Beware Outward Appearances

Nearly a year ago a television event occurred which took the world by storm. When the episode was posted on the Internet the video clip was viewed by millions and millions of people within days. I refer to the day a star was born. I refer of course to Susan Boyle. Her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent on 11 April 2009 was one of those amazing occurrences which got everyone talking.

The story of course is very well known, but let me present a rough outline of events. Ms Boyle, an overweight, frumpy and aging spinster from Scotland appeared on the show much to the horror, mirth and consternation of judges and audience alike.

Everyone had written her off, simply based on her appearance – and a bit of odd behaviour. When celebrity judge Simon Cowell asked her who she would like to be as successful as, Boyle replied, “Elaine Paige; somebody like that”. Nearly everyone laughed and scoffed, thinking she was a real fruit loop and a loser. Certainly the three judges felt that way as well.

But as soon as she opened her mouth all that changed, and the rest, as they say, is history. She was praised by everyone, and deemed to be the next big thing. Although she did come second in the final of the show, she has gone on to be a worldwide superstar with a bestselling album and a global following.

The seven minute video clip of her initial appearance in which she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables still gives one goose bumps, and can be seen in many places. (If you happen to be one of the several hundred people left in the world that hasn’t yet seen the video, why not check it out? See the link below which has been viewed an incredible 88 million times so far!)

The important point in all this of course is the very common but very destructive habit of judging by outward appearances. The Western world is cursed by this obsession to get the right looks, to be thin, to be beautiful, to be attractive, and to be youthful.

The reason I pen this piece now is because I just came across a news story which appeared in today’s press. A report has just come out revealing how bad this desire to have the right look can be, and how it is impacting on children at ever younger ages. Here is how the story began:

“Half of Britain’s six-year-old girls want to be skinnier – with many convinced it would make them more popular. The shock figure emerged in a study by Cambridge University experts which found most girls reckon they are too fat by age 12. Chillingly, half the six-year-olds who were asked to pick their ideal shape plumped for a digitally altered image of themselves three sizes smaller – the most stick-thin they could choose.”

You know a culture is on the verge of collapse when we can allow this kind of stuff to be happening to our children. This unhealthy and dangerous fixation on looks and appearances has reached epidemic proportions in the West, and shows no signs of abating.

Fortunately not every culture has placed such a foolish and reckless emphasis on outward appearances. Some cultures in fact have warned against this very thing. Certainly the Judeo-Christian worldview has long spoken against such folly.

Indeed, the Bible has much to say on the subject. In the Old Testament for example we are told about how wrong it is to judge a person on the basis of his appearance. The classic case here is found in 1 Samuel 16:1-13, where God sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse’s residence to select one of his sons as king.

You know how the story goes. Verses 6-7 pick up the story: “When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.’ But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’.”

Or consider the book of Proverbs where there is some very wise and timely advice given on the topic of how women should present themselves. In chapter 31 we read about the virtuous woman. In verse 30 it says this about the sort of woman God favours: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised”.

In the New Testament Peter picks up this theme, warning against overemphasis on outward adornment. In 1 Peter 3:3-4 he says this: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

And Jesus also spoke to this issue on various occasions. In John 7:24 he bluntly states, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgement”. And in Matthew 23:28 he spoke about how our outer world can radically differ from our inner world: “In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Our dangerous obsession with looks

Fortunately in the case of Susan Boyle there was a happy ending to the initial rejection because of her looks. Sure, it has taken its toll, and she has had some breakdowns and adjustment issues. But hers is basically a feel-good success story. However, I suspect that for every good news story in this regard there are probably thousands of bad news stories.

How many countless millions of people have struggled with depression, self-loathing, despair, a lousy self-image, and misery solely because of their appearance? Indeed, how many people have committed suicide because of the rejection and hostility they have encountered simply because they do not have the latest Hollywood look?

Plenty of studies have in fact made it quite clear that good looking people are treated far differently than average or poor looking people. Those with good looks will tend to get better grades in school, get better job offers and better pay, get all sorts of preferential treatment, and generally be regarded in a much more favourable light than ordinary looking people.

