Modern Golden Calves: Outward Appearances

When talking about modesty or a focus of societal standards of beauty, I hear this passage quoted time and again:

Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing –  but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

– I Peter 3:3-4

This is a nice verse for that topic, but I think it fits in with a larger overall theme in the New Testament writings of outward appearances verses inward reality. One of the big transitions between the Old and New Testaments is a shift on focusing on outward, physical manifestations of value and spirituality toward more inward, spiritual expressions. It is a transition from shadows manifested in physical representations into a reality of spiritual forms (Hebrews 10). Other verses focusing on the inward/outward contrast bear this out:

While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

And the Lord said to him, Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…

– Luke 11:37-40

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

– Matthew 23:27-28

For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

– Romans 2:28-29

Even though this contrast in emphasized time and again in the New Testament, it is not alien to the Old. See, for example, God’s reminder to Samuel upon looking among Jesse’s sons for the one who would lead physical Israel:

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.

But the LORD said to Samuel, 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.

– I Samuel 16:6-7

Many of us have no problems pointing to denominational practices in the religious world around us and saying: “Look at their infatuation with outward appearances.” It may be advertising what we’re giving up for Lent. It may be breaking out the best suits and dresses for Easter Sunday. It may be the pomp surrounding a Christmas Mass. We look at those things, and, like the Pharisee  in Luke 18:10-14, we pat ourselves on our collective backs and say, “I’m glad I’m not like those people.”

We are the same though – very much the same.

Example 1: In spiritually conservative circles, much attention has been given to the fact that President Obama has not hosted any special events on the National Day of Prayer. I’ve heard it cited as evidence of Obama’s lack of faith, of our nation’s descent into wickedness, of Obama’s secret Muslim background, of his lack of concern for spiritual matters, and other similar claims. It trended on Twitter. Facebook polls went up about it. Nasty chain-emails began circulating.

I think Tim Archer makes some good observations about this non-event on his site:

Sorry, I know that it’s cool to complain about this day not getting enough observance. I just don’t see the plus to it. I believe in prayer…But I don’t believe in prayer by decree. I don’t believe in somehow trying to get people who wouldn’t otherwise pray to join us in prayer.

Christians should pray without ceasing…not needing a special day.

Christians should pray for leaders of all nations, not wait for leaders to pray for them.

Christians should pray without making a show of it.

Christians should pray in secret.

Mr. Archer is, of course, referencing Matthew 6:1-18 where Jesus criticized the Pharisees and others for making a show of their religion – showing off their charitable contributions, making a big deal about their fasting, and even seeking attention through public prayer. He criticizes these actions as seeking secular attention over pleasing our heavenly Father. That perfectly encapsulates the criticisms against President Obama: “We don’t see him leading us in prayer at this arbitrarily set-aside secular holiday!” We are asking for a show of outward appearances in an act of worship that Christ specifically said should be personal and private. We are placing emphasis on the secular observance and therefore turning it into an idol.

Example 2: Another common sticking point comes at displaying the Ten Commandments. Christian groups around the country grow indignant every time a courthouse or other government building removes (or even simply talks about removing) displays of the Ten Commandments.

If I may chase a rabbit for a brief second: Why the commotion about the Ten Commandments? Momentarily shelving my opinion that our notion of a “Christian Nation” as a geopolitical entity is wholly absent from New Testament teachings, why do Christians feel the need to fight for displays based upon the foundation of a law Jesus nailed to the cross (Romans 7, 8, and much of Hebrews)? Why not fight for the Beatitudes or the fruits of the spirit instead? Displaying a component of the Levitical code on our governmental buildings does not draw us closer to Christ. It is a mere superficial expression of spirituality, nothing more.

We Christians have fallen into the same trap in which we see the Pharisees mired throughout the gospels. We have grown obsessed with outward expressions of religion as if these are to do the work of our ministry for us. We feel we are “fighting the good fight” when we go to a town hall meeting, protest the removal of a religious icon, and walk away having shared the gospel with no one present (not that they might want to hear it afterwards anyway). These superficial battles have become a sort of ministry-by-proxy, and they have begun replacing our true work.

I’m reminded of something Jay Guin recently wrote at One In Jesus:

Prayer in school, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Ten Commandments in a courthouse do not save souls, do not persuade the lost, and will not make the world a better place. Only Jesus in our hearts will do that — and that comes from people persuading people one on one in coffee shops, not from statuary in state buildings.

…The early church didn’t grow by gaining control of the schools and the city squares. The early church grew by leading sacrificial lives of love, by works of sacrificial charity, by treating all classes and races as equals, and by being Christian even if it meant their own death. And that’s a plan that’ll still work.

We should not need God’s law plastered on building fronts if it is already inscribed upon our hearts (Hebrews 8:10-12). We do not need to wear cross jewelry if Christ is evident in our lives (I Peter 3:3-4). We don’t need special prayer days if we live lives of prayer (I Timothy 2:8, I Thessalonians 5:17), and having “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our money (a motto that didn’t appear on any currency until 1864 and wasn’t officially adopted or put on paper money until 1956) evidences God’s presence no more than the numerous phylacteries that would adorn a Pharisee’s robe.

These outward appearances have come to replace a true sense of God in our religious culture. They have become idols whose presence can comfort us or whose absence rattles our faith. We have replaced wearing Christ in our hearts with wearing Him on our wrists and bumpers. We have to fix our priorities, leave these superficial forms of spirituality to those who love the praises of man, and focus on our true calling as followers of Christ.

Image 1 is an official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Image 2 is from