Most of us have heard the saying to never judge a book by its cover. There are always dangers with coming to conclusions about people, circumstances and other things by taking a superficial view of them and not taking the time and effort to find out what’s going on under the surface.
So why do we do it so often?
We live in a very superficial culture where appearance is everything. The media emphasizes looking good, wearing the right clothes, having the right body shape, and so on. Marketing often makes the packaging more important than what the product. Social media dictates that people’s perceptions of us are based on our profile pictures, so we can be constantly taking selfies or paying for professional photographers to find a picture which will help the world decide that we are acceptable or worthwhile.
The way something looks is often more important in our society than what it is.
In the church, we have also fallen into the trap of making conclusions about people or situations based on appearance. We can be judged by people in the church by the clothes we wear to worship, how we wear our hair, whether we have tattoos or piercings, or other ways in which we might present ourselves. Our actions and behaviours are often judged by others, especially if we don’t come up to expectations of what is acceptable behaviour – just ask any parent of young children who are noisy during worship. When we make decisions in our congregations about changes or new directions in ministry, people can be critical without knowing the full story. We tend to make decisions and judgements in the church based on what things look like rather than what they really are.
But God doesn’t work that way.
I love this story of Samuel anointing David to be the new king of Israel in 1 Samuel 16:1-13 because God tells Samuel that he doesn’t look at outward appearances. God looks at the heart (v7). God looks beyond the superficial things that we are usually preoccupied with. He looks beneath the surface to see what’s really going on in our hearts.
For God, who we are is much more important that how we look.
In the Hebrew way of thinking, a person’s heart isn’t just an organ in our chest that pumps blood around our bodies. A person’s heart is what lies at our core, at the centre of our being. During my student days I worked in a supermarket and used to put cans of artichoke hearts on the shelves. I was surprised to learn that artichokes are a vegetable, not a small, furry animal. An artichoke’s heart is what is at its centre. In the same way, when the Bible talks about our hearts, it is referring to what lies at the centre of who we are. What lies at the centre will shape who we are and what we do.
We aren’t told in 1 Samuel 16 why David’s heart was different from his brothers, so we can only guess, based on the stories we have of David in the Old Testament. As we get to know David, we find a person who made mistakes and did some pretty horrible things. But what seems different about David is that he had a heart that was open to God and was turned towards God. The centre of David’s being was oriented towards God’s goodness as he relied on God’s grace and love.
Maybe, in the same way, God is looking for us to have hearts that are turned towards him and are open to his goodness. God looks past our appearance, how we look and even what we do, to see if our hearts are turned towards him. Whatever our hearts are turned towards becomes our god, so God looks to see whether our hearts are turned towards him or away from him. He is looking to see if our hearts are open to his grace or closed to the goodness he wants to pour into them by the power of his Holy Spirit. It’s not up to us to try to work that out for other people because we can’t see into people’s hearts. But God is looking to see what lies at the centre of our being and whether or not God has a place there.
Because God wants to give us new hearts that are orientated towards him and open to his goodness. Everything that lies on our hearts which would be an obstacle to or disqualify us from a relationship with God has been taken by Jesus and put to death on the cross. The message of forgiveness is that Jesus removes everything which lies in our hearts that is wrong or bad or unclean. He has carried it to the cross and put it to death once and for all. In its place, Jesus fills our hearts with goodness and love and purity and peace. He mends our broken hearts with his grace and gives our hearts new life as he gifts us with his Holy Spirit and restores us to being the people he created us to be. This love re-orients our hearts and turns them towards God who fills us with his grace.
That is why Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:16,17 not to evaluate others form a worldly point of view which only looks at superficial externals. Paul wants us to see each other from God’s perspective, as he looks into our hearts and sees Jesus. Everything about us that is old, broken and wrong is gone. In its place, God gives us the life of Christ which is new and full of shining goodness and purity. This is how God wants us to see each other, as well as ourselves: as people whom Jesus loves, for whom he died, and who are made new through the gift of his Spirit. When Jesus lives in our hearts, at our core and the centre of our being through faith, then we are a new creation and his life has begun in us.
Whether we are talking about or ourselves or others, it’s good to never judge books by their covers. God never just looks at the external appearance, so why should we? Instead, God looks at our hearts and sees Jesus who fills our whole being with his goodness, grace and love. The challenge is to see each other in the same way.
So, this week, who could you look at in a new way from God’s perspective? Is there a person or situation where you’ve only seen the external appearance? How might your perception of other people be different if you looked at them with God’s eyes and saw them as people for whom Christ died?