Such is the world we live in. And of course believers can be just as guilty of the sin of wanting to get the look, and putting all their eggs in the basket of outward appearances. How many Christian women today for example take to heart the admonitions found in Proverbs or 1 Peter?

How many men make a priority of how their inner life looks? Our gyms and health clubs are overflowing with men and women trying to get in shape and get the look. There is of course a place for seeking to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

But do believers put as much emphasis on, and time into, the development of their spiritual life as they do their outward life? This wouldn’t be a bad test to try out: for every hour you spend at the gym, swimming pool, or beauty parlour, do you spend an equal amount of hours building up your spiritual self (reading the Word, praying, fellowshipping, and so on)?

Even the apostle Paul spoke to this issue in 1 Tim. 4:7-8 when he said, “train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

As I mentioned, there certainly is a place to keep our physical body in good shape. It is, after all, the temple of the Holy Spirit as Paul says in 1 Cor. 3. But how much more should we be looking after our souls? What priority are we giving to our spiritual condition?

Perhaps we all need to pause and take stock of our lives in this regard. After all, who are we really trying to impress? Is our primary motivation to look good for other people, and to get their praise for our outward looks? Or are we concerned about how we look first and foremost to our Lord? Is he pleased when he looks in to our soul? Is he impressed when he assesses our spiritual condition?

Until these concerns not only equal but surpass our concerns about pleasing people, and winning their approval for how we look, then I am afraid our Christian lives will be mediocre at best and dishonouring to God at worst.

And we can go further here. How many Christians become leaders and movers and shakers in our churches simply because of their looks? “Oh come on,” you might reply, “that would never happen in our churches”. I am afraid it does happen however. We seem to be far too interested in celebrities and emulating the world than we are in preferring real men of holiness, character and godliness.

The celebrity culture which permeates the world all too often permeates our churches as well. Indeed, just think of some of the most popular and televised Christian preachers today. Most tend to be young, handsome, good-looking and well-dressed. How many older or uglier saints enjoy such treatment? But Paul instructs us to regard no one “from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16).

The truth is, it is time for a check-up on our priorities. For too long we have slavishly followed the fads and fortunes of the world. It is time for something better, something nobler, something holier. And the sooner the better.

[1635 words]

16 Replies to “Beware Outward Appearances”

  1. Bill,

    Is it not equally appalling that 6 and 12 year olds are being asked questions about matters which are
    a) beyond their wisdom and
    b) the responsibility of their parents?

    Once again, we see the subtle pressure to exclude parents from the picture, and to treat children as small adults.

    John Angelico

  2. G’day Bill,

    A $50 note is not intrinsicly valuable in itself. It’s just plastic. And we toss heaps of plastic every day. It’s only valuable because there’s the signature of the Governor of the Reserve Bank on it; it’s valuable because, extraneous to the note, someone significant has said it’s valuable.

    It’s the same way with us human beings. We’re not intrinsically valuable (just carbon, calcium, hydrogen, iron etc). But we’re valuable because the God of the universe, outside of us, has declared us valuable and has put His signature on us, we’re made in His image.

    And that makes us valuable. No matter if we’re rejected, stomped on, crushed (like a $50 note). If the God of the universe says we’re valuable, then we are, no matter what anyone else says.

    Goodonya Bill.
    Andrew Campbell

  3. As an anecdote, Have you read the remarks concerning Ms Boyle attributed to the so called beautiful and professional singer Elaine Page. In those statements she decries Ms Boyles success because she is not a professionally trained singer. Now where have I heard that sort of comment before?

    Dennis Newland

  4. I do not entirely agree with your essay. People who don’t like themselves “because” they do not have the latest Hollywood look already have mental problems. Hollywood can change its circus all it likes, but there will still be people with problems of negative self-perception. The causes can be various: failure, ugliness, bad conscience, immature defences against the manipulativeness and sadism of rivals. Tons of psychological literature on this. Hollywood is just a tawdry side show. If we didn’t have that we could end up with something worse, like a colisseum.

    Little girls wanting to be skinny? Kids go through phases. These children may well change their minds as they mature. The main thing is to put sound moral ideas in their heads as defences against the many bad ideas they will encounter in life.

