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 does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

“I’ll be a dentist…” (line from Little Shop of Horrors).

On a December trip to Georgia to see my mom, I stopped at a rest area in the middle of nowhere in Alabama. (A good place for a rest area!) The three staff members—two women and a man—were all sitting inside behind the reception desk. When I came out of the restroom and was leaving, one of them said she had a question for me: was I a dentist? How odd, I thought, but I said no, I was a minister. Her smile and “I-told-you-so” glance at her co-worker indicated that she was pleased by the answer. “You just looked like you might be a dentist,” she said, and I took that to mean that I had a kind of professional bearing. Of course, I had no idea what qualities she actually associated with a dentist, and I didn’t hang around to ask. I had to get on the road.

During the visit with my mom, a story came on TV about the shooter at Virginia Tech. “Such a nice looking boy,” my mother observed. I responded with a cliche: “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” But for her, someone who looked nice couldn’t possibly commit a crime. Presumably only shabby, ugly or dirty people do that.

I shouldn’t and can’t be so hard on my mom, though. I judge people by how they look all the time. And, I suspect, so do you. I guess it’s the nature of the case. If we are just meeting someone and barely know their name, what else do we have to go on to make a judgment as to whether we would like to have the person as a friend, colleague or romantic partner? It’s like the old saw that a man’s shoes display his character. The way we present ourselves to others can speak volumes about our choices, our viewpoints, and our morality.

But, as Shakespeare said, “the devil may assume a pleasing shape.” Not everyone who looks nice is a saint, and not everyone whose external appearance is off-putting is a sinner. Just think of all the men and women in 2008 and since wearing expensive clothes and watches and riding in fancy cars who plunged this country into its current economic crisis. Their well-kept appearance was no indicator of the state of their consciences and hearts.

Perhaps the best advice in all this comes from a bumper sticker I saw recently: “Change how you see, not how you look.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.