Judgement vs. Discernment

Don't Judge

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 7: 1 – 15.  Focus on the difference between judgement and discernment.  Check out Rasaan Bourke’s Skinner Organ Anthem.

            I have a friend who likes to joke that dying will be a relief because it will put an end to the “heavy burden of judging” as she calls it. She envisions herself lying in a hospital bed and, moments before death, noticing the ceiling and thinking, “What a hideous green.”

Here’s a modest idea: Vow that for the rest of the day, you won’t judge your friends and you won’t judge any strangers you happen to see. This would include a friend who’s a non-stop talker; it would include a friend who’s always complaining about his life. It would include the strangers you pass on the street or see in a store.

I call it modest because I’m not even addressing the issue of self-judgment, let alone judging the situation in the Middle East or in Africa. No. I’m just asking you not to judge friends or strangers.

            I think you will find that it’s nearly impossible to make it past a few minutes without judging. “What’s he doing? He’s been silent for too long. He didn’t let me even form an image because he stopped the exercise too soon. Why did I bother to come to church today? I hope prayer time is short. Will his sermon be long?

So, why not just “judge away?”

That’s a rhetorical question. I have an answer. Let me start by drawing a distinction between judgment and discernment. Discernment means perceiving the way things are, period.

Judgment is what we add to discernment when we make a comparison, implicit or explicit, between how things or people are and how we think they ought to be. So, in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.

Take that talkative friend. To think or speak in a neutral, purely descriptive tone, “She can talk non-stop for 15 minutes,” is an example of discernment—assuming the assessment is accurate, we’re just describing the way things are.

On the other hand, to think or speak in a negative tone, “She can talk non-stop for 15 minutes,” is an example of judgment because that negative tone reveals our dissatisfaction with how she is and our desire for her to be different.

The same analysis applies to the complaining friend. I can make a observation – discernment or I can reflect dissatisfaction – judgment.

Now think about strangers. If you’re like me, there’s almost always a subtle judgment waiting in the wings. “She could stand to lose some weight.” “Why doesn’t he take a shower and clean up? He stinks.”

So, again, why not just “judge away”? Recall that in judgment, there’s an element of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to have things be the way we want them to be.

            So, judgment is just a recipe for suffering: start with our dissatisfaction over how a person happens to be and mix in our desire for them to be otherwise. To make that suffering nice and rich, be sure the you sprinkle in just the right amount of dissatisfaction!

And in the end you will have baked judgment right back into yourself, Jesus warns.

Now try this experiment. Think about a couple of friends who annoy you in some way. Can you let them be the way they are without desiring them to be otherwise? Sticking with my two examples, can you open your heart to her talkativeness or to his constant complaining?

            If you are like me you will find that judging is such a well-ingrained response that you will hardly notice when you are doing it, so I know I have a lifetime of conditioning to overcome. But it’s worth it because when I don’t judge, I feel the benefits in both my mind and my body: I feel as light as a feather, and because I don’t want to end up on a hospital gurney checking out with my last thoughts being – “Why is that ceiling a hedious green?”

Henry David Thoreau said: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

It’s all too easy to judge people based on their appearances. Tyler Bridges knows this, and he used it as a springboard for What’s The Difference,” a video he helped publish last month with the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles.

Assisted by hairstylist Tim Doma, Bridges and a crew of filmmakers offered haircuts to men who could use a little trim – and proved there isn’t much that separates the homeless from everyone else.

“The underlying message of the video is that we make judgments about people really quickly and often let the differences we see define the way we interact with them.”

            Here’s his video entitled. What’s the Difference? – Show Video:

“The guys in this video have been through some rough stuff and made some poor choices,” Bridges said, “but the day we did haircuts was about inviting them in for some basic care to show them that we aren’t worried about the bad choices they have made or how they look. It was about breaking down some barriers and showing them some love.”

            I like this quote. I don’t know who first said or where I read it but this is it: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle and has a story to share.”

Several important things I like to remember about this:

  1. Jesus used stories for a reason. They are a powerful tool for teaching and reaching our hearts and souls.
  2. God has used the stories of others to teach me, to change me and to make me more like Him. Nothing has affected me more powerfully than people’s genuine, vulnerable stories.
  3. When I know, or admit that I don’t know, someone’s story, it becomes nearly impossible to judge or dismiss them. In other words, it is very hard to “hate people up close.”
  4. Often the kindest, most loving thing I can do for someone else, as well as the most edifying thing I can do for myself, is simply to ask questions and sit back and listen to their story.
  5. Lastly, as several very wise men in my life have reminded me lately, nobody can argue with your story. It is just yours. It’s true simply because it is your story.

I will close my sermon with this humorous video put together by Similac – a baby formula company – Entitled: “The Sisterhood of Motherhood.” It’s an advertising campaign that aims “to encourage parents to come together and focus on shared goals, not differences”, according to their press release.

The video shows a playground confrontation between moms and dads who illustrate the different decisions parents make when it comes to raising their babies. But a brief moment of peril serves as a reminder that they’re all in this for the same reason: their love for their children. And I might add, this is what Jesus wants us to do with one another. Here is the video The Sisterhood of Motherhood:

Perhaps we can all spend a little bit more time asking questions and listening rather than talking and telling, because if you’re like me, you already know what you think. And what you don’t know actually can hurt you – and others. So let’s keep our ears wide open to the stories that other people have to tell us.

So the next time you are tempted to write somebody off for being an insensitive, clueless jerk, or to thank God that you are not as arrogant or ignorant as that person pontificating endlessly on Facebook, or you see someone parenting in a way that you think wrong – remember that everyone has a story. So why not pull up a chair and start listening. You just might learn something valuable about life. Amen



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