I judge everybody all the time.  I judge you on your grammar and your wardrobe and the book you’re reading and, yes, how your kids behave at Mass.  And I saw in the comments on my post that so many people were upset with somebody–their kids or someone else’s kids or other parishioners or a pastor or church in general.  Most people were clearly trying to love and forgive and work through it, but it just got me thinking.

Your goal in life is to be a saint.  God willing, you’ll bring other people along with you, but you can’t fix the people around you.  You can love them and support them and even sometimes correct them, but focusing on other people’s vices, even when they are very real and obvious and hurtful vices, isn’t generally going to help anyone.

I knew a guy once who was just sulky.  I hated him for it until it occurred to me that maybe his options were to sulk or to rage.  Maybe his sullenness was actually a demonstration of heroic virtue.  Here I was thinking he was a rotten person because he wasn’t trying to be chipper when he was upset, and maybe all along he was earning a white martyr’s crown because he wasn’t screaming at anyone.

So I began to wonder–is it possible that everybody’s really doing the best they can?

Maybe the reason they don’t correct his quiet talking in church is because the alternative is screaming and they’re actually quite proud of him.

Maybe she pointed out the cry room because she raised kids in a church without one and really thought you’d appreciate the option.

Maybe he was up all night hearing the last confession of a dying man and doesn’t realize how harsh he was.

Maybe she really has no idea how short her shorts are.

Maybe he’s homeless and the jeans he’s wearing to the Easter Vigil are his best clothes.

Maybe he wanted to complain 50 times since walking in but only let himself say that one thing.

Maybe she only says those things about other women because she’s terrified that she’s worse than they are and gossip seems the best way to hide it.

Maybe she’s from small town Mississippi and doesn’t have any idea that you stand-right-walk-left because she’s never even been on an escalator before.

Maybe he’s not turning–even though the light’s been green for a full 4 seconds–because his son’s in the hospital and he can’t see through his tears.

Maybe she keeps talking during Mass because she really thinks it helps other people enter in when she adds her commentary.

Maybe he smokes like a chimney because the alternative is a much harder drug.

Pinterest thinks Plato said this. I am not convinced.

Now maybe I’m a little ridiculous in concocting these elaborate explanations to excuse people’s behavior, but I’ve found that I’m less angry and more loving when I start to imagine that there’s some reason that people are doing things I wouldn’t do.  And really, there are reasons.  Maybe there aren’t explanations that completely excuse everything, but I can’t know what you’re struggling with that makes you whine or dress or parent or drive that way.  And when I recognize that, I’m so much happier because I’m letting go of my anger and just trying to love.

Perhaps if I were a saint, I could love people without having to exercise my imagination so liberally.  Maybe then I could see only that they’re children of God and not feel the need to analyze and categorize.

But this is where I am right now.  Instead of looking down on you, I’m going to try to assume the best, to see how hard you’re trying.  Because I want you to see my efforts, not my failures, I’ll try to do the same for you.  I’m doing the best I can.  I think most of us are.

  1. We know for certain that there are people in heaven. It’s hard not to believe that Judas is in hell given Mark 14:21, but while the Church teaches that there is a hell, there’s no official teaching that there’s anyone in it. Private revelation in spades, but nothing dogmatic that I’m aware of. If you’re interested in this, check out von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? []
  2. No, I’m not talking about you. It was nobody in particular. Blame the Holy Spirit. I’m not judging you, I promise! []

About Meg

I'm a Catholic, madly in love with the Lord, His Word, His Bride the Church, and especially His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. I'm committed to the Church not because I was raised this way but because the Lord has drawn my heart and convicted my reason. After 2 degrees in theology and 5 years in the classroom, I quit my 9-5 to follow Christ more literally. Since May of 2012, I've been a hobo for Christ; I live out of my car and travel the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, blogging, and trying to rock the world for Jesus.
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21 Responses to Learning to Love, Not Judge

  1. Lindsay says:

    I am getting better offering imaginative explanations to my mom, who tends to leap to the most negative reaction when she thinks someone has snubbed her. But it’s harder to do that for myself. Maybe it’s having some objectivity concerning my mom. I don’t know. But you bring up a great reminder. No it’s not letting people “off the hook” for their behavior, but it does help disperse anger and judgment. And since we only have control over our own sins, that’s a good start.

    Love can be the most rewarding thing to experience, but one of the hardest things to offer.

  2. Ben says:

    One of my favorite saints’ quotes is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux. To paraphrase – “If it appears that your neighbor is sinning, tell yourself that it must not be so. If it becomes obvious, tell yourself that the temptation must have been very great.”

  3. Meg says:

    Beth said on facebook: “Indeed. The funniest thing about praying for my enemies – people that I don’t like, make me angry, or are just plain wrong about stuff – is that I end up praying more for myself. “Have mercy on *us*,” “Pray for *us* sinners,” “Give *us* this day our daily bread.” Because usually it’s not my righteous hatred of sin that makes me angry, it’s just plain love of my own.”

    I liked it so much I had to stick it here for everyone to see :)

  4. Michelle says:

    Oh boy, this was perfect timing. It’s definately easier to see other’s faults, while ignoring our own. I love the serenity prayer. Accepting what I cannot change is always others. God bless.

