Have you ever judged a book by its cover? Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong. Occasionally there is no wrong in judging people by what you see because it acts as a defense mechanism. It warns you who to approach and who to avoid in the same way an animal would avoid a predator.  But it becomes wrong when you use your natural inclination in a way that labels, stereotypes, and shows preference. The Apostle James writes about this. He says,

“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2.1-4, NIV)

James wrote this to warn against showing preference to people who appear to have money. This is good advice, but in a way, he is also judging books by their covers. He assumes that those who look like they have money are well off, while those who look like they have no money are poor. However, this may not always be the case.

Those who look wealthy and successful may not be wealthy and successful.

I lived and worked in Aberdeen in the oil and gas industry as a Quality Engineer for some years. During that time, there was a major oil recession. The recession hit Aberdeen and the surrounding area particularly hard because its economy relied heavily on the oil and gas industry. Unemployment went up by one-quarter as skilled and unskilled workers found themselves on the unemployment line. [1]

Our home church helped run a food bank during this period. Before the recession, it was typically homeless people and addicts who utilized the facility. During the recession, people and families who had been paid off overwhelmed the food bank. Although they had sold their luxuries, they were still well dressed in comparison to the people who normally used the facilities. They looked out-of-place. They seemed wealthy and successful, but they were not.

Those who look poor and needy are not always poor and needy.

Allister was a friend of our family. He dressed in worn blue overalls and wore scruffy work shoes with no socks. His bedraggled features and unkempt hair made him look like a hobo. But you would be grossly mistaken if you thought that about him. In reality, the man was a local property magnate and a millionaire. He had more money than he knew what to do with. Yet, his humble exterior and thrifty demeanor gave the impression of a dejected charity case.

How you judge impacts what you do

In the case of what the Apostle James says, it would be easy to show favoritism to the unemployed oil worker because they dress well, and disparage the millionaire because he dresses poorly. Moreover, the assumption that poor people look poor and wealthy people look wealthy will affect how we direct our charitable acts. We will be inclined to help the poor-looking person who really does not need our help, while we overlook the wealthy-looking person who actually does need our help. From my examples, we would show charity to Allister and ignore the oil worker who is in dire need.

How do you see beyond a book’s cover?

In keeping with the book and cover metaphor, the easiest way to see beyond the book’s cover is to open it and get to know what is inside. This involves building a deep enough relationship with someone so that you know when they are in difficulty and you can then help them out. However, this way is not always reliable because some people find it harder than others to express what is going on in their lives.

Another way is by relying on the Holy Spirit. This happened to Joyce at church once. During the worship service, the Lord powerfully moved upon her to act on behalf of a woman in the congregation. He impressed upon her that she should go and buy the woman some groceries, specifically pancake mix. Joyce hurriedly left the church during the service and drove to the store to buy the items. She was back just in time before the church service ended to give them to the woman.

With teary eyes, the woman explained that every Sunday after church she would make her kids pancakes. Only this weekend she had none at home and she had no money to buy the mix. During the worship service, she asked in her heart, “What will I feed my kids?”

The woman did not know it, but at the same time she was questioning the Lord, he was communicating her need to another member of the congregation. The groceries and pancake mix Joyce bought were his response to her heart’s cry. Now, to look at the woman, you would not think for one moment that she needed such help.

The Holy Spirit links us all together

The Holy Spirit knows everything that is going on in our lives. His presence links all the members of the church together into the Body of Christ. Because of this, it is not outside of his scope to communicate to one member when another is hurting. If you burn your hand or jam your finger in the car door, your central nervous system reacts instantaneously. Instinctively you take your hand away from the pain, draw it close, and hold it with the other hand. These actions all take place in a split-second. The church, the Body of Christ, operates the same way. When one of us is hurt or going through a difficult time, the Holy Spirit communicates to other bodily members to protect and sustain that member. In the case of Joyce’s example, all she had to do was listen to the Holy Spirit and be obedient.

Do not judge books by their covers

It is not wise to judge people by what you see. You need the Holy Spirit’s insight because only he knows what is going on in the lives of others. The person with the expensive ring may be wondering how they are going to fill the car with gas so they can get to the pawn shop, sell the ring,  and buy groceries for their kids. Look closer at the person with the well-polished designer shoes. Maybe they are gluing them together each Sunday before they come to church. Your kind heart may naturally incline to that person who looks like they slept in a ditch but look and see what they are driving. Do not judge books by their covers. Instead, look, listen, and be obedient to what the Lord puts on your heart. You cannot fail if you are obedient to his voice.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/mar/18/aberdeen-oil-price-wrestles-hard-choices-independence, accessed 01 Nov 2017