The Perils of Misunderstanding Judgment

 Yesterday, Greg Trimble posted a response to critiques of his earlier article on the coming “revolution” in the Church. Although I had nothing to do with those critiques, I wanted to respond to Greg’s post yesterday.

Greg misread the responses to his article.

Greg misinterpreted the criticism he received. The authors of the posts responding to him (as I understand them) were not asking to not be judged for judging. They, too, believe that self-righteous judgmentalism is a sin. Nor are they advocating for unkindness, gossip, or mean-spiritedness, or self-righteousness.

What they are asking is that judgmentalism not be treated as the only sin (or the worst of all possible sins), or as a sin that is exempt from itself. When condemning self-righteous judgmentalism, it is easy to commit it — and it’s also easy to trivialize other sins in the process. In fact, that’s what so much of the “non-judgment” rhetoric going around right now does: it treats all other sins as trivial compared to the sin of judgment.

That’s the main point of the articles that were responding to Greg. And he seems to have missed that point and straw-manned those articles instead. He responded defensively, rather than charitably, rather than striving to understand the views of those who were responding to him. Instead, he further rallies his readers against the awful judgers.

Greg is wrong that all judgment is bad.

Not all judgment is self-righteous judgment. There is such a thing as plain-old righteous judgment. So Greg is simply wrong when he implies that the Savior said that judging is never good, or always wrong. Joseph Smith did not believe that all judgment was bad. In fact, he translated Christ’s words differently: “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment.” Greg should know this.

Dallin H. Oaks does not believe that all forms of judgment were bad. In fact, he gave a whole talk on it. It’s a very well known talk that distinguishes between different forms of judgment (some acceptable, some not). Greg should be aware of this talk. So when Greg implies that all forms of judgment are bad, he is actually (unwittingly, perhaps) contradicting leaders of the Church, and even Joseph Smith himself. Jeffrey R. Holland made a clear distinction between loving others and trivializing sin. We must do the one without doing the other. He wrote:

Christlike love is the greatest need we have on this planet in part because righteousness was always supposed to accompany it. So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others.

Of course we should be compassionate. Of course we should be merciful. Christ was clear: those who do not extend mercy and compassion will not receive it. But that is not the same thing as refusing to label sin for what it is. So why, today, do so many seem to think that it is?

Expressive individualism is taking over American religion.

The answer may actually lie (in part) in the popularization of expressive individualism. Expressive individualism assumes that personal authenticity is our highest priority, and that moral autonomy is the highest good. In other words, a good life requires that we be true to ourselves, and this requires the freedom to decide what is right for ourselves, independent of institutions such as family, church, or society.

From this view, social norms and institutions that make people feel bad for living as they wish undermine human happiness. An example of this view is the work of the psychologist Carl Rogers, who argued that human discontent stems from expectations of family, church, or culture that lead us to project a false image to the world. Living this way leads to anxiety, depression, and a sense that we are unlovable and defective. Healing, in this view, requires us to break free from the shackles of ‘oughts’ and ‘thou shalts,’ and embrace what we have hidden from others.

Rogers claimed that when people hide behind facades because of cultural and social expectations, the best way for a therapist to respond is to provide unconditional positive regard. This means an environment free of judgment of any kind, positive or negative. Positive judgment implies that the person is doing what they “should,” and negative judgment implies that they are doing what they should not. Unconditional positive regard is an environment free of “shoulds” altogether.

Roger’s theory was translated into popular literature as “unconditional love” (a term rarely used before the 1960s, when Rogers developed his theory — seriously, take a look). Because of this conceptual baggage, unconditional love is coming to be seen as incompatible with norms or moral teachings that imply that individuals ought to live differently than they do. (Some better terms might include divine love, love unfeigned, everlasting love, redeeming love, abiding love — all of which connote that God loves even the most sinful of us, but without the Rogerian baggage.)

Over time, expressive individualism has given birth to what some refer to as a new American religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In this view, God is something like a Cosmic Therapist: His purpose is to help us feel happy about ourselves and our lives. To this end, He offers us unconditional love (meaning, freedom from judgment). From this view, institutions and norms that tell us how we “ought” to live are incompatible with unconditional love, because they make people feel bad for living differently.

The Gospel offers an alternative to expressive individualism.

However, as one author writes: “The God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks, not just for commitment, but for our very lives. The God of the Bible traffics in life and death, not niceness, and calls for sacrificial love, not benign whatever-ism.” The truth is, it is because of His perfect, infinite love that He gives us commandments to follow. Paul taught, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.” The Lord further told John, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:19).

This sort of love is a far cry from the unconditional positive regard of expressive individualism. When we genuinely love others, we don’t become indifferent to their sins and shortcomings. We feel joy when others change their lives for the better, and sorrow when they alienate themselves from God. Compassion for those mired in sin does not overlook sin — it recognizes it for what it is.

