Godtalk: A Matter of Judgement












The single, most often quoted line from Pope Francis perhaps,  is his reply to a question he was asked vis-à-vis the morality of a particularly sensitive issue: ‘Who am I to judge?’  This remark might seem evasive or less-than-serious.  In fact it is on safe ground.  Jesus says that ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, (but so that the world might be saved through him).’ John 3.17

That doesn’t mean there are no moral judgments, that our actions are indifferent to moral scrutiny. There is judgment; but it doesn’t work the way it is often imagined. According to what Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel, judgment works like this.

God’s light, God’s truth, and God’s spirit come into the world. We judge ourselves according to how we live in the face of this. God’s light has come into the world, but we can choose to live in darkness.  That’s our decision, our judgment:  God’s truth has been revealed, but we can choose to live in falsehood, in lies.  God’s spirit has come into the world, but we can prefer to live outside that spirit. That too is our judgment. God judges no one. We judge ourselves.

So we can also say that God condemns no one, though we can condemn ourselves: and God punishes no one, but we can punish ourselves.  We feel the brand of our own actions inside us. How we judge ourselves by the Holy Spirit is one example. St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Galatians, describes the Holy Spirit in terms so clear that they can only be thought abstract and ambiguous by some self-serving rationalisation. 

So as to make things clear Paul sets up a contrast by first telling us what the Holy Spirit is not. The spirit of God, he tells us is not the spirit of self-indulgence, sexual vice, jealousy, rivalry, antagonism, bad temper, quarrels, drunkenness, or factionalism.
If we are showing this in our lives, we should not delude ourselves into thinking we are living in God’s spirit, no matter how sincere or pious our religious practice.  The Holy Spirit, he tells us, is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Only when we are living these virtues are we living in God’s spirit.

So this is how judgment happens: God’s spirit (charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and chastity) has been revealed. We can choose to live in the virtues of that spirit or we can choose to live in their opposites (self-indulgence, sexual vice, rivalry, antagonism, bad temper, quarrels, drunkenness, and factionalism). One choice leads to a life with God, the other leads away from God. And that choice is ours to make; it doesn’t come from outside. We judge ourselves. God judges no one, doesn’t need to.

When we view things in this perspective it also clarifies a number of misunderstandings that cause confusion in the minds of believers as well as in the minds of their critics. How often, for instance, do we hear; ‘If God is all-good, all-loving, and all-merciful, how can God condemn someone to hell for all eternity?’ A valid question, though not a very reflective one. 

Because God judges no one,  God punishes no one. God condemns no one to hell. We do these things to ourselves.  We judge ourselves, we punish ourselves, and we put ourselves in various forms of hell whenever we choose not to live in the light, the truth, and in God’s spirit. And that judgment, that punishment is self-inflicted.

There are a number of lessons in this.  As we have just seen, the fact that God judges no one, helps deflate all those misunderstandings surrounding God’s mercy and the accusation that an all-merciful God can condemn someone to eternal hellfire.
Beyond this, it is a challenge to us to be less judgmental in our lives, to let the wheat and the weeds sort themselves out over time, to let light itself judge darkness, to let truth itself judge falsehood, and like Pope Francis, to be less quick to offer judgments in God’s name and more prone to say: “Who am I to judge?”

Peter Knott SJ