Judge Not, Part 5 – Stories from the Desert

For the last blog of this series, I wanted to share a few stories from the Orthodox monastic fathers that illustrate the importance of not judging one another.


One day, Abba Isaac the Theban saw a brother committing a sin.  Abba Isaac judged and condemned the man in his heart.  Shortly thereafter, an angel stood before the Abba with the departed soul of the brother who sinned.  The angel asked, “Here is the person you have judged.  Where shall I send this man’s soul, to Hades or to Paradise?”  Abba Isaac fell to the ground, horrified, stating, “I have sinned, forgive me.”  The holy old man, frightened beyond measure, spent the rest of his life praying with sighs and tears and continuous hard work to be forgiven this sin even though the angel had told him he was forgiven.  Still, Abba Isaac carried the guilt of this sin with him until his dying day. [1]

In this story, we see a rare glimpse into the life of a holy man who realized the horror of judging another human soul.  Abba Isaac knew that there is room for only one judge of human souls, and when we judge another person, we are competing with Satan for usurping God from His throne.


There is another story of a monk who lacked discipline.  He was not a bad person, but quite lazy and not at all reliable.  The other monks were frequently annoyed with him.  While this lazy monk was on his death bed, the other brothers came to visit him.  They were surprised to see him in such good spirits.  “Are you not concerned,” they asked him, “that God’s judgment will come upon you harshly for living such a lax life as a monk?”

He smiled and did not deny that he was far from exemplary, but he had one key defense, “Our Lord said, ‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned.’ I have never judged a man for anything he has done.  Rather I have looked upon all with simplicity and love.”  The brothers were speechless at his response and realized that though they had good works, they had neglected this crucial aspect of the spiritual life. The simple monk died in peace and went to Paradise, and all of the brothers were edified.  [2]


But what about when someone’s faults are so glaringly obvious?  Is it a sin to notice that others have faults?  The answer is no.  The saints saw the sins of others.  However, Abba Dorotheus says, they simply would not let their eyes dwell on sins.  Who hated sin more than the saints?  But they did not hate the sinners all the same time, nor condemn them, no turn away from them, but they suffered with them, admonished them, comforted them, gave them remedies as sickly members, and did all they could to heal them.

Take a fisherman: when he casts his hook into the sea and a large fish takes the bait, he perceives first that the fish struggles violently and is full of fight, so he does not try pull it in immediately by main force for the line would break and the catch would be lost in the end. 

No!  He plays out the line and, as he says, allows the fish to run freely, but when he feels the line slacken and the first struggles have calmed down, he takes up the slack line and begins, little by little, to draw him in.  So the holy fathers, by patience and love, draw the brother and do not spurn him nor show themselves unfriendly towards him, but as a mother who has an unruly son does not hate him or turn away from him but rules him with sweetness and sometimes does things to please him, so they always protect him and keep him in order and they gain a hold on him so that with time they correct the erring brother and do not allow him to harm anyone else, and in doing so they greatly advance toward the love of Christ. [3]

Giving Sacred Space

When we act in the way the holy man describes above, we are creating room for our brother or sister who has fallen into sin and offering them a sacred space to heal.  Rather than preaching at them, we, in some sense, stoop down to where they are.  He illustrates this point in a story:

At one time, one of the monks in Abba Ammon’s care had a woman visiting him and sleeping with him, which of course is not appropriate for a monk.  The other monks in the coenobium figured out what was going on and rushed to Abba Ammon who in turn went to the brother’s cell and found him with the woman.  There was a large barrel in the cell and Abba Ammon told the woman to hide in the barrel, which he then sat upon.  The other monks in the monastery came rushing in and began looking for the woman.  None of them could find her, and out of respect for the abbot, none of them dared to ask Ammon to move.  He then warned them to be careful about judging others and sent them away.  Additionally, when they were alone, he warned the brother who had fallen into sin to flee it.

It is important that we keep in mind the words of the Apostle Paul, who said, Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. (Gal. 6:1)  If ever a rebuke is necessary, it should be done with utmost gentleness, otherwise we too will be tempted.  Tempted into what?  Self-righteousness and spiritual pride, which results in an eternal downfall.

May the Lord preserve us from judging others that we may have a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless peaceful; and a good defense before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ, let us ask….Grant this, O Lord. [4]

End Notes:

Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps – Desert Playground

[1] This story was pieced together from Abba Dorotheos’ account (Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings, translated by Eric P. Wheeler, Cistercian Publications 1977) and the one found in The Sayings of The Desert Fathers (translated by Benedicta Ward, Cistercian Publications 1975)

[2] I have read this story a couple of times and I cannot remember the source, so I have attempted to recall it from memory (which is always a bit dangerous!).  Feel free to share it in the comments if you know the source.  Thanks!

[3] Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings, translated by Eric P. Wheeler, Cistercian Publications 1977

[4] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (ROCOR edition)

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