Greg included a fantastic quote from Joseph Smith in his post. However, the quote is incomplete. Here’s another part of the quote from Joseph Smith:

Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.

If we are to strive to be like God, we must embrace both halfs of his character. We must try to be both perfectly loving and perfectly discerning. And it is because we see sin for what it is — because we understand the gravity of sin — that, “The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”

Lately, love has come to be defined as indifference. However, love is not indifference, and indifference is not love. We should love people whether or not they sin. We should love them in their sins. But love is not indifferent to sin, any more than it is indifferent to the flu, or to cancer, or any physical ailment. Another way to put it is that love is not blind to sin. We cannot “cast their sins behind our backs” by refusing to see sin at all. That would not be love.

We should be patient with others, refrain from needless criticism, and help those who wander feel wanted and valued within our congregations. We should create a community where God’s abiding love is unmistakable — a bonfire of redeeming love that warms those who have felt alienated from God.

But we recognize that in a covenant community, traditions and norms help structure our expectations of each other, and can reinforce God’s expectations of us. Dismantling these norms in the name of “unconditional love” might not actually be love at all, but normalized indifference. We must teach that God loves everyone, no matter how far we have wandered. We must not teach that God does not care about our wandering.

A heresy is spreading like an epidemic.

The heresy grows out of expressive individualism, and is this: “We cannot know what is right or wrong for others — only ourselves.” This heresy is often initially justified by saying that we cannot know the hearts and minds of others. We are judged by God according to our light and knowledge, and we cannot know how culpable others are. And to a great extent, this is complete true. We must be merciful in our judgment of others.

But this rhetoric is more and more frequently being used as a cover for expressive individualism. Here’s an example from a former bishop and lifelong member of the church:

Could Gay Marriage be the right choice for some? I don’t have the ability to answer this question as I don’t the right path for others. However, I’ve had many share their believe this is the right road for them (some after reporting deep spiritual confirmations)… Yes, it is outside of my beliefs … but I accept their decision … it isn’t my job to prescribe the correct road for others. I trust that they best know the right path for them.

In this case, this person is excusing a blindness to sin in the name of non-judgment and love. We can say that some things are just wrong. For example, adultery is wrong. It is a violation of moral law. It is a violation of trust. It will bring heartache and pain no matter how “accountable” the person who does it. And so we can and should condemn adultery without hesitation (even as we embrace those who are striving to repent of it with mercy and love).

That doesn’t mean we mistreat those who have committed it. That doesn’t mean we don’t reach out with loving patience towards those who are trying to repent of it. That doesn’t mean we single people out who have committed it.

But it does mean that I can leave from a party where someone was bragging about their extramarital sexual indiscretions, and say to my wife, “Was it just me, or was that pretty messed up?” And when I do that, I’m not being a self-righteous judger. I’m acknowledging grave sin for what it is. Yes, we can know what is right or wrong for others in many cases.

A matter of stewardship and timing.

Stewardship matters in ministerial activities. The Spirit can help people feel loved even as they are counseled and warned by those in stewardship. But even the best of intentions can fall flat or be misinterpreted, especially if stewardship is breached. The Spirit flees when stewardship is breached.

It’s perfectly fine to see that someone who regularly shops at the mall with his family on Sunday, and think, “That’s not really living Church teachings. I hope better for them in the future,” and then to go on our way without giving it more thought than that. We all sin in our own ways. There’s nothing inherently self-righteous about acknowledging in our minds the sins of others (and ourselves, for that matter).

It’s another thing entirely to call them out on it in inappropriate ways, or to gossip about it, or to think ourselves superior people for it. Or to single out “shopping at the mall with our family” in a talk while staring them in the eyes from the pulpit with a self-righteous smirk on our face. All of that is precisely the judgmentalism that Greg is worried about. And he’s right to be worried about it.

But giving a talk on the importance of the Sabbath, under the direction of the bishop, and including in that talk the prophetic counsel to avoid commercial activities on Sunday, is perfectly fine. There’s judgment there, because we are stating that certain behaviors on the sabbath are to be avoided. But it’s righteous judgment, not self-righteous judgment, if our hearts are in the right place.

Norms are vitally important, but they have a side effect…

Norms are shared expectations that we have of each other. They are commonplace, and guide our activities on a daily basis. We don’t notice most of them; they can be invisible to us until someone violates them. But they are very, very powerful. Some psychology teachers will have students violate commonplace norms to illustrate the power of norms. For example, they’ll tell students to stand in the elevator facing backwards. It will make others feel awkward.

