Sep 19, 2017

"Judgmental, You Say?" How Robust Moral Language Actually Cultivates Humility

By Anna Mussmann

Even the devil can’t stop people from recognizing that sin and evil exist. He must instead redirect us. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a fictional demon explains, “We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger. . . .  The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.”

In our own generation, postmodernism has taught us to set our fire extinguishers to “kill” whenever anyone mentions the word “sin.” We were promised we would escape the fire of judgmentalism if we denied that right and wrong can be objectively judged. Yet it didn’t work.

Postmodern America is flooded with indignant condemnation. I am a good person because I have struck a blow against homophobia, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and the other political party by sharing a meme on Facebook or by piling-on via Twitter. You, on the other hand, either agree with my beliefs completely or you are irredeemable and filled with hate. Postmodernism’s version of tolerance has resulted in a culture filled with anger and self-righteousness.

That’s because humans can’t help noticing that evil exists. When humans lack recognition of sin, they tend to create moral language that nurtures self-righteousness and hinders repentance. They tend to name labels instead of naming sins. Ultimately, such a vocabulary groups people into “us” vs. “them,” but fails to teach anyone to examine his or her own heart.

Take a word like “racism.” Racism is certainly an evil thing and often needs to be named and fought, but the word itself doesn’t reach the heart of individuals. Who is brought to repentance by being called “racist”? Who ever admits, “Yes, I am guilty”? A society that has lost all sense of sins like pride, greed, laziness, fear, or idolatry--sins that might lie behind a given individual’s racism--cannot see what causes the problems it decries. Furthermore, its members cannot see that they, too, might be just as flawed and guilty as their opponents, even if their own sins manifest in different ways. They are cut off from the repentance and humility that all society desperately needs.

Unfortunately, Christians, too, have largely lost our cultural awareness of the wide range of human sin. We remain keenly aware of some misdeeds. The sexual degradation of modern life has made us thoroughly cognizant of sins related to sex--after all, we are constantly assaulted with pornographic images and attempts to redefine everyone’s sexual identity. Certainly sexual abuses, like racism, must be named and fought.

Yet we must also see the other sins. How many of us even consider whether we are guilty of the sin of gluttony when we fritter on our smartphone or eat more than we should? How many of us treat sloth as equally as deadly to sexual lust? How often does the average American Lutheran worry that she loves her children more than God? When we are keenly concerned about some sins but blind to others, we are more likely to imitate secular culture warriors by dividing humanity into our own groups of “us” vs. “them”--“them” being people who have trespassed overtly against the particular sins to which we happen to be less vulnerable. We are more likely to build self-righteousness than humility.

Without the fullness of the Law, we cannot recognize our need for forgiveness. We cannot be saved. That is why we must put away the fire extinguishers and welcome the humiliating practice of naming sins.

If we want to cultivate repentance, let us practice using a robust moral vocabulary. It needn’t necessarily sound like a medieval-style return to sackcloth and ashes, either--sometimes it will simply be a decision to think consciously about our word choices and to stop skirting around what we know we ought to really mean.

For example, even Christian parents tend to use a lot of morally-neutral, cultural euphemisms when it comes to how we talk to our children about right and wrong. These word choices make a bigger difference than we realize. Instead of telling kids that they must obey us, we ask for “good listening.” Instead of requiring them to treat others with kindness we tell them to “be nice.” Instead of calling an action wrong, we wimp out with “that’s not cool!” A complete lack of morally clear languages makes it hard for both our children and ourselves to see the morality of a situation. Kids, too, need the words of the Law, because they too need a chance to recognize sin and repent.  

We can find another example in the way we talk about body image and dieting. Those people who write books about French women tell us that, in contrast to our classier sisters across the sea, Americans are driven by guilt and shame when it comes to food. These authors say we should let go of moralistic terms like “sinfully rich” or “being good” when it comes to what we eat. But perhaps instead we should ask ourselves if we are miserable about our diets and weight because of sin. Are we guilty of gluttony? Of vanity? Of sloth? If so, let us repent and receive absolution instead of wallowing in guilt.

Our generation has been taught to fear moral judgmentalism. Yet the law is the ultimate equalizer. It reduces everyone to the same status: a sinner in need of salvation. There is no room for self-righteousness or hypocrisy. There is no room for “us” vs. “them.”

Instead, there is a great deal of room aboard the ark that will save us from the floodwaters. No fire extinguishers needed. 


After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. Ouch. The Law hurts, but often that's exactly what we need. Thank you for the insightful post.

  2. Very well written and thought provoking. Thank you.


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