Jerry was an inner city elementary school music teacher. He was a family man, a faithful church attender, and an overall great guy to know. But Jerry had religious OCD, and he struggled with spiritual obsessions and compulsions. One of the anxieties that he shared with me was an intrusive thought pattern in which he had unwanted thoughts about judging others.
Jerry had a particular aversion to people with tattoos and piercings. He came from a conservative Christian background and found body modifications undesirable. At the same time, he genuinely felt Christian love for people with tattoos and piercings. The problem was, he couldn’t stop having unwanted thoughts judging them.
As thoughts against these types of people entered his mind, he would become very anxious and begin ruminating.
Why do I have such evil and judgmental thoughts?
Why can’t I get rid of them?
Keisha also had unwanted thoughts about judging others. She was a writer and a caretaker of her elderly mother–the kind of person who made everybody around her feel happy and welcome. But her judgmental thoughts began when one of her sisters had an abortion. Coming from a Christian background, Keisha believed that abortion was wrong, a sin against the unborn.
Because Keisha also had religious OCD, she suffered from a very strong sense of hyper-responsibility. Although her sister had grown up exposed to the same religious teachings, Keisha nevertheless felt it her duty and responsibility before God to tell her sister all the reasons why her abortion had been wrong. After having done this, though, Keisha didn’t feel any better. She continued to suffer from intrusive thoughts against her sister, and the repeated urge to say or preach or express things that would make it clear that she herself was not in favor of the abortion that had already taken place.
Like Jerry, Keisha felt keenly disturbed by these thoughts. She felt guilty because she knew the Bible says not to judge others. She felt that God would certainly hold her accountable for her judgmental spirit. However, the the judgmental thoughts towards others had become obsessive to such a point that she couldn’t stop them from entering her mind.
Have you ever felt like Jerry or Keisha?
Have you experienced judgmental thoughts towards others that you can’t control or get rid of no matter how hard you try? Have you prayed and pleaded with God to make you more accepting of others, but yet you continue to suffer the same unwanted thoughts?
Not surprisingly, this can be a symptom of religious OCD.
In this article, we’ll explore what it means to have intrusive thoughts about judging others.
When Unwanted Thoughts About Judging Others Becomes an Obsession
The Bible teaches us not to judge others, as Jesus stated in the Sermon on the Mount.
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?Matthew 7:1-3
The Apostle James told us that we should not be respecters of people. That means that all human beings are valuable and equal in God’s sight. As he says,
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,“ and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?James 2:1-4
Jesus often turned societal expectations upside down, praising the poor widow who cast in her two mites and stating that the kingdom of heaven is made up of little children. He said that the last will be first and the first will be last. He failed to come in the honorable garb of the religious teachers and instead appeared in such a humble way it was almost embarrassing. Certainly, He was no respecter of persons, and he invites us to follow his example.
Unfortunately, many Christians today have a reputation for being judgmental, and sincere believers want to overcome the judgmental spirit that has often characterized our religion. How can we do that?
The more that we place our eyes on Jesus–reading about Him in His Word and communing with Him through prayer–the more we are enraptured with the beauty of His character. We develop a desire to be like Him.
The more we become like Christ, the less we will partake in the spirit of judging others.
Biblical sanctification involves Christ’s divine work upon our hearts, turning us into a reflection of His own heart. It is not something that we force or produce through human works; when Christ is in the heart, goodness and virtue spring forth naturally.
No, it doesn’t happen overnight. But the “Author and Finisher of our faith” slowly but surely makes us like Himself.
This is why sincere believers are very disturbed when they begin to experience unwanted thoughts about judging others. We don’t want to be like that. It bothers us when our brains begin to pick other people apart. It feels like we are going backwards in our Christian experience.
But let’s remember something.
The content of our intrusive thoughts always proves the opposite thing about us. Men who are generally very loyal and pure minded are the ones who are most bothered by intrusive thoughts about lust. Mothers who are particularly caring and tender are the ones most bothered by intrusive thoughts about harming their own children. Christians with deepest devotion for Jesus are the ones who are most bothered by intrusive thoughts blaspheming His name.
Likewise, I find that it is often the kindest people who are most bothered by unwanted thoughts about judging others.
Let us take comfort in knowing that Jesus understands the origins of our anxiety disorder. He knows what “ego-dystonic” means. He knows what an intrusive thought is. And ultimately, whether this is a clinical obsession or a real issue in our characters, God is the One who is going to fix it!
If I Judge Others, Will God Judge Me?
For people with scrupulosity, one of the most significant concerns is that God will hold us accountable for our unwanted thoughts, particularly those involving judgment of others. The fear of judgment-against-my-own-judgmental-attitude is real.
But let’s remember the principle that “location does not prove ownership.”