When any behavior becomes commonplace — or nearly universal — psychologically, it is almost inevitable that they will become norms. If everyone always, every day wore a green shirt, the person who wears a red shirt is going to feel out of place. This is true even if there was no moral prescription to wear green shirts, and even if nobody really cared about the red shirt or mentioned it. They will still feel out of place.

I sometimes think of Zion as a community where God’s laws are normed, which means they have risen from an abstract ideal and have become shared expectations and commonplace behaviors. This is a good thing. This is what we are striving for.

And in that world, those who live differently are going to feel out of place. Despite all of our best efforts to make them feel loved and welcomed, they are going to feel noticed for their differences. This does not mean the community has failed. It’s a fact of human psychology.

Lots of times, when someone has been knowingly violating God’s laws, they will feel judged by others in the community. Sometimes, there are mean-spirited remarks, gossip, and other forms of unkindness — and this is wrong. It has no place in a Zion community. But other times, there’s none of that, but sometimes the person will feel judged anyways. Those who disappoint shared expectations will feel bad — even if nobody even mentions it or says a single unkind thing about it. It’s built into human psychology.

So what do we do? We work to help them feel welcome and wanted. We assure them that we need them in the community. And when we have stewardship to do so, we invite them to change their ways (as needed). We continue to teach appropriate Gospel standards in our lessons and sermons. And we look upon those who struggle with compassion, embrace them, and “cast their sins behind our backs.”

But here’s what we shouldn’t do: dismantle the norms. We should develop shared expectations of each other that promote good conduct. Norms help “scaffold” our efforts to live God’s laws. We are building a community, for example, where it’s normative that people are faithful in marriage. Where it’s normative that fathers stay with their families. Where it’s normative that people treat the Sabbath as a holy day. Where it’s normative that we do our home and visiting teaching. And yes, this means that those who do not to do those things are going to feel bad at times, even if we do everything right along the way (e.g, we are kind, merciful, etc.).

And encouraging these norms is something all of us can do, if we do it tactfully and prayerfully, without self-righteousness. Here’s a great (fictional) example of someone who does just that (this is from the movie War Room). When the friend character learns that the main character is participating in questionable behavior, he has several opportunities to let it go, to drop the matter, to smooth over the social interaction. He could have shrugged said, “I can only know what is right for me, I can’t say what’s right for you.” But if he did, he would not be a true friend.

At each conversational exchange, the friend character doesn’t drop the matter. He addresses it directly. And by doing so, he is the husband character’s true friend. He is playing the role of Christ in this exchange, as we all should. And in so doing, he is helping to encourage norms of good behavior. He is also “judging.” And in this context, it’s exactly what was needed, even if our main character did not take it well at the time, or felt “judged.” Is it possible to do it wrong? YES. Many people do. But is it also possible to do it right? YES. And we need more of that. We need more righteous judgment.


Greg may read this and conclude that this is just another example of the “elaborate blog posts” used to “downplay and deflect the severe damage one can do to other members of the church because of their incessant judging and criticizing of others.” But he’d be misreading this entire post if he did. Because I’m not advocating any sort of incessant criticizing or mistreatment of others.

What I’m saying is that there are those who are using the rhetoric of non-judgment to convey the heresy that love is indifferent to sin, blind to sin, or that if someone feels bad for doing something bad, they are feeling unloved. Love is incompatible with self-righteous judgment. But love is not incompatible with righteous judgment. And there’s a difference between the two. Greg may only be referring to the former, and if so, that’s great! But he condemned (and labeled) those who were referring to the latter as if they were advocating for the former. And that’s not so great.

The truth is, all of us have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And one of the purposes of the Church is to continually remind us of this. To continually remind us of our need for Christ. To provide a support network that helps us to keep God’s commandments. The Church is not a playground for saints, but a hospital for sinners. But who needs hospitals? The sick. We need to see the Church as a place for sinners, a place for the sick.

But that also means that we need to see sin as sickness. And that entails at least some (non-self-righteous) judging.

18 thoughts on “The Perils of Misunderstanding Judgment

  1. Great post.
    I would add that while we make individual covenants with God, He makes group covenants. Abraham covenanted with God, but God’s return promise was towards Abraham And his seed.
    Baptism is performed one person at a time, but it is a community covenant. The same with priesthood and temple covenants.

    Life is not about finding ourselves with the Great Therapist guiding us. Life is about finding our true spiritual self thru Christ, and becoming One with the Godhead and with the community of Holy Zion.

  2. Love this post!

    One a side note, I’ve noticed it’s rarely helpful when bloggers respond to the critics of their work in the form of another blog. Those kind of posts are generally defensive in nature and only add fuel to the fire. Usually it’s better to let the piece speak for itself and move on.

