Most people don’t make bad choices out of the blue. Sin has a backstory, an architecture, a recipe. It’s formed like rock, over time, each layer of sediment arising from a particular set of conditions. It takes shape slowly, and if you change one ingredient, the whole thing might look completely different.
The casual onlooker might only see what is exposed, the surface layer, the objectional action itself, or its consequences. It takes time and study and care to see beneath that, to understand how we got here, what the history is, to identify the geology, the chemistry, the psychology. Most of us aren’t that learned. Not when it comes to other people.
But we know that about ourselves, if we are at all self-aware or if our sin is great enough to ensure we’ll want to understand how and why we made our choices. We escavate and dig and find all sorts of clues, some of which are the actions of others toward us, some of which are circumstance, some of which are pathology. We might find out we have a disease of some kind, something off-kilter in our biology. Even understanding the why and suffering severe consequences, we may even make the same choice again and again. We try to give ourselves some grace.
We don’t usually do that with others. We jump to conclusions and issue pat pronouncements and tsk tsk tsk. We reference our theology and pop off with a Bible verse, not having a single clue what the truth of the matter really is.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe some sin needs to be called out, and some sinners are truly depraved. My red line is behavior that is abusive to others, particularly the more vulnerable. I have no time for that. But even the behavior of abusers and sociopaths has a story. The former are usually victims of abuse themselves; the latter almost certainly have something missing in their brains. We can’t tolerate their behavior, their harm to others, but we can have some compassion even for a sociopath.
The worst thing I ever did was a complex cocktail, a layered cake of dysfunction. I got married to someone I didn’t love at the age of 19. That was a sin. Most good Christians don’t consider that my sin–marriage is always a good choice!–they fixate on my divorce 8 years later. But the divorce, as well as a lot of bad behavior in between, was the inevitable result of the marriage. I made a promise I could never keep, and it was costly. It cost me (and I assume him) many years of happiness and mental health. I became a person I hardly recognized and acted in ways I’m still ashamed of and that are out of my normal character. Divorcing him was probably the kindest I thing I did for both of us.
The recipe of that particular sin goes something like this:
1/2 c. innate anxiety
1/2 c. innate impulsiveness
1/2 c. innate stubbornness
1 c. bad theology
1 c. low self-esteem
2 c. dislocation
2 c. grief
Put it all in a blender and hit the power button. Chug down the toxic mix, if you don’t choke on it.
Incidentally, each of those ingredients is itself a recipe. If you’re making chicken curry, the recipe likely calls for curry powder, but the powder is an amalgam of 10 or so other spices.
The people around us just taste the putrid smoothie or curry or [insert analogy] and decide we are disgusting. That’s what we tend to do to others, too.
Maybe at some point we get to know somebody with a sinful history, or somebody we love finds themselves doing destructive things. Maybe we find ourselves there. Then maybe, just maybe we understand a little bit more and judge a little bit less. Loving others should affect how we see things. If it doesn’t, maybe we don’t really love them.
I know and love a recovering drug addict. I know the real person, who is bright and funny and kind. Thank God, that is who he is once again, now that he is clean. While he was on drugs he did some bad things and served time in prison. But I know him, I know his story. I know his father was abusive and his home was dysfunctional. I know that he fell in with the wrong crowd at a vulnerable young age. I know he has suffered with mental health. I know the painful consequences and systemic failures that incentivized his return to drug use over and over. There’s probably a lot I don’t know, too, but I know enough not to judge him, and not judging him bleeds over into how I see other drug addicts. Yes, he made bad choices. But yes, I’d probably have made those same choices, if I were him. I can’t say that I wouldn’t.
Judging him would make me about as foolish as all the idiots out there proclaiming Simone Biles a weakling. How any of these people think they could ever accurately assess Simone Biles’s experience and choices is almost laughable. They are equally equipped to perform her floor routine. But we stoop that low on a regular basis. It’s honestly embarrasing. We regularly make fools of ourselves with our pontification about how so-and-so should “just do that,” “just stay married,” “just quit drinking,” “just don’t be gay,” “just accept the gender of your birth,” “just pray more,” “just have more faith,” “just suck it up,” “just quit eating so much.”
How about you “just STFU.”
I judge, too, of course, and I should also STFU at times, or at least have more compassion. I should remember that Trump supporters are the product of a toxic mix of ideas and beliefs that they’ve never been allowed to question, many of which i used to hold, and they are being manipulated by a master con-man. Trump himself is the product of an abusive father, a life of zero accountability, and a severe personality disorder. I try to have some compassion. That doesn’t mean I think he can safely lead this country.
Jesus told us not to judge. Because he knew how arrogant and uninformed that is. Not judging a person is not the same as excusing their behavior. Behavior that harms self and/or others should always be taken seriously.
But what we can’t do is say, “I would never do that. If I were that person–if I had their brain chemistry, background, history, family dynamic, influences, relationships, circumstances, talents, intelligence, resources–I could do so much better.”
You absolutely can’t say that. As far as you know, you’d do even worse. You’d make worse choices and cause even more devastation. And if they were you–they might put you to shame with all the good they could do. On balance, you may suck worse than the person you’re judging. Only God knows.
Next time you are tempted to judge, consider that. And seriously think about STFU.