March 2, 2013

Step back before passing judgement


---- — I had just begun my career with kids when I was talking with five young girls. They were discussing a classmate and calling her a s---. 

Knowing that all of these girls were sexually active, I asked for their definition of s---. The boldest in the group immediately piped up, “Oh, it’s when you’ve had sex with more boys than you can count on one hand.” 

More recently, an eighth-grade girl was railing against the “s---” who flirts with all the boys. I asked for her definition, and she responded, “Girls who wear low-cut shirts and short skirts.”

When I was expecting our last son, a bunch of my co-workers were also pregnant. One of them made a decision that I felt put her baby at risk. Silently, I deemed her neglectful and forecast doom for the outcome. I asked my mother how I could possibly think such evil thoughts. She replied, “Well, I think judging someone else makes us feel better about ourselves and also gives us a false sense of security. We believe that if we make the ‘right’ decision, nothing bad can happen.”

A few weeks ago, I was messaging a former student. She sheepishly confessed, “I am very judgmental. I don’t know why I’m like that.” 

I know why. She’s human, and part of our (my) humanity is delighting in another’s mistakes. It comforts us that their sin might be more egregious than our own. We seem to believe that there is a sin hierarchy, and as long as someone fails worse than us, we are OK with the cosmos. I worked with a father who had sexually abused his children and who later told me, “I wasn’t like one of those guys who did it every night. It was only once in awhile.”

When I first discovered God, I worked with a woman who irritated me — unbearably. I began praying that God would change my heart and give me the strength to forgive her. I was reading some literature on forgiveness one day, and I faced this humbling concept, “Before you decide to forgive someone, make sure that they have sinned against you.” I realized that I was harboring a grudge against someone who had never actually harmed me. Annoyed me, yes. Hurt me, no. I found that I often weigh whether to forgive when the sin has nothing to do with me.

The Rev. Andy Stanley preaches that all sin is the same color to God. So often we focus on the dramatic sins of sex, addiction and abuse, and forget the subtler sins of gossip, lying and hatemongering that quietly drain this world of light and love. 

If sin is what separates us from God, then my golden calf would be the need for approval. Instead of worshipping God, I worship other people’s thoughts about me. And, if sin is what separates us from others, then my offense would be poor time management. I so desperately want to be a Good Samaritan; I just don’t have the time. An unintentional sin seems more benign, doesn’t it? But the outcome often scores one for the other side, evil.

When I or one of mine falters, I cling to Jesus’s words, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I yearn for his protection. But what if another fails? Do I offer the same comfort? Isn’t it funny how we claim forgiveness when it is our sin, yet demand judgment when it is someone else’s?

I wrote earlier of the father who had abused his children. I find it so easy to condemn him — to eagerly step out of the crowd and throw that first stone — as if I have the right to decide who God loves and forgives. Do I really believe that God looks at my easy life and finds my sin a worthier color than this man’s? Does God rejoice more at my salvation than his? I suppose that belief might be the saddest sin of all.

Mary White is from the Malone area. She and her husband have five children, eight cats, two dogs and three guinea pigs. She has had the privilege of working with children and families (her own and other people’s) for more than 20 years. For more of her columns, visit