Judge Righteous Judgment

Written by  //  July 30, 2013  //  THOUGHTS  //  1 Comment

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When I was 3 or 4 years old, my brothers and I were in our neighbor’s backyard playing with our friend and his dog – a dalmatian. I wanted to pet the animal, but didn’t feel confident about doing so. My brothers and our friend calmed the dog and coaxed me over, reassuring me that, if I were to pet the dog, everything would be okay. As I began to stroke the dog’s back, I believe I touched a sore spot that irritated the dog. Before I knew what was happening, the dog had whirled around with a great snarl and was clenching my hand between its teeth, bearing down.

I don’t remember much of what happened at that point, but I can imagine that I was sobbing inconsolably at the traumatic nature of the event. My brothers rushed me home and I was tended to by my mother, who ran cold water over my hand to soothe the pain and settle my emotions. Thankfully, the dog had not broken the skin. I remember my brothers kept saying that I had been “waffled.” They repeated this over and over: “He just got waffled. He’s okay. The dog bit him, but it didn’t break the skin. He just waffled his hand.”

At the time, I had no idea what that meant. I knew what waffles were. I liked waffles! The dog biting me was nothing like delicious waffles. What did this mean?

Reflecting on the experience twenty years later or so, it finally occurred to me that my brothers were referencing the indentations that the dog’s teeth had left in my skin. The dog had not broken my skin, but had only bore down enough to leave teeth marks resembling the holes of a waffle. As I thought about the importance of this distinction and why they kept repeating this over and over again, I realized that their intent was to firmly establish the degree to which the dog had misbehaved.

Yes, it was true, the dog had bitten me inappropriately, but in a way that had not done lasting damage. Imagine what would have happened if the dog had broken the skin: an incident like that may have prompted my parents to call animal control to report the dog. Depending on how severe the situation was, lasting consequences could have been leveled against the dog or its owners. Perhaps the officials would have even caused the animal to be put down. An outcome like that would have been far more severe than the wounds inflicted on my hand.

Thankfully, that’s not what had happened. The dog had not broken my skin, but had only left teeth marks. Traumatic, yes, but far less serious. My brothers, knowing that what had occurred, while unfortunate, would be very easy to confuse for something far more severe, were desperately trying to establish the true nature of the incident by repeatedly referring to the “waffling.” Although they had appropriate concern for my well-being, they were also intent on protecting the dog from undue consequences: “The dog bit him, but it didn’t break the skin. He just waffled his hand.”

What I see now, that I could not see then, was that my brothers were standing up for justice in a precarious situation where the slightest misinterpretation could have had dire consequences. In other words, they were following the Savior’s admonition to “judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

The importance of judging righteous judgement cannot be understated. It is true that in the Sermon on the Mount, the Savior also taught “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” However, He then added, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” Taken with the admonition in John 7 to “judge righteous judgement,” it is clear that Christ’s teaching to “Judge not, that ye be not judged” is meant to steer us clear of exercising unrighteous judgement. In doing so, we avoid being unrighteously judged ourselves. This is a fundamentally different reading of the principle than what is often erroneously taught, which is to say that we should never exercise judgment at all.

Rather, the two principles, taken together, can be appropriately dovetailed as: “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged, but judge righteous judgment.”

As a young professional, I had the opportunity to sit on our university’s student disciplinary council, which was an extremely rewarding experience. Students that violate the established code of conduct report to the council to plead their case and to receive admonition and sanctioning. The council is comprised of several students and several staff and faculty members. During deliberations, all members of the council are given an opportunity to voice their opinions and advocate for one level of sanctioning or another, based on the nature and seriousness of the violations. After all opinions have been expressed, votes are taken, and the outcome is decided and finalized.

I have often been impressed with the nature of this process, as it is rarely a straightforward path leading to a clear solution. Often, disagreement about the issue at hand springs up and must be worked out between council members. Sometimes the conclusions are unanimous and other times the council’s decision hinges on a single vote.

While this process could easily be frustrating or even produce discouraging outcomes, I have been generally pleased with the body’s proceedings in my time as a council member. I have also noticed that the council functions most reliably when the decisions are being made out of love for the accused, from a standpoint of humility and understanding, rather than of pride and vengeance.

