One of the most exciting and inspirational books I’ve read in a long time is Dr. Russell Moore’s recent release Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. I’ve highlighted more in this book than I have in any book other than the Bible.
In Onward, Dr. Moore relates a story about when he was a young man attending church with his grandmother. A man began attending their church and sitting in the pew in front of the family. Young Russell noticed that the man had a tattoo of a naked woman on his arm, and the tattoo fascinated the boy.
So I nudged my grandmother and pointed, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
My grandmother leaned down and whispered. I expected her to share my outrage (though not my secret titillation)… She whispered, “Yes, honey, he doesn’t know the Lord yet, and he’s had a hard life, with drink and drugs and all. But his wife had been trying to get him to come to church for a long time, and we’ve all been praying for him. He’s not trying to be ugly to anybody. He just doesn’t know Jesus yet.”
Sure enough, the man did come to faith in Jesus and began to wear long sleeves to church to cover up his ink. Moore relates that other kids in the church told him that the man had added a bathing suit to the tattoo to make it palatable to more people.
I can remember taking a group of kids to some youth event many years ago at a church that was much more traditional than ours. One boy wore a hat, but the other chaperones and I didn’t think anything of it. At the church, an older man — a complete stranger — excoriated the boy for wearing a baseball cap to a weekend youth rally! It took everything within me not to light into the guy for being ugly to this poor defenseless kid!
How many of us Christians can admit to judging people based on their appearances? I have a confession: I’m bad about it sometimes. I can find myself looking askance at somebody who doesn’t meet my stylish-yet-still-fairly-conservative standard of appearance (though I don’t really judge tattoos anymore, now that I have a couple). It’s easy at times to look down on someone based solely on his or her appearance without even realizing it.
In the Old Testament, the prophet and priest Samuel learned this lesson when the Lord sent him to Jesse’s family to anoint the next king of Israel. Samuel assumed that one of Jesse’s older sons was the one whom God would reveal to be the future ruler of His chosen people. But when Jesse presented his oldest son to the priest, Samuel found out that his assumptions were wrong.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT)
Turns out it was Jesse’s youngest son, David, whom God had intended to be the future king — and one of the patriarchs of the redemptive bloodline that produced Jesus. It’s true that God is sovereign and could have enacted His plan to save the world with a different king had Samuel acted based on his assumptions, but God’s will included David as king, even though he looked like the last person to fill that role at first.
In Onward, Russell Moore hits us hard on that judgment:
But I wonder how many people don’t listen to our gospel message because they assume they don’t “look” like the kind of people who would be Christians – namely shiny, happy Republicans. And, shamefully, how many times do we filter out our gospel preaching and our social witness to people who would, upon baptism, be able to pose nicely for our ministry advertisements?
We don’t know what the next generation of Christian (and Jewish) leaders will look like. They may be the very people we despise now!
The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.
Sometimes it’s easy for even the most well-meaning believers to look at a person’s physical appearance or what he or she does and label that person a loser, a hopeless case, or as someone beyond the pale. But God sees someone with potential, someone who could be a force for His kingdom. If the Lord looks at the heart, shouldn’t we get past physical appearances and do the same?