    Personally I believe some people deserve to think poorly of themselves. But the ones to watch are those who still have a high opinion of themselves no matter what evil they perpetrate. It’s all about moral self-respect versus vanity (re-labelled self-esteem for narcissistic moderns).

    John Snowden

  5. I loathe the wretched celebrity culture (the word “celebrity” must always have “wretched” before it), but it has old roots. The modern origin is surely the lionising of artists that occured in the High Renaissance, and after (before that painters were just artisans), and the Romantic poet lionisation came from that; at least those boys could really do something. Today’s development is that now you don’t need genius (or skill, or any ability whatever) to achieve the wretched celebrity status. Before the Renaissance, the saints were the nearest thing – but they were all safely dead by the time they were venerated.
    John Thomas, UK

  6. John Snowden, you say

    “Little girls wanting to be skinny? Kids go through phases. These children may well change their minds as they mature. The main thing is to put sound moral ideas in their heads as defences against the many bad ideas they will encounter in life.”


    “Personally I believe some people deserve to think poorly of themselves. But the ones to watch are those who still have a high opinion of themselves no matter what evil they perpetrate. It’s all about moral self-respect versus vanity (re-labelled self-esteem for narcissistic moderns).”

    I believe you have over-emphasised your case, and regarding the first quote, I would suggest you have a look at my first post (which you may not have seen before you posted).

    Yes, there is a delicate balance between personal responsibility and external influences.

    a) God holds us accountable for our sinfulness from the beginning (see Jacob & Esau, for instance)
    b) Jesus also said woe to the one through whom sin comes to a person.

    Putting sound moral ideas into their heads is part of the parenting task, and represents a positive external influence to counteract the negative internal sinfulness we are born with. It just happens to be a better kind of influence than marketing organisations doing surveys of 6 year olds and giving them ideas beyond their years or their wisdom.

    And I suggest that you might temper your second quote by the fact that God sees both our sin which deserves death (the worst example of ‘self-worth’ we can know about) as well as what remains of the original creation – which He called ‘good’ (and a totally opposite idea of ‘self-worth’).

    That ‘worth’ is ascribed to us externally – as Andrew Campbell’s post illustrates.

    Apologies if this is a little jumbled: it’s late here and I am happy to clarify it in the light of a new day).

    John Angelico

  7. Let’s not forget the importance of fatherhood when it comes to anorexia and girls’ sense of self worth. Studies show that a fathers presence and role in his daughter’s life is a huge factor in prevention and recovery from anorexia;

    Even femist loaded studies like this one can’t help but conclude that the father’s role in anorexia is critical;

    “His role is again significant at the onset of adolescence, when his daughter needs his affirmation as she struggles to make the transition from childhood to womanhood.”

    Damien Spillane

  8. Yes Bill a good article, we are so often influenced by the outward appearance, but I am often reminded that God knoweth the heart.

    My grand-daughter (18 years old) has suffered from annorexia for a long time, she was influenced by sites on the internet, which promoted ultra thin bodies, it started when she was twelve, she has had to be hospitalised many times.

    Keep up the good work.

    David Williams

  9. Oh Dear
    John Snowdon I’m really sorry but I think your on another planet.
    Children even a little on the tubby side are subject to bullyng and taunting for long periods at school and often on chat rooms 24/7 simply because of their weight or size or some other difference viewed as less than perfect or compatible to the false standards of some demented media. Oh! And god help them if they have a potentially rhyming name.
    After ten years of that from your kindegarten years would you still be aware of your self worth??
    Kids even commit suicide because of derogatory remarks on internet chat places. There again I suppose that according to you they all have mental problems.
    A child is no less a human because of his or her shape but like any child that thought needs to be nurtured and encouraged with love and lots of it.
    If a flower is not watered it will die. If it is choked with weeds it will die. If it is cared for with love it will bloom and give untold pleasure to those who get to meet it.
    To understand that “NOT” shows a narcistic callousness and view on par with the stink factory of Pricklywood.

    Dennis Newland

  10. John Angelico, I agree that parents are being excluded from the picture. It’s part of a political trend. The Secular State takes more and more power upon itself. Caesar is getting fatter.

