Monday, July 6, 2015

Outward Appearances Can Be Deceiving

“Beauty is only skin deep – but ugliness goes clear to the bone!” This nonsensical saying dates back to my boyhood years, but underscores our human fixation with how we look on the outside.

Most of us really do have a thing about outward appearances. We draw conclusions about people based on the houses they live in, cars they drive, vacations they take, jobs they have, even the books they read and movies they see.

We watch the ”beautiful people” – stars from Hollywood and all realms of the entertainment world strolling red carpets, regaled in their finest attire (or in some cases, lack of attire). We gaze at their smiling faces and presume what nice people they must be. Experts on political campaigning tell us the candidates most likely to win are those that succeed at looking good on the TV screen, who can project themselves as personable, attractive, approachable, sincere, clever, and “just like us.” It’s call telegenics.

The problem with using outward
appearances to judge people is
we can't see their hearts.
Makes me wonder if Abraham Lincoln, gawky and ordinary-looking as he was, would ever have had a chance at the Presidency had he been running today.

But this concentration on how folks look on the outside isn’t limited to celebrities and politicians. When we meet someone new, most of us find ourselves – consciously or subconsciously – sizing them up based on their externals.

We assess them based on how they’re dressed and groomed, the way they smell, and their natural physical attributes: Pretty (or not). Strong (or weak). Successful (or not). Intelligent and/or educated (or not). Wealthy, middle class, or poor. Happy and friendly, or angry and aloof.

One national magazine recently reported in the near future cosmetic surgery will become, for most people, not a matter of “if,” but rather, “when” and “how much.” Largely, all in the name of “lookin’ good.” The reasoning is if people are going to gauge who we are according to our outward appearance, we might as well do whatever we can to enhance the effect.

Even though Jesus said, “Do not judge or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), we do it anyway. We appraise people according to gender and age, for good or ill. For instance, if I’m leaving a restaurant and hold the door for a women going in, she may regard me as polite, maybe even gentlemanly – or she might think I’m condescending and sexist. Even though we’ve never met, the woman could make a snap judgment about me based on what she sees and her biases.

Have you ever observed an elderly person driving a car a bit slowly and concluded something like, “That person really should take a new driver’s test. Probably shouldn’t even be on the road”? Many of us have, and yet we know nothing about that person – except what we can observe outwardly.

I remember a time when I was in college – many years ago – being stopped by police officers, even though I had done nothing wrong. My “crime” was wearing my hair long enough to fit me into the category of “those hippie types.” Yes, I was “profiled,” long before anyone used the term.

Fixation with outward appearances, of course, is central to racism and other forms of prejudice. We make assumptions about people that look a certain way, and react accordingly, without knowing anything about who they truly are. Why bother getting to know people when you can fit them into handy, one-size-fits-all stereotypes, right?

Thankfully, God isn’t that way. In fact, the Bible says He’s just the opposite. In searching for someone to succeed King Saul to lead the nation of Israel, the prophet Samuel learned, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). On that basis, God chose an unassuming sheepherder – David – to become king. A young man who initially didn’t look the part, but as it turned out, was “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).

Years later, David’s son, Solomon, who succeeded him as king, made a similar observation: “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).

Outwardly we may appear to have the purest motives. We might have even convinced ourselves that our intentions are the best for everyone involved. But God sees behind well-crafted façades and examines our hearts, sometimes revealing motivations not as noble or pure as we might want people to believe.

One time Jesus confronted the prideful, self-assured religious leaders of His day. He minced no words: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people, but Jesus was calling it as He saw it – viewing their sinful, self-righteous hearts.

Unfortunately, we can’t peer into someone’s heart as God can. But we can ask Him for wisdom as we interface with others. Then we can invest the time necessary to get acquainted with them, seeking to know their inner person before jumping to conclusions that might prove way off base.

Wouldn’t we want other people to do the same for us?

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