On Judging and Kind Interpretations

Father Faber’s writings are a treasure trove of sound spirituality, and it seems opportune, following upon my previous post about taking scandal, also to post something he wrote on the issue of judging others and giving the benefit of the doubt (what he calls “kind interpretations”).

This one is a bit shorter than the last one.

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ON JUDGING AND
KIND INTERPRETATIONS
From the Spiritual Conferences of Father Frederick Faber
Download a PDF here

[T]here is one class of kind thoughts which must be dwelt upon apart. I allude to kind interpretations. The habit of not judging others is one which it is very difficult to acquire, and which is generally not acquired till very late on in the spiritual life. If men have ever indulged in judging others, the very sight of an action almost indeliberately suggests an internal commentary upon it. It has become so natural to them to judge, however little their own duties or responsibilities are connected with what they are judging, that the actions of others present themselves to the mind as in the attitude of asking a verdict from it. All our fellowmen, who come within the reach of our knowledge, and for the most retired of us the circle is a wide one, are prisoners at the bar; and if we are unjust, ignorant, and capricious judges, it must be granted to us that we are indefatigable ones. Now all this is simple ruin to our souls. At any risk, at the cost of life, there must be an end of this, or it will end in everlasting banishment from God. The decree of the last judgment is absolute. It is this – the measure which we have meted to others. Our present humor in judging others reveals to us what our sentence would be if we died now. Are we content to abide that issue? But, as it is impossible all at once to stop judging, and as it is also impossible to go on judging uncharitably, we must pass through the intermediate stage of kind interpretations. Few men have passed beyond this to a habit of perfect charity, which has blessedly stripped them of their judicial ermine and their deeply-rooted judicial habits of mind. We ought therefore to cultivate most sedulously the habit of kind interpretations.

Men’s actions are very difficult to judge. Their real character depends in a great measure on the motives which prompt them, and those motives are invisible to us. Appearances are often against what we afterwards discover to have been deeds of virtue. Moreover, a line of conduct is, in its look at least, very little like a logical process. It is complicated with all manner of inconsistencies, and often deformed by what is in reality a hidden consistency. Nobody can judge men but God, and we can hardly obtain a higher or more reverent view of God than that which represents Him to us as judging men with perfect knowledge, unperplexed certainty, and undisturbed compassion. Now kind interpretations are imitations of the merciful ingenuity of the Creator finding excuses for His creatures. It is almost a day of revelation to us, when theology enables us to perceive that God is so merciful precisely because He is so wise; and from this truth it is an easy inference, that kindness is our best wisdom, because it is an image of the wisdom of God. This is the idea of kind interpretations, and this is the use which we must make of them. The habit of judging is so nearly incurable, and its cure is such an almost interminable process, that we must concentrate ourselves for a long while on keeping it in check, and this check is to be found in kind interpretations. We must come to esteem very lightly our sharp eye for evil, on which perhaps we once prided ourselves as cleverness. It has been to us a fountain of sarcasm; and how seldom since Adam was created has a sarcasm fallen short of being a sin? We must look at our talent for analysis of character as a dreadful possibility of huge uncharitableness. We should have been much better without it from the first. It is the hardest talent of all to manage, because it is so difficult to make any glory for God out of it. We are sure to continue to say clever things, so long as we continue to indulge in this analysis; and clever things are equally sure to be sharp and acid. Sight is a great blessing, but there are times and places in which it is far more blessed not to see. It would be comparatively easy for us to be holy, if only we could always see the characters of our neighbors either in soft shade or with the kindly deceits of moonlight upon them. Of course we are not to grow blind to evil; for thus we should speedily become unreal. But we must grow to something higher, and something truer, than a quickness in detecting evil.

We must rise to something truer. Yes! Have we not always found in our past experience that on the whole our kind interpretations were truer than our harsh ones? What mistakes have we not made in judging others! But have they not almost always been on the side of harshness? Every day some phenomenon of this kind occurs. We have seen a thing as clear as day. It could have but one meaning. We have already taken measures. We have roused our righteous indignation. All at once the whole matter is differently explained, and that in some most simple way, so simple that we are lost in astonishment that we should never have thought of it ourselves. Always distrust very plain cases, says a legal writer. Things that were dark begin to give light. What seemed opaque is perceived to be transparent. Things that everybody differed about, as people in planting a tree can never agree what it wants to make it straight, now everybody sees in the same light; so natural and obvious has the explanation been. Nay, things that it appeared impossible to explain are just those the explanations of which are the most simple. How many times in life have we been wrong when we put a kind construction on the conduct of others? We shall not need our fingers to count those mistakes upon. Moreover, grace is really much more common than our querulousness is generally willing to allow. We may suspect its operations in the worst men we meet with. Thus, without any forced impossibility, we may call in supernatural considerations in order to make our criticisms more ingenious in their charity. When we grow a little holier, we shall summon also to our aid those supernatural motives in ourselves, which, by depressing our own ideas of ourselves, elevate our generous belief in others.

But, while common sense convinces us of the truth of kind interpretations, common selfishness ought to open our eyes to their wisdom and their policy. We must have passed through life very unobservantly, if we have never perceived that a man is very much himself what he thinks of others. Of course his own faults may be the cause of his unfavorable judgments of others; but they are also, and in a very marked way, effects of those same judgments. A man, who was on a higher eminence before, will soon by harsh judgments of others sink to the level of his own judgments. When you hear a man attribute meanness to another, you may be sure, not only that the critic is an ill-natured man, but that he has got a similar element of meanness in himself, or is fast sinking to it. A man is always capable himself of a sin which he thinks another is capable of, or which he himself is capable of imputing to another. Even a well-founded suspicion more or less degrades a man. His suspicion may be verified, and he may escape some material harm by having cherished the suspicion. But he is unavoidably the worse man in consequence of having entertained it. This is a very serious consideration, and rather a frightening argument in favor of charitable interpretations. Furthermore, our hidden judgments of others are, almost with a show of special and miraculous interference, visited upon ourselves. Virtue grows in us under the influence of kindly judgments, as if they were its nutriment. But in the case of harsh judgments we find we often fall into the sin of which we have judged another guilty, although it is not perhaps a sin at all common to ourselves. Or, if matters do not go so far as this, we find ourselves suddenly overwhelmed with a tempest of unusual temptations and on reflection conscience is ready to remind us that the sin, to which we are thus violently and unexpectedly tempted, is one which we have of late been uncharitably attributing to others. Sometimes also we are ourselves falsely accused, and widely believed to be guilty, of some fault of which we are quite innocent; but it is a fault of which we have recently, in our own minds at least, accused another. Moreover the truth or falsehood of our judgments seem to have very little to do with the matter. The truth of them does not protect us from their unpleasant consequences; just as the truth of a libel is no sufficient defense of it. It is the uncharitableness of the judgment, or the judging at all, to which this self-revenging power is fastened. It works itself out like a law, quietly but infallibly. Is not all this matter for very serious reflection?

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