  3. Very well said! Thank you for expressing much of what is missing in the current dialogue in LDS writing.

  4. Thanks. This entire kerfuffle is full of irony, which is the part of my “elaborate blog post” that was obviously misunderstood.

  5. Many times I have reproved with sharpness. I’m not sure I’ve ever been moved upon by the HG to do so.

  6. This is obviously not the place for me to be hanging out… but I hope the Lord blesses each of you. 🙂

  7. Hey, we love you man! You’re free to hang out here any time. Most of us at M* (readers and bloggers) follow you with interest because you do a lot of awesome stuff. Otherwise we wouldn’t give you so much attention.

    I was personally thinking it’d be cool for you to do a plug for your book about fatherhood, as a guest post here, if you are willing.

  8. Greg, as one who shared this post, I want you to know that we want you to feel free to hang out here.

  9. Greg Trimble, unlike many of the other blogs in the Mormon blog world, you will not be insulted here. You are welcome to disagree politely with anything LDSP wrote, and you may find that you actually agree with some of the things he wrote. Please feel free to comment or to write a guest post.

  10. I read this post first without having read Greg Trimble’s blog “The Big Problem With People Who Justify Judging Others” which ldsphilosopher was responding to. I took the ldsphilosopher’s thoughts for what I thought they were saying, not being concerned about who’s ideas he was trying to correct. I felt the vast majority of his thoughts were very insightful resonating with me in places and educating me in others. Thanks! I then went to Greg’s article and read it. The vast majority of his thoughts were meaningful to me. A few statements seemed a little un-nuanced and could have used some clarification, but I think I understood the intent of his message and agreed with them in spirit. Thanks, Greg! I appreciate both of these posts. To me they both have value and truth and I think in the end both authors if they sat down together and talked without the shackles of the writing medium would find themselves in close agreement.

  11. Greg, PLEASE feel welcome spending time here with us. I love your stuff. Two of my favorite posts of yours are the Letter to Carl’s Jr. (my wife and I don’t eat there anymore for the same reasons) and Quit Acting Like Christ Was Accepting of Everyone and Everything.

    I was in Stephen Robinson’s class once (the author of Believing Christ when he went on a digression about his friendship with Joseph Fielding McConkie (author of several books that strike the same strict tone that his father Bruce R. was known for). He said that when they would talk about grace or repentance or faith and works, they would often get after each other, saying things like, “But Joseph, if you say things like that, people will feel so bad about themselves that they’ll stop coming to church,” or, “But Stephen, if you say things like that, people will get so comfortable with sin and mediocrity that they’ll feel no impetus to repent.”

    Brother Robinson said, though, that when they would sit down and talk in detail about their apparent disagreements, taking the time to carefully define their terms and come up with specific examples, they found that 90% of their disagreements disappeared. They found they were using different language to describe what were actually very similar takes on the gospel. They just had different emphases. He said he found his own scholarship was improved by considering Brother McConkie’s caveats, and vice versa. He said he was glad for their friendship.

    I think if a McConkie and the author of Believing Christ can manage that, virtually any pair of good-willed Latter-day Saints can do it. 🙂

  12. Lemuel, if you’ve never been moved upon by the Holy Ghost to reprove with sharpness, that’s fine (I’d almost say, you’ve been blessed!). I just hope you’ve still been willing to reprove with gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.

  13. Hey Guys! Thanks for the encouraging comments. Sounds like you’ve got a good crew here and it’s great to hear that you can disagree with someone on one point and still love them for who they are in totality. That’s my kind of forum!

  14. Being judgmental or appearing to be judgmental might not be the root-problem or overall problem, but part of a bigger thing. Appearing judgmental is part of the bigger subject of interpersonal relationships and sociality. Are our relations with fellow ward members (or stake-wide, church-wide or online) what they should be? What about investigators, non-members or members-from-out-of-town visitors to church functions, how are they treated?

    The Brethren remind us at Gen Conf that many or most of us are not living up to our privileges. (Elder Uchtdorf’s talk with the cruise analogy comes to mind.)

    I’ve noticed a decrease in sociality at local levels compared to 30 years ago. Granted, my experience is a small sample. But people don’t come early or stay late to socialize as much as before. Some wards seem to drop the ball when it comes to interacting with investigators, visitors, recent converts, move-ins, singles, or people who appear to be “other” in any way.

    When the only interaction with other members is via callings or the perfunctory contact with the “assigned friend” of a HT/VT, a person or family can still feel isolated, looked-down-upon, or worse, shunned.

    A handshake and a howdy-do go a long way, but that’s impossible to do when people come in during sacrament meeting’s opening announcements, and zip out the door at first opportunity.

  15. So yeah, I think the Lord and the Brethren might do some adjustments, likely under the HT/VT umbrella, in PH/auxilliary activities, or in how Sunday meetings are handled.

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