After the house stopped shaking, I pulled myself out from under the table and dusted off my clothes. Thankful we still had electricity, I raced to the computer to see what news I could learn about the quake, but there was little to discover at this early stage. I had no inkling of the events that had been set in motion by this huge movement of the earth. After enduring more aftershocks, I went to pick up our kindergartener from school. All seemed normal as I walked. The local elementary soccer club was practicing. The birds chirped, and there seemed to be the usual number of people on the streets.
March 11, 2011, is a date few adults in Japan will forget, the date we experienced a 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the east coast. Where we live in western Tokyo, we did not experience much damage. Nevertheless, the quake lasted for what seemed to me a long time. In the ten years we had lived here, we had never experienced one bigger.
However, when I got to the school, things were different. The whole student body stood on the playground, as they had evacuated the buildings. After I checked on our three sons, my husband (a teacher at the school) pointed out the absence of trains. The school stands adjacent to a railway line, but no trains zoomed past while we stood there. They had ceased to run—a rare event in train-dependent Tokyo.
We soon realized that telecommunications were down too. In the days following the earthquake, more and more unexpected things happened. We heard about the giant tsunami, though no one knew initially how much devastation it had caused. Food became scarce in the shops. People lined up for hours to get gas for their cars, and scheduled power cuts were announced.
Then came news that the nuclear power plants on the coast, 155 miles away, were damaged. Thirty-six hours after the event, we laughed when a friend told us about the phone call from her husband’s parents in the US—they heard her early morning cough over the phone and believed the family was being poisoned by radiation. Shortly afterwards, that story was not funny anymore, nor unusual. The media went crazy. So many diverse opinions, so little solid evidence. What was the truth?
We faced tough decisions. We had to decide whether to evacuate from Tokyo, or even from Japan. Our relatively stable lives were shaken. Almost all that we had previously taken for granted changed.
Japan is a relatively safe place to live. While missionaries in other countries frequently face violence, political coups, wars, and other threats, day-to-day life in Japan is not risky. We had not, however, anticipated the danger of radiation.
This unforeseen situation brought surprising responses. Families had to make their own decisions. Many left rapidly, without notifying friends. Every time I logged onto Facebook I cringed as I wondered how many more of my friends might have left without saying goodbye.
We decided to stay, but I kept questioning that decision. Had we done the right thing, I wondered. My emotions swung back and forth. Why were others leaving?
To my surprise I felt hurt that others left without telling us. A selfish response, I know, but the unexpected loss felt difficult to handle. I justified our decision and told myself I was right and others were wrong.
I could not have been more mistaken. We had good reasons for staying, but I did not need to justify our decision by thinking or saying that others had made a mistake. Those who left had good reasons, and I had no right to judge them.
It is not often that we in wealthy countries are presented with such dramatic, community-wide decisions, but is it not true that we often judge others? How often do we have thoughts like:
She has terrible dress sense—that combination is dreadful.
Those parents obviously have no idea what they are doing. What a bratty kid! If I were his mum, I would…
I have these judgmental thoughts more often than I would like to admit. When I remember how strongly Jesus condemned such thoughts and actions (Matthew 7:1-5), I am ashamed. In thinking these judgmental thoughts I am elevating myself. If I put someone else down in my mind, I am actually thinking, I am better than that person.
In March I gradually discovered people’s reasons for evacuating, but many times in life we do not know the thinking behind other people’s behaviour or words. Even if we do know why, it often does not help.
To think, You may be right, and I am wrong to judge you, goes against our natural instincts. However, I am convinced it is how Jesus would have us approach our judgmental thoughts.
Most of the missionary community evacuated only temporarily. All my friends came back, and we were joyfully reunited. Japan has been deeply touched by the worldwide response of Christians to the disaster. We are still praying for breakthrough in this spiritually needy land, but I am also convinced that as we serve God here, He is doing a work in us too. I hope that, by God’s grace, I will not so easily fall into judging others in the future.
© 2013 Thrive.
Questions to Consider: What things help you to not judge others actions/decisions? How have you learned to battle judgmental thoughts in practical ways?