The Error of His Ways

Who am I to judge?

James 5:20

Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.

“Judge not, lest you be judged,”[1] we are told directly from the Bible. And yet, we are also told that we should correct people when they are wrong and work with the Holy Spirit to convert sinners. But… how do we know if someone is wrong or a sinner in need of conversion if we aren’t supposed to judge? The conflict here, I believe, arises from a confusion in language – not a confusion in moral guidelines.

First of all, what does it mean to be a sinner?

And, second of all, what does it mean to judge?

Every one of us is a sinner. How do I know? Because we are human – not divine. We have been divinely created with the gift of free will and that means that, sometimes, we choose poorly. To sin is to miss the mark of our full potentials, of the ideal – to choose poorly. Now, sometimes, we can choose poorly by making an innocent mistake and, in this case, our “sin” is less severe and we are less culpable for it (it’s easier to get back on the right path.) But, then, there are other times when we know that we shouldn’t do something (because it isn’t good for us or for someone else) and, yet, we choose to do it anyway. This second scenario is certainly more serious, but in both cases, we are committing sins by heading in the wrong direction – away from truth, away from love, away from goodness… and, so, away from God. If we continue making decisions that take us down inferior paths, straying further and further from who we are created to be, further and further away from God who is truth, love, and goodness itself, then we will have failed our souls, the very essence of we are. And that’s not good.

So… what if we see someone that we love making bad decisions and straying further and further away from love and goodness? Do we throw up our hands saying, “Who am I to judge?” Or do we try to help them? So many times, Christians are accused of being judgmental. The Catholic religion is sometimes seen as a system of harsh judgments imposed on people. But the people who think this way simply don’t understand the true meaning of Christian correction. Of course, there will be people in every religion who are, no doubt, overly critical and condemning, but I want to look at the Christian religion as a whole.

In Christianity, the right kind of “judging” is a prayerful and compassionate discerning of God’s ways – in our actions as well as the actions of others. Who among us would judge the murder of a child as the right thing to do, as what God wants us to do? Is it loving? Is it kind? (You know… as I’m writing this, I’m thinking that I should have written “the murder of a healthy child”, since some claim an act of mercy when putting a disabled child “out of her misery” – and I think that I will probably have to also add “the murder of a healthy child who has already been born”. How sad is it that I’m having a hard time phrasing this bad act so that everyone can agree that it’s bad?!) Is the willful, systematic torturing of a four-year-old a good thing? Can’t we, at least, all come together on this and judge – yes, judge – it as a bad act that should not be committed? Who are we to judge? We are human beings. We are compassionate human beings who want to help those who are suffering. So, we should judge the bad act and remove the victim from the control of the perpetrator, and we should protect other children by making sure that the perpetrator doesn’t hurt anyone else. As good Christians, we should also give the perpetrator the help that he or she needs in order to make better choices and to stop cruelly missing the mark of love. Yes, our “judgments” must be designed to help. We are to love one another. And we cannot love one another if we let each other stray and stumble down dark and dismal paths without breathing one word of warning or correction.

To put in a simple way…

You love your child. Do you let your child run out into traffic to play? Your child is happily and willingly running out into the middle of the street – what do you do? Do you spoil your child’s fun by yelling out “Don’t!”? Or, do you let your child figure things out for herself – after all, who are you to say what should or should not be done? You make mistakes, often, yourself.

Of course, if you truly love your child, then you will instruct your child not to run out into the middle of the street. You will inform your children about the dangers of cars and traffic so that they will know what NOT to do. And, if they forget or ignore your wisdom, you will correct them – even if that means yelling so that you can be heard or pulling them by the arm so that they don’t get hit by an oncoming vehicle. You do these things because you love.

Applying this to the larger world, to society, I can hear the argument that this is good for a child. But, adults need to be allowed to make their own decisions, right or wrong. Well… I have a friend who smokes cigarettes. She also has allergies and asthma that requires an inhaler. She knows that she shouldn’t smoke – but she does it anyway. Should I agree with her when she says that one cigarette a day isn’t that bad? If she is truly my friend, and I lovingly care about her, then I will not agree to that. No, I’m not going to bash her over the head with her poor decision again and again every time I see her – but I am going to gently remind her, every time she is wheezing or coughing, how much better she would feel without smoking and how much healthier she would be. Sometimes, with just a loving and pitying look. She knows.

Everyone needs help. If I see a man in the street talking to his wife as if she’s nothing but dirt and then hitting her, will I just stand by, mute, thinking, “Who am I to judge?” Or will I take action to help both the wife and the abusive man? I am certainly not doing God’s work, I am certainly not being a kind person, if I do absolutely nothing to help. I need to make a judgment. I need to take action. If I don’t… well, then, I am not a good Christian. I am a wuss. And worse, I am an enabler of violence.

So, what is Christianity to do in the world? We, as people in a society, regardless of religion, should be able to identify bad acts that are hurtful to people and do what we can to help. But, we don’t always. We trip over ourselves trying not to offend anyone, trying not to be too “judgmental”. And the bad acts multiply. The Church wants to be clear. There are paths that people can walk upon that are destructive – not only to others, but also to the people walking along them. And the Church wants to do everything possible to help people get off of the paths of destruction and get onto the path of life. Although we can say that full conversion would be conversion to Christianity, the first conversion, very often, must be to humanity. Recognize when people are straying from the fullness of being human – from love, goodness, decency, compassion, kindness – and help them back to the fullness. Help them to see the error of their ways, to reconcile relationships broken and damaged by bad behavior, and to deal with emotions and past experiences in a constructive way that will lead to healing and wholeness. This is what Christ teaches. (This is who Christ is.) And anyone who wants to live the Christian life must take up the mission of Christ and not shrug shoulders in a completely misplaced idea of mercy that is actually only apathy.

While we are helping others, we must make sure that we, ourselves, are keeping to the path of love and goodness – that we are always acting in selfless compassion, strong in the truth, strong in love, ever kind, ever generous, and always gentle when needed. Full conversion comes when we bring Christ to people who are suffering (and who among us isn’t suffering in some way?) bringing Christ by being like Christ. And when those who need help witness and experience the joyful, loving way in which we give help… well, that is the path of the Holy Spirit and, as we follow Christ, we will lead by example. That’s what Christianity is and does.

© 2014 Christina Chase

[1] Matthew 7:1

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