Is my judgment of less faithful people a sin?

by Father Dale Kinzler

“Witnessing from your experience is more effective than ‘preaching from your pulpit.’” –Father Dale Kinzler

One reader presented this situation and question (condensed for brevity): “Some of my friends who are not religious are better off financially than I am. One good friend just received an inheritance windfall for the second time. I don’t feel envious of them in the things they have or do, because I know my struggles have brought me closer to Christ. Yet I find myself feeling self-righteous because my husband and I enjoy deeper faith than they have. I don’t know how to confess this or identify what sin I am committing. Is judging myself “holier” than they are my way of making myself feel better? How do I feel joy for them and yet truly feel the joy of offering our struggles and accepting God’s will?”

In response, let’s first affirm the virtues you are practicing in this situation. It sounds as though the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are alive and well in your life. You are exercising faith through regular worship and hope through trusting in God to bring you through challenging times. You are practicing charity through tithing and reaching out to others despite your own financial struggles.

You also mention joy, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Rejoicing in the good fortune of your friend’s windfall need not diminish the joy you find in acceptance of your own situation. Joy, like love, is a “many-splendored thing.” If I may use the analogy of clothing, our virtues and spiritual gifts are “tailor made” by God to suit each person in our particular life situation. God tailors the clothing, but it is up to us to put on the garment, to wear it, and to keep it clean. Even some of the materially poorest people in the world find great joy in the loving bonds of family life. I have witnessed this first hand among people I visited in Peru and India.

So, as you recognize, some of your friends have chosen not to “wear the garment” of faith, having perhaps cast aside the gift they once had accepted. You might well feel saddened at the relative spiritual impoverishment of people more materially wealthy than yourself. And there is no sin in this awareness.

But you do mention self-righteousness, and I think you have probably hit the nail on the head. If there is any sin to be confessed, it might well be that very attitude in which we judge ourselves “holier than thou.” The Gospel parable of the pharisee and the tax collector comes immediately to mind:

Jesus then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple to pray... The Pharisee spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector... But the tax collector stood off at a distance... and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ I tell you the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus advises us:

“Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give, and gifts will be given to you... For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Luke 6:37-38).

Another question to ponder in this situation: what effort might you make to encourage your friend to begin or resume some practice of the faith you enjoy? Not knowing what you may have done along this line, I can only encourage you to watch and pray and discern whether there is something more you can do. Our diocese recently offered a Convocation of Parish Leaders to examine the question of evangelization and to encourage our parishes to work especially on re-integrating members who have distanced themselves from God and Church. Passing up a particular chance to evangelize is probably not so much a matter of sin as it is a missed opportunity to perform an act of grace.

Reaching out to family or friends on the subject of faith can be quite a tightrope walk, where we want to strike a balance between nagging and neglect. The most natural, least offensive, and perhaps most effective way of doing so is simply to give testimony to the joy you have found in your relationship with Christ and the peace you have found in acceptance of God’s will. Witnessing from your experience is more effective than “preaching from your pulpit.”

In any case, we want to avoid the Pharisaic attitude of standing in judgment of the “tax collectors” among us and “exalting ourselves” over them. We must continually humble ourselves in the presence of God, recognizing our own need of mercy and forgiveness. And then we can bring to the confessional those things that come to mind when we recite the Confiteor—our sins of thought and word, in what we have done and what we have failed to do.

Father Kinzler serves as the pastor of St. George’s Church in Cooperstown; Sacred Heart Church, Aneta; St. Olaf’s Church, Finley; and St. Lawrence’s Church, Jessie.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.