“How Do We ‘Judge Righteous Judgment’?” Ensign, February 2019
Have you ever been in a situation where somebody tried to correct another person by saying, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”? (Matthew 7:1). Few of Jesus’s teachings are more widely known than this one. Unfortunately, this phrase is not always correctly understood or applied. Our ability to benefit from this command will increase as we examine how Jesus Christ used it in His teachings and how His prophets have reiterated it through time.
Let’s begin by looking at how the Savior used this “judge not” phrase. Preceding this command are the first two chapters of His Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5–6). This sermon is filled with commands that set the bar of discipleship very high—so high, in fact, that nobody can succeed without the merciful help of the Lord. As we learn in those chapters, it is no longer enough for His followers to refrain from killing or committing adultery or to love only those who love us; it is now required to not get angry, not allow immoral thoughts to linger, and to love our enemies (see Matthew 5:13–47). Ultimately, true followers of Christ are to be “perfect, even as [their] Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).1 This includes praying, fasting secretly rather than publicly, and giving charitable gifts.
Immediately following these higher-law teachings, Jesus commanded, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Jesus understood that as disciples strive to live the principles and commandments taught in Matthew 5 and 6, it is easy to fall into the trap of noticing where others may be falling short of those ideals. Jesus continued, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Matthew 7:2). To drive this point further, Jesus clarified, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). He was clearly teaching that our ability to judge imperfections in others is nearly impossible because of the large construction-sized beams of imperfection blinding our own vision. Additionally, we do not understand all the surrounding issues, struggles, and circumstances that result in motes and beams in others’ eyes.
The Lord, however, knows everything and is therefore the only one who can see clearly and judge perfectly. In His wisdom and mercy, the Lord withholds His judgment and does not immediately condemn us for our failings. He continues to work with us through the process of time to “cast out the beam out of [our] own eye” so we can “see clearly” (Matthew 7:5).
In the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 7, we read, “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 7:2 [in Matthew 7:1, footnote a]). Joseph Smith made some of his changes to the biblical text not to reflect what was originally said or written but to give prophetic interpretation and help clarify the meaning of certain passages. That seems to be the case with the changes here, based on what other scriptures (3 Nephi 14:1, for example) and modern prophets have said about judging. According to Joseph Smith’s addition to this passage in Matthew, Jesus is not telling us never to judge. He is commanding us to make sure the judgments we make are righteous.
This point is further clarified in the Book of Mormon. In Moroni 7 we find a speech given by Mormon, including specific directions on how to judge: “Wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (Moroni 7:16). Mormon then revealed how to judge the opposite influence: “But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil” (Moroni 7:17). Mormon made it clear that we have a responsibility to make appropriate judgment. As we place this passage side by side with the original statement, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1; 3 Nephi 14:1), we see that the word judge must have various meanings in different scriptures.
Before being called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1984, President Dallin H. Oaks, now First Counselor in the First Presidency, was a supreme court judge in the state of Utah. In 1998 he delivered a clarifying talk on the subject of judging. He said, “I have been puzzled that some scriptures command us not to judge and others instruct us that we should judge and even tell us how to do it.” He suggested that there is no contradiction between these scriptures if we “understand that there are two kinds of judging: final judgments, which we are forbidden to make, and intermediate judgments, which we are directed to make, but upon righteous principles.”2 This life is not the time for final judgments; those are reserved for the next. Additionally, we are not the ones who will make those final judgments; they are reserved for the Lord. Instructively, Jesus Christ Himself withheld such final judgments from many whom He could have condemned (for example, see Matthew 27:11–35; Luke 23:8–11; John 4; 8:1–11; 13:18–30).
The intermediate judgments we make determine to a large degree how we live our life and, consequently, how we will also be judged, both intermediately and finally. This is true of judgments we make of our leaders, family members, and other people and even the verdicts we sometimes make about ourselves.
Of all the judgments we make in life, however, the most important and influential is how we judge God. To illustrate, consider the parable of the three servants who received talents, or sums of money (see Matthew 25:14–30). The master of the servants judged their individual capacities and gave them what they could each handle. One servant received five talents, another was granted two, and the final servant was given one. The first two servants invested their talents, thus doubling their amounts. The third servant hid his talent in the earth. The motivation for this stark contrast in behaviors is not revealed until later in the parable.
