For the past 6 years, interrupted by an 18 month mission abroad, I have taught Sunday School at my local county jail. I have felt compelled for a while now to share some of the lessons that I teach. This has been a unique and rewarding experience for me personally, and I have probably learned more than any of the students – hence the title of this series: “Lessons from the Jail”. (Read lesson 1 here) I hope and pray that you, readers, will find in them a perspective and an honesty that will brighten your own understanding of the miracle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Gentlemen, the topic of our lesson today is “Judgment”. This is NOT a prepared lesson. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, or how it’s going to turn out. I trust in the spirit, though, and I have learned to follow its promptings. Other than that, the reason I feel impressed to talk about this is that I think this is one of those words that get thrown around so heavily, yet I don’t think most of us really understand what it means and why it is meaningful to us. It is one of those words like “faith”, “repentance”, “forgiveness”, and “heaven and hell” that we think we understand, but rarely really think about. We just accept the meanings that have been handed to us throughout our lives. In this sense, I think it falls into the category of “dogma”, which, to me, means, “Believe it, or accept it, because I said so”. I don’t like dogma. I never took too well to “Because I’m the mom, that’s why” or “Because I’m the boss, that’s why”. I suspect you’re the same way. You know what, I’ve never even taken well to “Because I’m God, that’s why!” Ironically, even though religion is typically built upon dogma, and even though religion is supposedly all about doing what God says, God Himself doesn’t do dogma. He actually wants us to think about these things and not just accept His word. He actually wants us to understand. During the first 18 years of my life, I pretty much just accepted dogma. I did what I was told. I suppose most children do. Then, I spent the next 20 years ignoring God and His commandments, which gave Him plenty of opportunity over the last 20 years to say, “See, I told you so!” But He never, ever, suggested to me that I shouldn’t ask questions or that I shouldn’t seek to understand for myself. God just doesn’t work that way.
So, I want to talk with you about judgment today. I want to discuss what it means to you and me, and maybe shed some light on what it really means. I hope we can get past some of the myth and assumptions and explore it free from dogma.
People are fond of quoting Matthew 7:1, which says simply, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”. They quote it most often when someone is judging them. How many times have you heard someone say, “Don’t judge me!”? How many times have you said, “Don’t judge me!”? In my mind, it’s a very convenient smoke screen when one wants to avoid being accountable for their actions. Throw that one up, and it stops most people in their tracks. Nobody wants to be accused of “judging”. In reality, gentlemen, we HAVE to judge. When someone else does something, we MUST make a judgment as to how well that action correlates with our value system. If we don’t judge other people’s actions, how do we learn? How do we develop values of our own? We must compare what we see around us to what we know to be true and decide how this new learning is going to impact us – positively, negatively, or not at all. Even if we decide “not at all”, we are making a judgment. I would call these judgments “Value Judgments”, and we make them all the time.
I think this scripture is actually referring to judgments of motivation. Christ is warning us not to apply our experiences to another person’s motivation. We may judge their actions as they pertain to us, but we err when we begin to judge their worthiness or their goodness – or their standing before God – based on their actions. Only God possesses the knowledge and understanding required to do that. Now let’s look at the next verse, which reads, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”. Here, obviously, is where we typically fall short. Do any of us really want to judge someone else and have that same judgment applied to us? Our tendency toward this type of judgment typically results in what is commonly called “hypocrisy”. We rarely see clearly what’s in our own heart, or what our own motivations are. How, then, can we possibly hope to understand what life experiences, challenges, disappointments and trauma have resulted in the motivations that drive another person’s actions?
So, we must judge, but we must always judge with compassion and mercy. We must judge with charity. Only then will compassion, mercy and charity be allotted to us – either in this life or in the final judgment.
A GREAT BURDEN
Another point to consider is how burdensome it must be to set oneself up as a judge of others. Let’s use as an example the justice system, which you are all at least somewhat familiar with. I’m sure you all think most judges are autocratic, merciless, and heartless, especially the ones that “go by the book”. Well, have you considered that the reason they go by the book is that they are at least somewhat unwilling to carry the burden that would fall on them if they tried to judge each case based on the defendant’s motivation, family history, fears, intelligence, anxieties, etc.? No, that burden would be too much to bear, so they judge within the law (as they are sworn to do, of course), occasionally exercising discretion in the sentencing phase. Nope, only God has the power, the omnipotence, the wisdom to judge men wisely and fairly in all cases. We have neither the right nor the ability to do so, and I suggest that if you understood the burden that you take upon yourself when you judge others, as opposed to judging their actions, you would learn very quickly that this commandment is grounded in great wisdom, not dogma.
Speaking of God, let’s discuss “Judgment Day” – a concept that, for most of us, conjures up thoughts of Heaven and Hell, fire and brimstone, eternal joy or eternal damnation. For me, this used to evoke an image of a colossal figure in white robes, white hair and a beard, glowering down as each person is, in turn, presented before him. To his left is an angelic clerk holding a quill pen (white feather, of course), reading from the book of life (or some such thing) the results of a person’s life, performing some sort of eternal tally. Score enough points, you’re in – fall short….well, sorry buddy – down you go. Frankly, this is so ridiculous as to be comical, and I guess it is, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think this way.
May I present an alternative. Christ, and Christ alone (no angelic clerk) will perform this judgment. Rather than glowering, he will welcome you with loving arms. He will not be tallying up your good actions vs. your bad actions. No, He will instead be taking the sum total of your challenges, experiences, mistakes, desires, thoughts, etc. into consideration in judging not what you have done, but what you have become. I don’t know how it will all work – how many “degrees” or “kingdoms” of eternal existence there will be. I do know His judgment will be fair, merciful and compassionate, and that you will know it. I do know this judgment will be offered in love, and you will know that, too. I know that His ultimate question, the question that will sum up your life, will be “How much can I bless you?”
That’s right, gentlemen – “How much can I bless you?” After all men have endured mortality, have sinned, repented (maybe) and sinned again; after all the horrific acts of tyranny, bloodshed, torture and deceit; even after all the beautiful acts of selfless love and kindness that have defined man’s existence: yes, after all this, the final judgment will come down to “How much can I bless you?” What have we become as the result of our choices? What have we learned? How hard did we try? Did we learn to trust, to love and to live without guile? Did we learn to give, to sacrifice, and to yield our personal desires to the desires of others? You see, for someone to go to Heaven, they must become the kind of person who, when they arrive, Heaven is still Heaven for everyone else.*
In closing, I offer you my testimony of the Savior’s love. Over the millennia of man’s existence, we seem to have been unable to comprehend a being who is motivated solely by love. The Bible and other scriptures often paint for us a picture of a vengeful God, a judgmental God. – an image of God that promotes fear and guilt. Many would have us believe that this God created mankind only to condemn 99% of us to some horrific place called “Hell” where we will suffer for eternity. This is not the God that I know. The God that I know is full of love, mercy and compassion. The God that I know offered us the opportunity to individually choose between good and evil; to become, through the sum of our choices, “Good”. To the extent that we have chosen to do this, He will bless us. To the extent that we might have missed the boat, He will simply bless us less. The greatest question in all of our lives, when we finally stand before that great bar of judgment, will simply be, “How much can I bless you?”
* This is a paraphrased quote from an individual with the virtual name “Amonhi” on the LDS Freedom Forum. I have no idea of his real name, or if he borrowed it from someone else, but it is one of the most significant quotes I have ever heard in my life – right up there with, “Lord, let me be half the man my dog thinks I am”.