Sins, Innocent Mistakes, and Christlike Non-Judgment

In Christian life there often exists a tension between Jesus' command "Do not judge", and the call to do right by yourself and others. It's easiest to take an extreme path, to either judge the hell out of everyone (publicly or secretly), or on the contrary avoid all moral considerations. But knowing how to follow conscience and conviction without judging those who behave otherwise proves challenging at every turn.

The problem is especially hairy when Christians try to emulate Jesus' life on earth, because despite his aforementioned commandment, and all the time he spent with "tax collectors and 'sinners'", he could be a pretty abrasive guy. Case in point: "And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables." (John 2:15, ESV) Yet we're expected not to judge?

Part of the answer can be discovered through an investigation into the distinction between "sins" and "innocent mistakes" - a distinction we make many times a day, unconsciously.

Suppose a hypothetical couple George and Cassandra are getting married. Harry, George's coworker, is in attendance, and after the preacher proclaims, "I now pronounce you man and wife", Harry lets out a long and loud "Sheeeeeey-IT!", eliciting shock and horror from all present. In which of the following scenarios is Harry's action excusable, and in which is he deserving of blame?

  1. Harry thinks Cassandra is ugly and George could do better.
  2. George is Harry's only close friend, and Harry fears their friendship will be lost when George is married.
  3. Harry and Cassandra used to date, and he's still carrying a torch for her.
  4. Harry and Cassandra used to date, he's still carrying a torch for her, and he's genetically predisposed to increased aggression.
  5. Harry and Cassandra used to date, he's still carrying a torch for her, and he's taking medication for his debilitating elbow condition - one side effect of which is poor judgment.
  6. Harry and Cassandra used to date, he's still carrying a torch for her, and he's drunk, one side effect of which is poor judgment.
  7. Harry and Cassandra used to date, he's still carrying a torch for her, he's drunk, and he's genetically predisposed to alcoholism.
  8. Harry has Tourette syndrome.

I live in a household with two small children: a three-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl. Both cause plenty of mayhem: they scream, they hit people, they throw tantrums and objects. I often wonder what motivates them. When the girl walks up to her brother and bops him on the head with a plastic tractor, is she trying to hurt him, or just playing? Likewise when the boy gleefully pushes his sister off the sofa. Is he giving into some sadistic urge, or just horsing around (unaware of the pain he inflicts)? For a fully-functioning adult, we'd call it sin, and for a newborn baby, we'd call it an innocent mistake, but at what point does a child cross over into the realm of personal responsibility?

I have a close friend with Asperger syndrome. Sometimes he gets himself into a sticky social situation by misinterpreting an e-mail, asking an intrusive question, something like that. When he does, is it his fault? My gut says no - it's the disorder at work - but on the other hand, I know he does have control of his actions, awareness of his disability, and plenty of friends and mentors to help him decipher social nuances. He does have resources to avoid these problems. So how do I know when it's his fault and when it's not?

In fact it seems many disorders and disabilities [1] effect actions we'd normally call sinful: paranoid schizophrenia causes mistrustfulness, obsessive-compulsive disorder causes legalistic behavior, antisocial personality disorder causes an apparent lack of conscience, and Tourette syndrome can cause profane outbursts. We tend to let these folks off the hook morally. But if someone without Tourette syndrome shouts an obscenity at a wedding, we naturally assume it's his fault... or is it?

All these examples serve to illustrate that the difference between a sin and an excusable mistake is not near as cut-and-dry as we'd like to think. People are complex, and the influences (genetic, environmental, societal, spiritual, etc.) behind even the simplest decisions are well beyond our understanding. Who are we to implement a taxonomy of mistakes, when we can't make sense of our own choices, let alone others'? Who am I to assume I wouldn't be worse than Hitler or bin Laden, had I their genes and parents and neighborhoods and poorly-balanced breakfasts? Likewise for the cranky and frustrating people I encounter in everyday life.

So this I believe is one major key in practicing Christlike non-judgment: Do not claim to know what only God can know. Accept our mere hum-anity with hum-ility. Like Jesus, we have the responsibility to help others, which may mean pointing out their mistakes. But when we do so, we must abolish our assumptions about how we might have behaved differently - about our moral superiority. And we must forgive, as Jesus forgave:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

—Jesus Christ

[1]Please note that I'm no expert in psychology (nor anything else).