“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a popular axiom that points to something very important. What we see on the outside may not be representative of what is on the inside. Appearances can be deceiving.
Judging people based on appearances moves us into dangerous territory. It limits us from understanding what motivates and guides them. In our minds we might employ a label that is inaccurate. On a personal, emotional level we can understand why this could be hurtful and why we wouldn’t want to be labeled this way ourselves.
The Bible, too, warns that this type of judgment is wrong. In the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, God explains that there is a vast difference between man’s way of judging and His own. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7). The right type of judgment considers not just outward appearances but what makes up the whole person. This allows us to discern between right or wrong behavior without condemning the individual.
Jesus told His first-century followers to be careful in the way they judged, because the same judgment would be used against them (Matthew 7:1–2). This is good advice for us as well and calls for a certain amount of gravity. If we're careless about our judgment of others, perhaps condemning them for something we see but may not correctly understand, then we will receive the same type of judgment in return.
But it’s important to note that godly judgment applies in both directions. Consider, for example, those who offer spiritual instruction. If we esteem such individuals based on appearances—on how well they speak or how imposing they are on the outside—we could be making a disastrous mistake. Rather we should listen to their message and observe the way they live. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Their words and actions will identify what is on the inside. We should put less emphasis on outward appearances, because that isn’t the true measure of what they are and what they teach. Do their words ring true when compared to biblical instruction, and furthermore, do they practice what they preach? Those who teach certain principles and behavior but live contrary to their own teaching negate the effectiveness of their words and undermine their own credibility. On the other hand, a person who may be less imposing as a personality but who teaches words of truth and lives by them should be judged accordingly.
Many Jewish instructors in Jesus’ time were examples of the first sort of teacher, and He had harsh words for them. He said they looked good on the outside—they dressed well and gave eloquent prayers—but inside they were full of extortion and self-indulgence. He called them blind and hypocritical (Matthew 23:25–28).
Jesus wanted to emphasize that deception abounds when religious deceivers are active. He told His audience, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
He explained that, because of lawlessness, even some who claimed to be performing miracles in His name would not be in His kingdom. In other words, they were not keeping the words and laws that are found in the Bible. This is an important lesson to keep in mind as we live our lives as well.
Should we judge a book by its cover? It is rarely a reliable guide for identifying what is inside. By the fruits of people’s lives, however, we can learn to discern what really motivates their actions.
JERRY DE GIER