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” To clarify, a mote is a piece of sawdust and a beam is a large plank of wood.

Just like my brothers stood up for our neighbor’s dog, we must be ready and willing to seek justice and also honor mercy for the accused to ensure that appropriate sanctioning is adminstered. This approach is not only in the best interest of those we find ourselves needing to exercise righteous judgment over, but also has immediate consequences for us as well. Jesus clearly states: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” This principle is explained in no better way than by the following parable found in Matthew 18:

“Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

“But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.

“Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

“And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”

As demonstrated in the parable, we can choose to be judgmental, or we can choose to exercise righteous judgment. And that choice has a direct impact on us, probably more than we can understand. For, as the Savior taught, it is our own words that will condemn us: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” The prophet Alma also added, “For that which ye do send out shall return unto you again…”

Because of a slight misreading of the Savior’s teachings in Matthew, many people shy away from exercising righteous judgment when they witness injustice being perpetrated. This is an unfortunate outcome. Pursuing righteous judgment means honoring the losses of the victim, while maintaining love and compassion for the one who has done wrong. In fact, we should not only feel open to opportunities to engage in righteous judgment, but should accept that such experiences are necessary for our growth and development towards being more Christlike.

The first chapter of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount concludes with the commandment to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” The use of the word “therefore” in this statement has led some religious scholars to conclude (appropriately, I think) that Jesus has just finished laying out the steps that lead toward perfection: “Be ye therefore perfect…” Specifically, as was explained to me by a very wise teacher named Vernon Moon, the listing of the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are the meek,” etc.) are actually progressive steps towards the perfection that we are commanded to pursue.

Beginning with being poor in spirit and continuing through being persecuted for the Savior’s sake, the Lord is encouraging us to be ever more faithful and ever more like Him. It is important to note that, right in the middle of this staircase to perfection, the principle of being merciful appears, with the accompanying promise that those who are merciful will, in turn, be treated with mercy: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” This statement is a companion principle to the one stated in the third chapter of the same sermon: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.”

In other words, one cannot exercise righteous judgment without simultaneously ensuring that they, themselves, will receive righteous judgment. Similarly, those who engage in generous amounts of mercy can be assured that they will obtain the same for themselves. That isn’t the reason that we should do it, however, but it is a comforting reminder that God does operate using this specific form of karma-like judgment and mercy.

While being both a righteous and merciful judge has significant challenges, but is something that we can all pursue more diligently in our efforts to follow Christ’s example. I can think of few better examples of this principal than an interaction that the prophet Joseph Smith, serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, had with a citizen of the city:

“[A] man named Anthony was arrested for selling liquor on Sunday, contrary to law. He pleaded that the reason he had done so was that he might raise the money to purchase the liberty of a dear child held as a slave in a Southern State. He had been able to purchase the liberty of himself and his wife and now wished to bring his little child to their new home. Joseph said, ‘I am sorry, Anthony, but the law must be observed and we will have to impose a fine.’ The next day, Joseph presented Anthony with a fine horse, directing him to sell it, and use the money obtained for the purchase of the child” (Young Woman’s Journal, p.538).

This story is an excellent and shining example of both justice and mercy being satisfied. In the spirit of being both just and merciful, we should never shy away from the opportunity to stand up for the right and ensure that we appropriately consider how to righteously and mercifully judge those who are at fault. We can do no less if we expect the same for ourselves at the judgment seat of God. Indeed, it is my testimony that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ can confidently welcome the opportunity to “judge righteous judgment,” along with an appropriate helping of mercy, with a sure knowledge that they themselves will be judged according to the same standard. In other words, the golden rule can be a guiding light to us as we pursue justice and mercy in our actions with our fellowmen, in addition to all other interactions we have with them.

In other words, “Thou shalt love [and judge] thy neighbour as thyself” …even if that neighbor happens to be a dalmatian.

One Comment on "Judge Righteous Judgment"

  1. Theresa Davis July 31, 2013 at 1:07 pm ·

    Mitchell, these are fine words to live by. This was a kind and noble act by your brothers, and the modern day prophet, Joseph Smith.

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