Carla and Tim* moved into a new home about two years ago. Since that time their relationships with their neighbors have deepened. They’ve noticed, however, that as they become more familiar with their new friends, they also see more of their friends’ shortcomings. Apparent flaws in everything from the upkeep of their homes to their child-rearing practices seem more glaring all the time. They have begun to dwell on their neighbors’ faults in their conversations, and sometimes as they lie in bed at night they find themselves talking about the little things that bothered them that day.
Elsewhere two families in a small rural ward began feuding years ago. Although the exact circumstances are difficult for anyone to remember, it had something to do with a remark made by one father to another. The original observation was innocent, but it was misunderstood, and within days several variations of the story had spread. Feelings were hurt, sides were taken, and for years bitter feelings have chased the Spirit from them at activities and gatherings. Local leaders have tried to provide counsel and encouragement. Often those actions have been misunderstood as well. Today members of an entire family, including children and grandchildren, refuse to attend church largely because a simple observation blew up into a fire of faultfinding and criticism.
Modern prophets and the scriptures warn us that finding fault and judging others—whether in a single relationship, a tight-knit neighborhood, or a ward setting—can be spiritually hazardous.
Faultfinding distorts our perception in a number of ways. First, we inaccurately see ourselves as superior. When we become preoccupied with the weaknesses of others, our attention is distracted from our own faults. We develop a kind of spiritual farsightedness, focusing our vision on the faults of others, and our spiritual eyes may begin to play tricks on us as we see right through what is much closer—our own faults.
In Matthew 7:3 [Matt. 7:3], the Savior describes this curious condition: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
Though we may see ourselves as better than those we criticize, in reality they are as precious in the Lord’s sight as we are, as the prophet Jacob makes clear:
“And now, my brethren, I have spoken unto you concerning pride; and those of you which have afflicted your neighbor, and persecuted him because ye were proud in your hearts, of the things which God hath given you, what say ye of it?
“Do ye not suppose that such things are abominable unto him who created all flesh? And the one being is as precious in his sight as the other” (Jacob 2:20–21).
If we find ourselves feeling superior to our neighbor, we likely have forgotten that we also have “sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
In finding fault with others, we are liable to mistake appearance for substance. Unable to discern the thoughts and intents of our neighbors’ hearts, we base our judgments solely on what we can see or erroneously infer. President Spencer W. Kimball commented that “we often judge wrongfully if we try to fathom the meaning and motives behind [the actions of others] and place on them our own interpretation” (The Miracle of Forgiveness , 268).
We may compare favorably with those who bear obvious signs of sin, because many of our foibles remain private and hidden. This appears to have been the case with the scribes and Pharisees, who wanted to stone the woman who was caught in adultery. But when Jesus said to them, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:7), the accusers silently left.
While it’s easy to condemn the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, we may not be all that different today. Consider the growing number of tabloids and television shows that have joined the hunt for the “dirty secrets” of celebrities, politicians, and everyday people. Perhaps the popularity of these magazines and shows comes of our desire to find a shady character against whom we might appear to be glowing saints. Our own imperfections fade from our notice as we watch the sins of others paraded before us. Then, following condemnation of the designated villain, we see no need to work on our own imperfections, which seem to have diminished into insignificance.
If we ridicule others, content in believing that our sins are hidden from them, we become hypocrites like the scribes and Pharisees, whom Jesus likened to “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).
Finally, when we criticize and find fault with others, our perception can be distorted because we often see our own weaknesses in others. The Apostle Paul warned of this tendency: “Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things” (Rom. 2:1; emphasis added).
If we project our flaws onto others, perhaps our attitude toward them is a barometer of our own imperfect performance. This advice found in the hymnbook is instructive:
Should you feel inclined to censure
Faults you may in others view,
Ask your own heart, ere you venture,
If you have not failings, too.
(Hymns, number 235)
A second hazard of faultfinding is that it stalls our personal and spiritual progress. This earth life is a time for us to prepare ourselves to meet God (see Alma 34:32), and focusing on the faults of others distracts us from that task. The danger in the practice of judging others unrighteously lies not only in what it keeps us from seeing—our own faults—but also in what it keeps us from doing—working to correct those faults.