When the master returned, the first two servants were glad to see him and presented him with doubled amounts of money. After congratulating them for their goodness and faithfulness, he graciously gave them the talents they had multiplied for him. If we were to ask either of these first two servants to describe their judgment of the master, we would likely hear words such as kind, loving, merciful, and gracious in their responses. It is also safe to assume that these two would be willing to do anything that the master asked of them because of their righteous judgment of his character and motives.
Contrast that with how the third servant judged the master. One can visualize him approaching the master in fear and trembling as he dropped the recently unburied talent at the master’s feet and said, “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed” (Matthew 25:24). What might the first two servants have said if they had overheard this harsh judgment of their master’s character? Notice how the third servant’s unrighteous judgment of the master negatively affected his behavior and character: “I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine” (Matthew 25:25). The master’s response fulfilled all of this trembling man’s worst fears: “Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not. … Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers” (Matthew 25:26–27). The talent was taken from this man and given to the servant with 10.
All three servants experienced a fulfillment of Jesus’s statement, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). The first two servants judged the lord to be merciful and gracious. They judged that he had their best interests in mind. Based on that foundation, they made life decisions that resulted in his passing a merciful and gracious final judgment upon them. The third servant, on the other hand, falsely judged the lord’s motives and character. Ironically, his evil judgments of the lord led to the servant’s lack of righteous judgment of his own abilities, which resulted in unwise actions. Motivated by fear of punishment, this man ended up stifling his own character development and missed out on opportunities to experience the lord’s mercy and grace.
It is easy to see how our judgment of God can naturally influence our judgments of those around us as well. If we assume that the Lord is angry, over-controlling, vengeful, self-interested, or a being to be feared and not trusted, how much easier it becomes for us to superimpose those same negative motives and character traits upon people around us.
In a memorable general conference talk, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated:
“This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon. When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following:
“It’s that simple. We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children. God is our Father. We are His children. We are all brothers and sisters. I don’t know exactly how to articulate this point of not judging others with sufficient eloquence, passion, and persuasion to make it stick.”3
The Prophet Joseph Smith gave great insight into what happens when we replace inappropriate judgment and condemnation with mercy and kindness. He said: “Be ready to forgive our brother on the first intimations of repentance, and asking forgiveness; and should we even forgive our brother, or even our enemy, before he repent or ask forgiveness, our heavenly Father would be equally merciful unto us.”4 This teaching serves as one more powerful reminder that “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Matthew 7:2).
The person many people feel the most qualified to judge, and consequently judge most frequently and harshly, is oneself. After all, we know better than anyone where we have fallen short. If we are not vigilant, we are all capable of falling into the temptations of deep discouragement, self-doubt, self-pity, self-loathing, and giving up. The Lord would not have us define ourselves by our past struggles but rather by His past triumphs. Only when we refuse to be held hostage to our past will we seek forgiveness and be able to accept Jesus Christ’s willingness to not condemn us.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “God cares a lot more about who we are and who we are becoming than about who we once were.”5 Elder Renlund also shared an insightful statement frequently made by Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa: “I’m no saint—that is, unless you think a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”6
Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society General President, provided us with an instructive example of these principles:
“As three-year-old Alyssa watched a movie with her siblings, she remarked with a puzzled expression, ‘Mom, that chicken is weird!’
“Her mother looked at the screen and responded with a smile, ‘Honey, that is a peacock.’
“Like that unknowing three-year-old, we sometimes look at others [and ourselves] with an incomplete or inaccurate understanding. We may focus on the differences and perceived flaws … whereas our Heavenly Father sees His children, created in His eternal image, with magnificent and glorious potential.”7
As Sister Bingham learned from a dear friend, “The greatest form of charity may be to withhold judgment.”8
Our own sins and lack of perfect understanding disqualify us from being able to pass final judgments on anyone, including ourselves. We must, however, make constant intermediate judgments. We are to righteously judge actions, not condemn people. When those judgments are based on principles of righteousness, our focus will more fully turn to the Lord Jesus Christ. We will increasingly rely on His perfect judgment, mercy, and grace rather than on mortal accomplishments or imperfections as a basis for judging God, ourselves, and those around us.