Just because a thought passes through my mind and is temporarily located there does not mean that the I take ownership of the thought. It is simply a passing thought, not something I generated or claim as my own. Remember the OCD mantra: “I didn’t have that thought. It was a thought.”
I don’t believe that God judges us for our intrusive thoughts, even if they involve judging others. These thoughts simply aren’t ours.
If such a thought were truly ours, we would not feel guilty about it. A truly judgmental person would feel superior and justified in having their judgmental thoughts, and they would vocalize and act on them. But people with scrupulosity can have obsessive and intrusive thoughts that feel judgmental, even though they do not come from a truly judgmental place. We typically feel horrible and guilty about these thoughts, and we try to remove them from our minds. We take extra care to treat others with utmost kindness to prove to ourselves that we aren’t as judgmental as we feel.
It just doesn’t make sense that these are our thoughts.
Will God judge us for having these unwanted thoughts about judging others? I don’t think so. There just isn’t enough evidence that these thoughts are truly coming from the scrupulous person’s brain.
How to Deal with Unwanted Thoughts About Judging Others
When evaluating the behavior or actions of others, it’s important to remember the difference between discernment and judging.
Discernment involves making a call on someone’s behavior or appearance which has practical implications for others. Judging involves probing into the hidden and invisible realm of that person’s motives for action. A healthy level of discernment is necessary in life and should not be confused with being judgmental.
For example, imagine that you’ve taken your young children to play at a local playground. The park is full of children, but suddenly a man dressed in black shows up. He’s got a black mask over his face, he’s carrying a machine gun, and he’s shouting obscenities about children.
Are you going to let your children keep playing because you don’t want to be “judgmental” about this man? Or will your parental instincts kick in as your brain says, “this doesn’t look safe?”
Similarly, if we observe actions being done in society that are not ideal or biblical, it does not mean that we are being judgmental to make an evaluation of the observable facts. It’s important to use our discernment while assuming the best about people’s motives.
I can say, “What this person is doing goes against my biblical values and beliefs. Maybe he doesn’t know any better; I’m sure there are all kinds of forces in his life that have made him make these decisions, poor guy. I’m not going to join in his decisions, because I think they’re wrong, but I’ll assume that he’s doing the best he can with the information he has.”
(And here’s a small caveat for anyone with evangelism compulsions: just because you see someone doing something wrong does not necessarily mean you have to be the one to inform him of his wrongness. In Acts 17, when Paul was grieved in his heart as he passed by and saw the idolatry of the Greeks, we don’t have a record of him stopping to preach at every idolater that he saw. He waited until the appropriate forum where he could speak his mind to people who were interested in listening.)
If we find ourselves obsessing about our judgmental thoughts and unable to get rid of them through normal means, it may be an OCD issue. In this case, the best course of action is to treat these thoughts like any other intrusive thought – by ignoring them, letting them come in and go right back out. By attempting to argue our way out of these thoughts or convincing ourselves that we’re not as judgmental as it seems, we only become stuck in the web of moralistic obsessions.
So, let’s recognize that some amount of discernment in life is normal and necessary, but when unwanted thoughts about judging others become intrusive, it’s best to let them go.
Intrusive thoughts of any kind can be really bothersome. I get it. I hate intrusive thoughts! And we’ve got to beware, because sometimes intrusive thoughts can come in unexpected forms. Sure, we all know about those that we commonly hear in the OCD community–unwanted thoughts about blasphemy, Satan, hurting other people, and so on. Those are pretty obvious because they’re so weird. Weird intrusive thoughts are some of the easiest ones to detect. But when it comes to something that feels like it’s sitting on the fence between being an intrusive thought and being a real sin, that’s when we start to struggle with identifying our OCD symptoms correctly.
All of us know that being judgmental is bad. So automatically, any sort of intrusive thought that feels judgmental is treated as a sin. We struggle and strive against it, which is exactly what we’re not supposed to do with intrusive thoughts.
I would caution you to be careful how you respond to these thoughts.
If you feel like all your struggling and striving and neutralizing is making you worse and not better, it might be because you’re fighting against scrupulosity–not sin. And those two things need a different approach.
Remember that God is with you in this journey to overcoming your anxieties. He’s not judging you for having these judgmental thoughts. He knows where they come from better than you do. And you can trust him to help you find the right solution. If you just let these thoughts go, he’s going to take responsibility for cleansing your heart, soul, and mind.
Having discernment in life is a good thing. Being judgmental isn’t. But hopefully, in this article, you’ve been able to see the difference between the two so that you can engage in healthy discernment without guilt-tripping yourself for it.
And if you do have intrusive, judgmental thoughts, just let them go. Don’t fight or nitpick against your own thoughts. Move on to whatever task you’re supposed to be doing in real life, get out of your head as best as you can, and trust God to fix whatever needs fixing.
Best wishes on the journey,