After a lifetime of experience as a judge, bishop, and father, I am convinced that we are never, ever, in a position to judge another’s heart.
Prospective jurors often ask to be excused saying, “I cannot judge another person.” I explain: “You are not being asked to judge whether the defendant is a good person or bad person. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. You are not being asked to judge the person; you are being asked to judge conduct. In other words, on the date in question was the defendant driving a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.”
I have misjudged criminal defendants as having a bad “attitude,” when, in reality, they were suffering from paranoia. As bishop, I misjudged members as being spiritually weak, when, in fact, they were struggling with depression or bipolar disorders. As a parent, I misjudged my son as a “lazy” soccer player, when, in fact, he had an undiagnosed heart defect.
As a criminal law judge I have read countless probation and sentencing reports. I was surprised to learn how many dangerous criminals were tortured, abused, and/or neglected as children, and how many were suffering from mental illnesses or addictions. I have been humbled by the thought, “Would I have become like them if my circumstances had been different?”
Although I felt empathy for these defendants, I also knew that these mitigating factors did not make them less dangerous to others. Sometimes, their background made them more dangerous.
I have participated in dozens of church disciplinary councils. As my heart went out to the “sinner” on “trial,” I was constantly reminded, “But for the grace of God there go I.” Even with the guidance of the Spirit, we were judging the member’s conduct, and circumstances, but never their hearts.
Marvin J. Ashton explained it well:
“We tend to evaluate others on the basis of physical, outward appearance: their “good looks,” their social status, their family pedigrees, their degrees, or their economic situations.
“The Lord, however, has a different standard by which he measures a person. When it came time to choose a king to replace King Saul, the Lord gave this criterion to his prophet Samuel: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; … for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7).
“When the Lord measures an individual, He does not take a tape measure around the person’s head to determine his mental capacity, nor his chest to determine his manliness, but He measures the heart as an indicator of the person’s capacity and potential to bless others.
“Why the heart? Because the heart is a synonym for one’s entire makeup.” (“The Measure of Our Hearts”, Gen. Conf. October 1988)
In sum, we are never, ever, in a position to judge another’s heart. Only God can judge hearts.