  5. Debbie Thurmond says:

    This is a very good message about seeing ourselves before judging others. Jesus told us to take care of that log in our own eye before trying to get the speck from the eye of another. Just a note, my husband and I are both ministers and have ministered all over the world. I was from Mississippi and he was from Geogia. I know it is hard to believe but after 20 years of traveling overseas, we decided to base our ministry in the bayous of Louisiana. I can assure you that even Mississippians know how to ride an escalator. The person was probably just being inconsiderate, so it would have been perfectly OK to ask them to excuse you as you go by.

    • Meg says:

      Sorry, Debbie, I didn’t mean anything about Mississippi! I think I picked Mississippi because I was excited to write it–you spell it all the time growing up, but I rarely get to write all those double letters :) I was just thinking about people I’ve known who, growing up in rural areas, honestly never encountered an escalator until adulthood. If your malls are one story and you’ve never flown, it’s very easy to do. Plus, I think “stand right walk left” isn’t stressed as much in the South, where people are generally not in as much of a hurry as they are in DC, where I’m from. Thanks for the gentle correction :)

  6. Kenn says:

    Hi :) I love this blog. I just thought you would find this interesting. I’m a Catholic Psychotherapist and in the world of psychology this phenomenon is call F.A.E or the Fundamental Attribution Error:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error
    I Love this quote by St. Therese of Lisieux:
    “Charity consists in disregarding the faults of our neighbor, not being astonished at the sight of their weakness, but in being edified by the smallest acts of virtue we see them practice. Even when there doesn’t seem to be any excuse, we always have the possibility of saying: ‘this person is obviously wrong, but she does not know it.’”

    • Meg says:

      That is really helpful–the link and the quotation! So maybe holiness is about learning to be more situtational with others and dispositional with yourself? For those of us who tend towards pride and judgment, anyway.

  7. LT says:

    Thank you for the post! Driving causes me a little anxiety. Fourteen years ago, I caused a terrible accident when another driver honked at me to go when I was paralyzed over heavy traffic while trying to take a left turn. Well, there was a blind spot, so my decision to go after the honk caused an accident. To this day, I wait until traffic is ridiculously clear to make a left turn and try to always take lefts with traffic lights in order to avoid stop signs for left turns. People will honk at me to go when they feel like I am being overly cautious, and I swear I am apologizing inside my car. But I have to wait. I am thankful when other drivers are patient and refrain from laying on the horn. Your post also reminds me that I need to be empathetic toward the “honkers”…Maybe they are trying to get to the hospital for a sick relative or emergency, and they are stressed by my delay. It takes so much to be a saint!

    • LT says:

      And I don’t mean to imply that I am a saint :). Only that it takes a lot, we are called to this harder, but better, road, and clearly I fall short!

    • Meg says:

      Oh, that hadn’t even occurred to me–how terrible for you! I think your story will actually really help me to be patient on the road. Know of my prayers for you!

      (And nobody thought you were claiming sainthood–we’re all as overwhelmed as you sometimes. Praise God for his boundless grace!!)

    • Melissa says:

      My mother used to say the reverse, sort of. When she saw somebody driving recklessly or way over the speed limit, she’d say, “Maybe his wife is in labor in the car and he’s trying to get to the hospital.”

  8. Love this post! So true. It’s so hard to know what’s going on in other people’s minds. For example, I’ve known people who really struggle with anger, and for them, it’s virtuous to work on biting their tongue, or for some they work on humility by letting things go and just accepting harsh treatment. For myself, I struggled with low self esteem for many years and was very non confrontational. For me, it was growth to become aware that I had worth and value and I needed to stand up for myself and others.

  9. Erika says:

    I get your premise, but we are also called to pray for others to change their hearts. It is not judgmental to see someone stealing and pray that they change their ways and God forgives them. I’m doing nothing less than that when I see a girl with super short shorts and pray that she finds modesty. I am not even saying she “knows” her shorts are too short, but that God enters her heart and she discovers the integral beauty of modest woman. Jesus loved the sinners, but publicly called for the sinners to sin no more.

  10. Amy says:

    LOVE this – thank you so much for posting it. I struggle so much with this. I’m a mother of 10 and really want to teach my children the right way to handle these situations. God bless you for this post.

  11. Amy says:

    Thank you for your honesty and humility here Meg. It helped me think about the ways I judge others even if I never say anything to them about it. You also remind me of words of St. Therese of Liseux. I don’t have the quote at hand, but the point was to always assume the best possible intention you can. And to remember the love and mercy of Jesus when there is no good explanation possible. She also often commented that others “did not know what it cost her” just to be pleasant or smile when she was very sick, or to talk with them when she was in deep contemplation and did not want to be drawn out of it. That reminds me that just as others do not know what it costs us to do our best in a given situation, we never know what it costs another person to make what looks like a feeble effort to us. God bless you!

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  14. Blane says:

    I recently read that a sure sign of Greatness is; “Having the ability to Love people even when they give you every resaon not to!!”

  15. Camilla says:

    I do this same thing when I start to get annoyed with people. Or when I’m in Mass while someone gets me sort of worked up (like wearing inappropriate clothes or texting), I just thank God that they even made it to Mass.

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