What’s the absolute worst thing you’ve ever done in your life?
It is possible that it was really, really bad. It is also possible that it wasn’t very bad at all. It is also possible that you haven’t actually done the worst thing you will ever do…yet.
Now that you have that unpleasant thought in your head, have you ever considered putting it on your business card, or posting it on your social media. “Hi, I’m Amy: I lied on my taxes!” Or, “I’m Ron: I beat up a kid in college,” or “I’m John, and I cheated on my wife.”
Most of us would never do that for obvious reasons. We don’t want to be defined by the worst things we do – we want to be known for the best things we do. Can you imagine if your funeral eulogy was simply a rundown of all the bad choices, unkind moments and sinful behavior you done throughout your life. Sounds pretty bad, no?
Many of us have an obvious preference to be known and judged by our best moments, while at the same time judging those around us for their worst. This is unfortunate.
President George W. Bush had his share of judgment as president. He wrote, “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples – while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose.” (link)
What got me thinking about this is that there is so much going on right now that smacks of this conflict: People applying purity tests and passing judgment on people for their negative behaviors, ignoring the positive things that person may have contributed, while painting themselves as virtuous for calling the sinners out.
One reason this happens so frequently nowadays is called “presentism.” I wrote about it before (link) when I was seeing a lot of people criticizing Columbus on Columbus Day.
Presentism is simply “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” (Merriam-Webster)
It is happening all around us. People from our Nation’s history are being judged for attitudes and behaviors that do no coincide with today’s moral relativism.
Take George Washington, for example. Statues erected in his honor are being torn down or removed from public view. Why? Because he and his wife owned slaves. George did not live up to our post-slavery mentality.
Prophets as far back as Nephi understood that the Founders of the USA were guided, protected and assisted by God (1 Ne. 13:16–19.) More modern prophets have made it very clear that George Washington had attributes that should be admired and respected. Just go to the Church website and do a search for “George Washington,” and see how often he is held up for an example of honesty, humility, gratitude, faithfulness, fairness, courage, etc.
But he was mortal, and he was not perfect. And, he held slaves. And, now we see this:
Yes, it breaks my heart to see the vandalism and disrespect towards someone who did so much, and gave so much of himself to establish this Nation – the very Nation that God had a hand in creating.
But this is a bigger problem than vandals tearing down statues, it is a reflection of how judgment can get out of whack.
Can I admire people like Washington and Jefferson for what they accomplished even though they were slaveholders? Absolutely. How? Because I am willing to judge them on the best things they did in their lives, rather than the worst.
Why? Because that is how I would like to be judged.
Remember that question I asked at the top? How would you like to be judged by man and God by that worst thing? I know I wouldn’t. If I were, I probably would have to give up the hope for eternal happiness and family.
Thankfully, God does not want us to condemning people for their worst moments – He made it crystal clear, and even added some consequences for that type of judging:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Judge not, that ye be not judged.
But here’s the kicker:
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (3 Nephi 14:1-2)
You want to judge someone by their single worst action? Go ahead! But be ready for your judgment to be equally focused.
By now, I’m sure you know that this is not meant to be merely a political diatribe, but to focus on a the more important issues that impact our lives and our hearts. We all have past sins and mistakes that we would like to forget – and would like for everyone else to forget as well.
Thankfully, as members of the Church, we have an understanding of the beauty of Christ’s Atonement, and how simply nice he is about our sins:
“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42)
Isn’t that just plain nice? Wouldn’t that be great if we were all that nice? No married couples weaponizing past mistakes in the heat of an argument. No grudges or unwillingness to forgive. No focusing on the worst, because it has been let go.
When we get caught up in presentism, or simply being judgmental, we are stepping out of line in Christ’s eyes. Eternal Judgment is in the Savior’s hands, and He doesn’t think about these things the way we do:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).
So how does the Lord think about these things? I found a few insights from modern prophets.
Joseph Smith said, “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard. . . . He holds the reins of judgment in His hands; He is a wise Lawgiver, and will judge all men, not according to the narrow, contracted notions of men, “not according to what they have not, but according to what they have,” those who have lived without law, will be judged without law, and those who have a law, will be judged by that law.” [Teachings, p. 218]
So what I will be judged for is different that what you will be judged for – so how am I to judge you when I don’t know what that even means?!
“Thus, we must refrain from making final judgments on people, because we lack the knowledge and the wisdom to do so. We would even apply the wrong standards. The world’s way is to judge competitively between winners and losers. The Lord’s way of final judgment will be to apply his perfect knowledge of the law a person has received and to judge on the basis of that person’s circumstances, motives, and actions throughout his or her entire life.” (Dallin H. Oaks)
Basically, when we pronounce final judgment on someone, we are at risk because we really have no clue what we are talking about. We really are morons in this department.
There is another interesting point, that I find currently applicable, that was buried in a miraculous talk by President Russel M. Ballard on the topic of suicide. He said:
Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth.
When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth. (link)
Do you see the part that has everything to do with today’s accusatory climate? President Ballard believes that the Lord will take into consideration the “the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers,” when he judges us.
Well that throws the whole idea of judging someone in the past by today’s standards right out the window! For example: Imagine we were raised by parents who taught us that tithing was something we paid only when we had extra money. As young people we did just that, and then, as we entered adulthood, we paid only when we felt flush.
How will God look at that? I believe he will look at that with mercy.
But here is where it changes: We grow to be adults, and we start digging in and learn that tithing is something we pay because we have faith – not just extra cash lying around. When we come to that realization and we receive that understanding, from then on I imagine God will look at it more seriously, and hold us accountable. Ignorance is no longer in play.
How does that affect George Washington? The culture of his time, and the traditions of his fathers accepted slavery. According to President Ballard, the Lord would take that into consideration when he is judged.
But it seems that parts of our society would not grant the same mercy.
President N. Eldon Tanner taught a similar idea, “It is not possible to judge another fairly unless you know his desires, his faith, and his goals. Because of a different environment, unequal opportunity, and many other things, people are not in the same position.” (link)
It’s not possible to judge each other, or anyone else – accurately. We simply don’t have the knowledge. Especially towards those who we don’t actually know or who come from a different era. It’s a fools errand, and frankly, none of our business.
Last week the statue of Brigham Young on the quad at BYU was defaced twice. A friend of mine predicted that the Church would change the name of Brigham Young University within five years because its namesake had racist beliefs and shared them. I surely hope he is wrong. When I think about Brigham Young I think of the man who was a prophet, saved the Church, orchestrated the westward movement and built Zion. There is so much good to focus on, rather than picking the scabs of some of the culture of his day, or the traditions of his fathers.
I’m not going to pronounce final judgment on George Washington, or Brigham Young. I don’t know how they look at things currently, or what they may have repented of. Nor should I pronounce final judgment on the people attempting to pull down their legacies. That’s Christ’s job, and frankly, I don’t want that job.
It’s not my place – but this is not just me being super spiritual, there is some self interest at play…
When I stand before the Savior, I hope to be judged by the good that I have done, and the mercy that I have shown. I don’t want to be defined by my worst traits and actions, especially if I have repented and tried to improve.
I surely don’t want the Lord to respond to me by saying, “Remember that time you judged my prophet Brigham Young as being a racist and then you vandalized his statue? Let’s use the same degree of mercy as a guideline for this interview. Ready?“
If receiving God’s mercy requires that I give others – past and present – the benefit of the doubt and not judge them on their worst moments or traits, then so be it.