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How Jesus Christ's Teachings to "Judge Not" Can Be Misunderstood

"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," writes Tyler J. Griffin, an Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. This article originally appeared in the February 2019 Ensign. Read the full article here.

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). 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).

Other Scriptures on Judging

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)

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