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The Difference Between Being “Judgmental” and Using Judgment

chairs“Don’t judge me!”

You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it.

Someone has judged you. Or you’ve been accused.

Maybe you judge bikers as being of a certain “kind.” And while I don’t know much about bikers, I know that many of them would die for one another out of loyalty. In many respects, that’s an admirable trait!

Being “judgmental” has become a loud and powerful phrase. Judgmental people think they are better than others, or holier than thou. Whatever being “judgmental” is, we don’t want to be it!

But I think the phrase has gotten a bit out of control. It seems that if you simply use judgment you can quickly be accused of being “judgmental.”

Let me explain what I mean.

We use judgment all the time. I don’t let my kids take rides with strangers. Does that mean I’m being judgmental and think that people who want to help kids are all malicious? Of course not. I’m using judgment.

That’s an easy one, and maybe even trite in the scope of this blog. But what about this:

A public school teacher here in Barrie sits for the national anthem at the start of each school day. In the presence of young kids, and when everyone else stands for O Canada, they sit. It’s a kind of protest. (I’ve talked to the principal but haven’t been able to figure out fully what’s going on. I know that I don’t know the whole story, but if I’m being respectful I don’t think that necessitates me being silent about it.)

A Canadian employee of the school board makes a decision to engage in an act of teaching (sitting in protest) when it seems to go against the school’s own code of conduct. Further, the national anthem is a symbol for the country. I lead Remembrance services each year and minister to veterans and their families. And ironically, this month’s “character trait” at the school is “courage,” and the kids just learned about the sacrifice and courage of thousands upon thousands of men and women who died in the horrors of war for the freedoms of our country.

And a teacher sits down during O Canada.

When I started this blog I wasn’t even thinking of this example. But it came to mind, and I think it’s a helpful one.

I think this teacher shouldn’t do this. I think if they have an issue with the national anthem or their country, they should find a way to express it in a way that isn’t an act of teaching in the presence of children (which sitting is), or that actively shows disrespect, or that contravenes the school’s own code of conduct.

Does this make me judgmental?

Some would say yes.

But no. I’m using my judgment. Here’s the difference.

In the popular sense, being judgmental is imagining you are on a judge’s bench passing final judgment on people—that because of who they are or a choice they make, that you are better than them.

Using judgment is thoughtfully expressing your opinion where a variety of opinions exist; we do this respectfully based on our learning and experience. We can learn from Ephesians 4:15 where the Ephesians are encouraged to speak “the truth in love.”

The difference between being judgmental and using judgment is vital if we are to have meaningful conversation in our increasingly diverse society. I can disagree with someone—and sometimes deeply disagree—and not be judgmental.

But I can use judgment. So can you.

You already do it all the time. You do it when you make 100 decisions each day about what constitutes right and wrong (for these are often the contours of how we shape our daily lives).

But we can often forget that when it comes to big ticket items that involve ourselves or other people—whether it be about how we parent, or various expressions of human sexuality, or different religions or worldviews, or abortion, or how we understand and interact with poverty, or a host of other ongoing conversations—having an opinion that is respectfully different can still quickly make us “judgmental.”

But alternatively, using judgment is thoughtfully expressing our opinion where a variety of opinions exist.

Writer Rick Warren has a good way of saying how we have, as a society, lost much of our capacity to dialogue and disagree respectfully:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

The truth is, I can never be judgmental (I don’t think!) because I’m no judge. I’m not better than anyone. If anything, I’m incredibly aware of my own flaws and how self-centered I can be. A newspaper once asked “What’s wrong with the world?” and GK Chesterton sent in this reply: “I am.”

I second that!

But my own imperfections don’t mean I can’t use my judgment and make decisions about what I feel is right. Whether that’s letting my kids take rides with strangers or expressing my dissent that a teacher in our public school system actively sits down during our national anthem.

In the end there’s only one Judge—and we’re not him. But “speaking the truth in love,” our voices can contribute to the unfolding symphony that is an increasingly complex and strange human existence.

Loving our neighbours is key. And this…

Our capacity to disagree may be one of the most telling markers of our maturity.

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13 Comments »

  1. Good Morning Matthew ….

    I love your blog and reading it every week as soon as you post ….

