Jesus taught his followers, “Do not judge according to appearances, but judge with a righteous judgment.” (John 7:24)
In our previous article, we examined the topic of “What God Sees,” when He looks at a man, noting, as God told Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) God is able to see directly to the soul of a man, knowing that man’s innermost thoughts and motivations. “All things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give an account.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
Obviously men cannot do that. None of us are mind readers. We don’t know what is in a man’s heart. We cannot discern the true motivations of any individual.
And yet Jesus wanted His followers to learn to look past outward appearances, using a more righteous criterion as we make decisions about the character and behavior of others. Jesus was not asking the impossible; we need to seek to understand what He meant for us to do and how to apply that to ourselves.
When Jesus commanded us not to judge according to appearances, it is reasonable to assume that by “appearances” He meant those outward things so often used to judge others: age, health, wealth, ethnicity, nationality, and the like. Such standards of measurement fall short of a righteous judgment, for they are poor indicators of a person’s heart. There are good and bad people of all ages. There are wealthy men who are righteous and wealthy men who are scoundrels. Likewise, the poor. There are, in every nation, those who fear God, and those who don’t. (cf. Acts 10:35) Such indicators are nearly worthless in “making a righteous judgment.”
Despite this reality, many individuals persist in using such yardsticks in forming opinions about others. How often do people complain about the rich, the poor, the immigrant, the old, the young? We lump people into categories and then make decisions about their values, their ethics, and their relationship to us. Such categorical decision making is likely to lead us into making bad choices about others. We should avoid such thinking if we are to imitate God.
Elsewhere Jesus indicated exactly what His followers should examine in making judgments about others. Specifically, He pointed us to look at two things: how men speak, and how men behave. These fruits, Jesus said, reveal the heart.
“Every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:44-46; NKJV; cf. Matthew 7:15-20)
Men can’t read the minds of other men; nor can we know the contents of a man’s heart. But what we can see is how men treat those around them. We can hear how they speak of others, whether with kindness or with malice. We can observe their greed or their generosity. We can see how they treat the poor, the weak, and those in need. Through listening to their words, observing their conduct, and comparing it to the righteous words of God, those words in which God tells us how He expects men to behave, we can make a rational decision concerning the rightness or wrongness of the observed behavior.
Remembering these things, we should each be motivated to examine our own behavior and what it says to those around us about the contents of our hearts. Are we bringing out good treasures from a good heart to share with the world, or do others have cause to think of our hearts as being wells of darkness? When we speak, are our words kinds and uplifting, or are they hurtful? When we interact with others, do we come across as selfish or as giving?
Many will protest that they don’t want to be judged by their words, or their actions; that they know their hearts are better than their behavior. Jesus would respond as He did respond: you don’t get grapes from a bramble bush. If you want others to think well of you, then you need to produce those fruits that reflect a good, kind, loving heart. If you want to have a good reputation, then you need to behave in a way that garners a good reputation, for those around you, observing you, have nothing but your own behavior by which to rightly judge you.
Through Christ, we are able to work on our own hearts, learning to think righteously in order to produce the fruits of righteousness (cf. James 4:8; Romans 12:2; Galatians 5:22-26) The church of Christ invites you to come study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.