We all know the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s not an old expression, dating back to around 1944 when the journal American Speech used the expression, “You can’t judge a book by its binding,” but similar expressions can be found as far back as the first century when Juvenal writes, “Never have faith in the front,” in his Satires. It’s an expression that reminds us not to judge on appearances.
God expresses this idea to Samuel in I Samuel 16:7 when he says:
Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.
We often express this by saying God looks at the inward man rather than the outward, but the message is the same as judging a book by its cover. We cannot truly know the contents of a person based on appearance alone.
Often, we apply this to physical appearances, and rightfully so. A tattoo, body piercings, nontraditional clothing, dyed hair, etc. – these outward appearances are not necessarily indicative of the individual’s heart. I think we do ourselves and God’s word a disservice, however, when we stop there. More than appearances are involved in that “outer man,” or the cover of the proverbial book.
What conclusions do we draw based on cursory facts about an individual? What assumptions do we make when see a single mom or dad; a homeless person or family; an AIDs victim; a supporter of healthcare reform; a war protestor; someone with serious weight issues; a lawyer; a “liberal;” a beggar on the street; an animal-rights advocate; an ACORN worker; someone walking into a Planned Parenthood location? What do we see based on outward appearances? Are our own biases and projected stereotypes so strong and so entrenched that we are unwilling to see the book behind the cover?
Think of Rahab, David, the Philippian jailer, Matthew, Paul, even Jesus – how many of these could be rejected based solely on the appearance of their cover? How many of us would be quick to reject the aid of a prostitute; spurn the teachings of a tax collector; eternally begrudge a former Pharisee his past; ignore the words of a carpenter who doesn’t know his place? Would we view any of these as people worth our time, or would we blind ourselves to them because of the situations and issues surrounding their lives?
Speaking of God’s mind in I Corinthians 2:11, Paul writes:
For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
The same is true of our fellow man. We cannot cast blanket judgements on those around us because of the situations or issues that create the cover of their book. We cannot know the inward person until we make the effort to know them, and then, if their inward person is not who they should be, we can be a good influence that helps them change their stories.
Unlike a poorly written book, our life stories are fluid. We aren’t typeset and bound, unchangeable with all of our flaws and errors forever intact. We can change our stories, and we can help others change theirs. Like God instructs Samuel, we should be looking past the physical, so we have a hope of understanding the inner person. As for ourselves, we should be working to demonstrate Christ’s love and mercy in our lives, so we ourselves can avoid similar unfair judgment.