“Here’s to a judgment-free year!”
I heard this sentiment expressed a few times on television as hosts, celebrities, and revelers in Times Square counted down to the New Year.
Pay no attention to the judgments that other people make about your life and choices.
You be you this year.
Break free from feeling bad about other people’s opinions.
It’s the wish for a “judgment-free year,” where we are shielded from the arrows of other people’s negative impressions. A year in which everyone embraces and accepts themselves, no matter what anyone else may think.
Secular ‘Year of Jubilee’
This is a secular version of declaring the “year of jubilee” or the year of “the Lord’s favor.” Here, the “favor” is self-bestowed instead of granted by God. And the bad feeling of “being judged” comes not from God, but from others.
Why wish for a judgment-free year? It must be because people feel the weight of being judged all the time and want to be free of it.
In the world of social media, we display carefully crafted personas through images, updates, and messages. Our self-expression invites instant commentary, both positive and negative. When someone judges us, we take it as a personal affront, a betrayal that magnifies our feelings of insecurity and unworthiness.
In New York magazine, Heather Havrilesky writes about the anxieties many young people feel:
An external mob is watching and judging and withholding approval. It’s impossible to matter, to be interesting enough. Many young people describe others as “a better version of me.” This is how it feels today to be young and fully invested in our new popularity contest: No matter how hard you try, someone else out there is taking the same raw ingredients and making a better life out of them. And the curated version of you that lives online also feels hopelessly polished and inaccurate—and you feel, somehow, that you alone are the inauthentic one.
So, what is Havrilesky’s advice for the anxious? Her recommendation resembles the revelers on New Year’s Eve:
I tell people to believe in the lives they really want, to set their expectations high and strive tirelessly to achieve their dreams. But I also want to say to them, time after time, that there is no “better version” of you waiting in the future. The best version of you is who you are right here, right now, in this [messed up] impatient, imperfect, sublime moment. Shut out the noise and enjoy exactly who you are and what you have, right here, right now.
Shut out the noise. Live “judgment-free.” Enjoy who you are.
Longings and Lies in Light of the Gospel
There’s a powerful longing at work here: I feel shame and guilt and judgment. I want to be free.
That longing leads to this solution: These feelings of guilt and shame are always illegitimate, and I can be free of judgment by “shutting out the noise” and refusing to care what others think.
But what if we can’t make the noise go away? What if these feelings of inadequacy can’t be suppressed forever? What if shame takes on different forms, but never disappears? What if the favor and approval we ultimately crave doesn’t come from others, but from God?
It’s true that some feelings of guilt and shame may, in fact, be illegitimate and false. The gospel resolves this anxiety by removing the feelings that are false as well as the sins that are true—sins that explain why we feel any guilt and shame in the first place.
Our biggest problem is not that we feel guilty but that we are guilty. The reason we feel inadequate and judged at every turn is not because we have a smartphone, but because we have a conscience. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
When other people judge us, they may be accurate, or they may be off-base. In either case, these judgments point us to the Righteous God who knows us through and through, has every right to judge, and yet loves us and wants our good.
The gospel answers the longing for a judgment-free world by first exposing the lie that we can, through our willpower, escape judgment. We will never successfully “shut out the noise” and “enjoy ourselves” when we know deep down that there is a better version of ourselves we are called to fulfill, when we know that we’re unworthy of the blessings we’ve received, or when we know that some of the judgments made about us are on target.
A New Year’s declaration cannot free us from judgment. What we need is the declaration of God that we are righteous because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has shown us favor–not by overlooking our sinfulness and selfishness, but by issuing the right judgment against all that is wrong with us when Jesus was crucified.
Because we have God’s approval of us in Christ, we don’t have to be enslaved to approval from others. A judgment-free year is possible, but only because of something that happened 2,000 years ago, when the Messiah who declared the year of the Lord’s favor took upon himself the Lord’s judgment.