Perhaps that is why the Lord abhors hypocrisy. Feelings of self-righteousness and complacency are deceptive, for if we are satisfied that our problems aren’t as serious as someone else’s, we tend to forget that how we measure up against other people is not the criterion for gaining eternal life.
The hare in Aesop’s fable provides a classic illustration of such pride and complacency. A hare and a tortoise agree to race. The hare scampers off, leaving the tortoise plodding slowly behind. Eventually the hare becomes tired and, sure of victory, decides to stop and rest. He falls asleep, and the steady tortoise quietly passes by, going on to win the race.
The hare’s problem was not that he lacked the ability to finish the race. Far from it. His problem was that he thought he had the race won. If we, like the foolish hare, think we have it made, there’s no need to keep working.
However, we haven’t crossed the finish line yet. If we stop now and go to sleep, no matter how far along the path of spiritual progress we have come, we’ll stop short of the finish line. As soon as we start focusing on how far behind our spiritual competition is, we divert energy needed to further our own progress and are liable to forget the whole purpose of the race.
The hare’s pride and complacency are like those of the Pharisee who found fault with the publican.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
“I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11–12).
Without realizing it, the Pharisee had overlooked the beam in his own eye—he had spiritually gone to sleep. In the next verses, we learn that the publican, apparently having recognized and confessed his sins to God, was at that time better off spiritually than the proud Pharisee.
“And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:13–14).
Like the Pharisee and the hare, when we think we have it made, we emphasize our supposed superiority over others instead of working on overcoming our own weaknesses. If we find ourselves becoming pacified, thinking all is well because we seem better than others, let us remember Nephi’s warning that this is a way Satan “cheateth [our] souls, and leadeth [us] away carefully down to hell” (2 Ne. 28:21).
Finally, when we are harsh in our judgment of others, we are not able to receive compassion and mercy ourselves.
After I had served four months as a full-time missionary, my initial enthusiasm and zeal for the work had waned considerably. I found myself having a hard time understanding and being compassionate with my companion and was discouraged that we weren’t succeeding in the work. I lacked all the confidence I had felt so strongly just a few months earlier.
Alone in an interview with my mission president, I expressed my feelings of inadequacy and discouragement. “How do I develop more confidence in my work as a missionary?” I asked.
His response could not have surprised me more. He didn’t try to boost my confidence by telling me what good work I was doing. He didn’t teach me about the power of positive thinking. Instead he asked me how I felt about other people, especially those with whom I worked.
“I don’t have much patience,” I admitted. “I was so eager when I started my mission, and it’s frustrating when things don’t go as I anticipated.”
Before I left on my mission, I honestly thought I could get along with anyone. However, in the midst of adversity, I found that I was often critical and judgmental of others.
The president then read a familiar scripture:
“Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God. …
The relevance of this scripture to my situation was immediately apparent. As a missionary, I had lacked confidence, and this scripture promised enough confidence to wax strong in God’s presence. I lacked self-assurance, and this scripture promised the Comforter as a constant companion.
And the key to that kind of assurance, courage, and confidence? In addition to continually virtuous thoughts, I must have “charity towards all men.”
In my appraisal of others, including my companion, I had been critical and judgmental. By failing to have charity, I had cut off my potential source of confidence. I learned an invaluable lesson that day. I had long known that I hurt others when I criticize and find fault, but for the first time I realized how my judgmental attitude was harming myself as well. Since that discussion, I’ve noticed many times that when I am charitable toward others, I feel more confident and less limited by my own faults. In short, the harder I try to be forgiving, the easier it is to feel forgiven.
The Christlike attributes of charity and compassion simply cannot be selectively applied in our lives, and we cannot expect to feel confident and assured in our self-appraisals when we pick at the slightest defects in those around us.
Perhaps part of the reason we all experience difficulties, weaknesses, and shortcomings in this life is so that we might have an opportunity to be more compassionate with others. What a tragedy if we overlook our common humanness and point an accusing finger instead!