‘And not to judge my brother’

13 March 2023

It’s a constant exhortation on the part of the Church, all the year round, but particularly during Lent. Indeed, the prayer of Saint Efraim the Syrian is a powerful reminder which we repeat on a daily basis: ‘And not to judge my brother’. And how could it be otherwise, when Jesus Christ himself, the head of the faith, gave us the commandment which expresses the existence or absence of love towards other people: ‘Do not judge, that you be not judged’? Therefore, this confirms our love for and faith in God- or lack of it. But we need to make certain clarifications.

In the first place, the Lord condemns judgementalism, not judgement. This is because judgement is a basic feature of the human mind and the Lord doesn’t wish to abrogate this- Christ didn’t come to destroy us, but to save us. Of course he said ‘Don’t judge’ (Matth. 7, 1), but in the sense of denunciation. Because, at another point he remarks that we can judge other people, but only when we judge fairly: ‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment’.

What is the proper judgement that the Lord accepts? He himself guides us: ‘My judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of the father who sent me’. Fair judgment is that which comes from people who live the will of God as their own. And since the will of God is love that’s why we judge in a proper manner when our judgement is full of love for others. Of course, from this point of view, the only just judgement is God’s, since he is love (1 John 4, 8); as is that of the saints since they strove to make God’s will their own.

It follows that, as long as we see our own will holding sway within us and not that of God, we shouldn’t rely on our judgment. We should distrust it, and question whether we’re judging fairly. Because if we’re like that, then our judgement is certainly misguided and not right. The Lord pointed this out in other words. In his Sermon on the Mount, for example, he calls judgement which doesn’t come from a pure heart hypocritical: ‘You hypocrite’, he cries, ‘hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of someone else’s eye’ (Matth. 7, 5). If you’re under the influence of your passions- and who can claim not to be?- it isn’t possible to arrive at a proper judgement of someone else. Only those of pure heart, that is people who love, can see others correctly and therefore judge them without causing harm.

So what’s condemned is censure, that is judgement associated with passion, with egotism, ill-natured judging. But things get worse: at bottom, censure is the subversion of God’s right, which means that it reveals in the most obvious way the lack of self-awareness on the part of  the person doing the condemning. It’s no accident that just before he speaks of censure in his prayer of contrition, Saint Efraim says: ‘Grant me to see my own errors’. So people who condemn are spiritually blind and, in a demonic manner, place themselves even above God! Don’t we see here the ‘reprise’ of the attitude of the wicked devil? He dared to compare himself to the Creator  and even dreamt of more than equality with God: ‘I’ll establish my throne in the face of God in the Highest’.

So, in the end, only God has the right to judge us for our thoughts, our words and our actions, because we’re his and we belong to him: ‘For from him, through him and for him all things were made’. And also because he alone can make a proper assessment, since he has all the evidence before him, bare and in the open. Saint Paul reminds us that there’s no invisible creation as far as God’s concerned, but everything’s naked and visible under his gaze. And there’s another aspect that we don’t take into account when we condemn other people which is particularly horrific for us: censure acts as a prophecy regarding our future sins: ‘As you judge, so will you be judged’ (Matth. 7, 1).The Lord himself confirms this: whatever we condemn in others, the Lord will permit us to suffer ourselves. This is a spiritual law which we thoughtlessly and frequently ignore when we censure other people.

There’s only one instance when it’s allowed, or rather, it’s required of us not only to judge but also to censure and condemn: when our judgement is aimed at the devil, the instigator of all evil, particularly that within ourselves. In this case, our condemnation bears fruit in our sanctification, because it means that we clear the ground of our soul, acquire true repentance and arrive at the most blessed and most inaccessible virtue, humility. The publican in the parable was exonerated by God precisely because he condemned himself, while his ethos, that of humility, is what the Church recommends as the spirit of sanctity. Condemnation such as that can and must be effected: it’s from God. Any other, aimed at other people, is forbidden: it’s motivated by the demons.

The instance of a monk who’s mentioned in the Book of the Elders makes clear the truth of what we’ve referred to above.

The time came for a monk in a certain monastery to depart this life. The abbot and the rest of the brotherhood gathered round the death-bed. They were all sad, because they knew that the monk had not been particularly conscientious throughout his life. He had been less than diligent in the performance of his duties. They were astonished, however, at seeing him leaving this life joyfully and in great peace. The abbot asked him: ‘How is it, brother, that you’ve been so negligent, yet you’re departing in joy and peace? Aren’t you afraid of God’s judgement?’. The monk answered directly: ‘Yes, it’s true that I wasn’t very observant. But there was one thing I tried to do conscientiously: I never censured anybody. So, when I’m before the Lord, as I soon will be, I’ll declare boldly: “You said, don’t judge so that you yourself won’t be judged. I didn’t judge, so do what you promised”. The abbot and the rest of the community were very moved. With tears in his eyes, the abbot closed the eyes of the departing monk and said, ‘Farewell, brother. With a little, small struggle, you’ve gained eternity’.