They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and maybe that used to be true when there was no originality in bookbinding. They all featured the same black, gray, or burgundy hardcover — but nowadays, the cover, with its fancy art and pictures, says much about the content.
The same is true of people. You can tell many things about a person by the way they look, dress, and carry themselves. For example, it’s obvious even to the casual observer that while I sit here writing in a crowded hallway, across from the escalator, I wish to be left alone.
That is nearly always true about me. My shyness is demonstrated through my mannerisms — my quiet speech, the nervous darting of my eyes — they all suggest that I am uncomfortable talking to strangers and people I don’t know very well.
My dress is typically casual and unassuming — for I don’t like to call too much attention to myself. My hair is cut short, for simplicity’s sake. All of this is true, and so it is possible to “judge” me based on my outward appearance.
Now, that doesn’t mean that when you get to know someone, that first impression you have formed is the way you will always view him or her. Once you get to know me, I am more relaxed in conversation and confident when talking to friends. I am animated when telling stories when I am with people I am comfortable with. That doesn’t disqualify that first impression, because the truth of who I am hasn’t changed.
The circumstances have been altered.
Someone just walked up to me as I was contemplating my next paragraph and asked if she had chalk on her face. I don’t know her, and she doesn’t know me. But I can tell you a few things about her upon our first encounter: she is bold, friendly, and self-conscious enough to worry about her appearance, but not self-conscious enough to prevent her from approaching a total stranger to ask a somewhat bizarre question about a fairly personal matter.
It’s fair to assert that if I were to get to know her better, she would be a little less abrasive, but still distinctly comfortable with herself. My impression of her at first wasn’t wrong, but if the circumstances of our relationship change, my opinion of her might. The variable is not her, and it’s not me — it’s the dynamics and circumstances of our relationship.
Some distort this theory. Those people have either yet to decide who they are or simply are not comfortable with allowing anyone to ‘figure them out.’ They enjoy being called ‘enigmas’ and like to keep people guessing about their true identities. These folks are only fooling themselves, though, because those of us who study people either by profession or by hobby can spot them a mile away. Many times they pretend to be “super-holy” or more enlightened than the rest of us. They have to be the center of attention, whether through their actions or through their appearance. They start fads like body piercing or oddly colored hair. Some would say that we owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to shape our culture, but their impact is typically temporary and only surface level — much like the depth of their personality.
People are like books. Upon first viewing of a cover, or even upon the first skim through, the book may not mean much. Yet, if your life circumstances or needs or philosophies change, so may your appreciation for particular literature. And since our opinions are what we use in making judgments, no one should feel guilty about having an idea and ‘judging’ others. Some of us have been given the gift of discernment. We should be judges and police officers. It is we who should be making decisions regarding employment. And we make the best psychologists, sociologists, and counselors.
Christians don’t have the market cornered on discernment. Armed with this knowledge, each one of us ought to be attempting to not just put on a front for evangelism’s sake, but to always and totally strive to live as we know we ought — and to behave in ways we want others to see. Jesus called us to go and preach to all nations, and as the cliché goes, “We may be the only sermon/Bible/Jesus a person ever sees.” Overdone? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Go out today and live the gospel. Don’t just pretend, for your impact will only be temporary and non-influential. Allow the world to judge you by their first impression, and may God be honored and demonstrated by your character — not by your performance.
Originally published in 1999. Revised March 28, 2020.