    Todays … interesting …. I have experienced this when I was out doing a workshop at a shool and had to do a little bit of digging …

    http://thejehovahswitnesses.org/flag.php

    Perhaps the teacher is a Jehovahs Witness …. The link explains their beliefs re: the National Anthem ….

    The school I was doing a presentation for … had 2 teachers that were Jehovahs Witnesses … the principal told me that they actually left the classroom during the playing / and standing for the National Anthem rather than upset the kids …. Perhaps that would be a solution if it is affecting the kids ….

    Just thoughts Matthew … thanks for the wonderful posts …. Keep up the great work ….

    In His Grip

    David

    David Milmine
    Events Team Associate – Promise Keepers Canada
    dmilmine@promisekeepers.ca

    Like

    • Hi David, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a well-known one, and from what I can discern that is not what’s happening in this case. I think standing in the hall would be a better option than actively sitting while other children stand. And there is certainly a history of protecting certain religious freedoms ingrained in Canadian law; but as I mentioned, I don’t think that’s what is happening here. Thanks for the post and God bless you in your ministry!

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  2. Hello, Matt,
    I thank you for this thoughtful blog. You touched on some key points for me.. One is, thoughtfully, & respectfully expressing an opinion where a variety of opinions exist. This done with knowledge and experience. This implies an open & non judgmental, respectful forum for expression of opinions. Yes?

    Like

    • Hi Errol, I’m glad you liked it! Yes, I think that, as you say “open & non judgmental” makes sense, if we’re thinking of how I’m defining ‘using judgment’ vs. ‘judgmental.’ And yes, respect is important; and in many ways we can quickly lose that especially when emotions run high. Not an easy thing to do, but an important one! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. You said the theme was “courage”. Perhaps the teacher is quietly demonstrating this trait by daring to be different, but, if so, she should have explained this to her class. Perhaps, she might still!
    Rob Adamson

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    • Hi Rob, thanks for the comment. As always, you contribute a thoughtful perspective! It’s really hard to know the full parameters of the situation. “Courageous”? It’s hard to know fully. But if dissent is for some reason being noted, it should be done so very respectfully, especially in the case of something like a National Anthem.

      Like

  4. I believe the need for this respect ,knowledge,thoughtfulness,open& safe discussion atmosphere is especially relevant now, as we contemplate inclusiveness of all, regardless of sexual lifestyles ,in the churches of the PCC.

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    • Hi Errol, thanks for the comment. And yes, it seems that in the years ahead the PCC will be discussing issues of sexual expression—issues that are much more complicated than many realize, and ones that will highlight many different and deeply held convictions. Speaking “the truth in love” will be important. And as I said at the end of my blog: “Our capacity to disagree may be one of the most telling markers of our maturity.”

      Like

  5. Rick Warren has it right. We are mostly silent today because we fear being called “judgmental”. This pernicious attitude has also wormed its way into the church. Good article, Matthew. Always enjoy your blogs

    Like

    • Hi Tony, I would agree. I found this especially the case when I shared a Sunday message a few weeks about about judgment and hell. I often hear the phrase “What would Jesus do?” Well according to the research of Robert Jeffress, Jesus spoke about judgment and hell 13% of the time! (That’s probably much more than most of us!) When we actually take Jesus’ words seriously, we start to discover who he truly is, rather than who we want him to be. https://matthewruttan.com/messages/#10-26-2014
      And thanks for the words of encouragement!

      Like

  6. Hi Matthew … thanks for this article. This topic means a lot to me. However, I read this with my husband and funny enough, we both disagree on the meaning of the message intended here. To me this message says that we can use judgement and be non-judgemental if we agree to disagree. Am I wrong in saying that?

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    • Hi Anne (and David). The idea is that we can use judgment and still be non-judgmental, but often it has to do with attitude. Let me quote a key line from the blog itself: “In the popular sense, being judgmental is imagining you are on a judge’s bench passing final judgment on people—that because of who they are or a choice they make, that you are better than them. Using judgment is thoughtfully expressing your opinion where a variety of opinions exist; we do this respectfully based on our learning and experience.” That difference is important. Does that help?

      Like

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