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From the editor

A Habit We’d All Do Well To Break

We're reportedly living in the biggest election year in history. “More than half of humanity will live in a country holding a nationwide vote,” The Atlantic noted in January. That’s a lot of pressure on one year. And most of us feel it, too. At stake is even more than political office. Our relationships with each other can quickly come under stress.

After our last presidential election, the Institute for Family Studies reported, the American National Election Survey (ANES) asked how much political disagreement affected families. Though the majority of surveyed Americans in 2021 reported their relationships were not affected at all by political disagreement (66 percent), 10 percent reported “a moderate amount” of harm, 18 percent said “a little,” and the remaining six percent were either affected “a lot” or “a great deal.” Years like this take a toll.

And we expect it, too: “It’s ugly out there,” the American Psychological Association said in January. Predictions of a “tense” 2024 aren’t uncommon.

How do Christians enter a year like this? It’s complicated. And it’s not. Today in Common Good Monthly, Emma Wilkins reflects on judgment — the kind that we bring to others, and often far too quickly. “How inclined we are,” Wilkins writes, “as human beings, to judge, even with no grounds, no evidence. We judge each other’s motives and behaviors, words, and even tastes. We do this … unthinkingly.” A “tense” year puts many of us on high alert. But to take little to no evidence and assign fault to another’s character — it’s a habit we’d all do well to break. — Sarah Haywood, managing editor

Before explaining how to read rhythm on a page, my children’s piano teacher gave the class a challenge. She asked the kids to walk around the room without consistent steps — no repetition and no pattern. If you’ve never tried this, try it now. You might find you have to hop and skip and jump to keep your feet from falling — unintentionally, automatically, irresistibly — into a steady beat.

It’s a simple challenge. And it’s absurdly difficult. It shows that when we’re walking normally, we do so rhythmically, and unthinkingly. Even if we walk unevenly, our steps still fall predictably: ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. It’s natural, effortless.

That same week, I’d been thinking about how inclined we are, as human beings, to judge, even with no grounds, no evidence. We judge each other’s motives and behaviors, words, and even tastes. We do this naturally, and unthinkingly, as well.

​​A criticism I’ve often heard leveled at Christians is that they are self-righteous and judgmental. It’s both strange and sad that belief in such a higher power is often more closely associated with pride than with humility.

It’s especially strange when the Bible makes it clear that God is the only one equipped to judge with perfect knowledge and justice, the only one whose view isn’t clouded by ignorance, mixed motives, planks, or specks. The Bible also warns that in judging others we invite God’s judgement on ourselves; the measure we use will be measured to us.

The call to resist judging others if we don’t desire to be judged reminds me of the warning that, if we don’t forgive others their sins, it’s hypocritical to expect God to forgive ours.

If we unfairly label another person “judgmental,” we earn the label ourselves. It’s a challenge to us all. Feeling judged is not the same as being judged — and yet the feeling often leads us to call judgmental even those we think are looking down on us. Perhaps they are. But it’s possible they’re not. A person might have a furrowed brow for any number of reasons, and we may be the ones making it about us.

There’s a parable I used to struggle with, about a farmer hiring laborers for his field. In the morning, he offers people a fixed sum to labor for the day. They agree the sum is fair and get to work.

The day goes on; he hires still more workers. Yet at the day’s end, he pays everyone the same. This used to seem unfair to me. But if the work is an honor and a joy — if the workers aren’t hired based on merit, and the payment is an undeserved gift — it’s not at all unfair. Besides, what right have I to judge the farmer if he chooses to be generous? Or to judge those who, for reasons I can’t know or understand, arrive later in the day?

If the farmer wants to measure payment not based on our (scarce) virtues or (feeble) toil, who am I to question him? When I stop and think about it, I don’t want the wages I deserve; I’d rather have the gift.

You don’t have to be religious to resolve to judge less, and extend the benefit of the doubt more. You might not fear that the measure you use will be measured unto you — but you don’t have to be a “person of the Book” to believe that “doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you” is a goal worth pursuing.

And if you do believe that, at the end of the day, God has canceled all your debt and given you life to the full — you have even more reason to be gracious. The Bible says that God’s own son — who unlike us had every right to be exalted — humbled himself. How much must those who claim to follow him do the same?

When pondering judgement and how readily we judge, I am also reminded of the fall: the tale of people who, when tempted to judge good and evil for themselves, succumb to the temptation. Their maker knows it won’t end well — but they don’t heed his warning. They choose to eat the forbidden fruit instead.

Could this story shed some light on why judging comes so very easily to us? On why we find it nearly impossible to keep in mind our blind spots and our biases, our mixed motives, our pride? And could it give reason for our tendency to presume our view is right? Resisting these natural tendencies is difficult. It takes concerted effort. Like walking without rhythm, like holding in your breath.

And yet, how wonderful it is, when we’re expecting to be judged, and the person who’s observing us remembers their own bias, fortune, flaws, or ignorance. How wonderful it is when that person, instead of doing what comes naturally — ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum — skips a beat.

Even more wonderful is not expecting judgement when we die; not because we don’t deserve it but because our loving judge has made a way — has offered, also longs — to take our place.