    Children should not have imposed on them questions and issues which are beyond their wisdom to deal with. However the developing mind is resilient. I wouldn’t care to write off as permanently scarred for life little girls who think they should be skinny. If they can grow out of belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy then they can grow out of this. There are many countervailing forces in society that might affect outcomes. A resurgence of Christianity in the ambient culture, for example, could influence these kids for the better as they mature.

    John Snowden

  11. (quote)
    “Ms Boyle, an overweight, frumpy and aging spinster from Scotland appeared on the show much to the horror, mirth and consternation of judges and audience alike.
    Everyone had written her off, simply based on her appearance – and a bit of odd behaviour” (unquote)

    Hi Bill,
    Just wondering if the above quotations are ‘your’ discriptions of Ms Susan Boyle, or are they a blend of what you have read & heard about her?

    Fortunately I see Ms Boyle as someone quite different. I too saw much of the media coverage, but in particular the story of where she had come from, the church she belongs to is involved in, the charity work she had been doing much of life, & the mother she had cared for. I also saw a woman who had been blessed all her life with a magnificent voice, who now the opportunity to bless others with it, & so the time & opportunity had finally come which might allow her this blessed experience.

    Fortunately not everyone on the planet who watched & listened to Susan Boyle grow into stardom, were concered about her appearance…infact some of us did not even notice it, & that’s why she became a super-star.

    Bill if you describe a very talented charming individual like Ms Boyle is this less than flattering way, can’t begin to imagine what loathing waits Mr Tiger Woods.

    Colleen Adair

  12. Thanks Colleen

    But you may have misread me here, and/or taken offense when none was intended. The whole point of my article of course was that how someone looks is not determinative of what sort of person they are, and the Boyle case is a clear example of this.

    I simply offered a rather innocuous and in fact straight-forward description for those rare individuals who may know nothing about her. It was fully factual. Is she somewhat overweight? Yes. Can she be described as frumpy? I think she would even concur that she certainly seemed to be in her first TV appearance. Is she getting on in years? Yes. Is she still unmarried? Yes. Did people laugh and grimace when she appeared on stage? Yes.

    So everything I have said is in fact true, and was not at all meant to be pejorative. Indeed, I would quite readily apply most of this description to myself in all honesty, except for the spinster part – I am married after all. But in the world’s eyes I would be considered all that she was and more. But again the point of the article was that we need to reject the world’s assessment of worth, and rely on the biblical one.

    And of course I fully agree that she is a “very talented charming individual”. Where did I say she wasn’t? So hopefully we in fact are on the same page here after all.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Dear Bill this issue about Judging by appearance is as old as time itself or, at least Hollywood and Swanlake. People judge becuause it’s in thier flesh and even christians like me struggle with what I think about someone. We all know it’s wrong so let us admit our human frailty, repent and move on.
    Kevin Christensen

  14. And from another point of view, Ive said to women on various occasions including my sisters, that they want a man with a good heart and to treat women with respect etc etc.
    But, here’s my point. So a man approaches a woman in jeans and shirt and may be over looked, but if he goes home and changes into a suit or the like he could recieve a warm welcome, and what has she got? Millions of Men are being chosen every where by how they dress. I just want women to understand that there choosing men by there looks and the fabric there wearing. Please dont do this because its deceptive at best.
    Daniel Kempton

  15. A $50 note is … only valuable because there’s the signature of the Governor of the Reserve Bank on it; it’s valuable because, extraneous to the note, someone significant has said it’s valuable.

    I’m not sure how true this is, although there’s something to it. Currency generally is valuable simply because other people accept it. Salt has been used for currency, people would accept salt in payment for goods or services because they know that others will accept it from them. Some printed currencies, despite having the signature of the Governor or whoever, become worthless with hyperinflation, or other causes, once–and because–people stop accepting it. U.S. currency is often accepted in third world countries which don’t officially use it simply because they know that they can spend it (i.e. others will accept it from them).

    I’m not denying that having the signature of someone important is a factor, as that stamps it as something that the government will accept, and therefore other people will (usually) accept it, but it’s not the whole story. Granted, it is still something external to the note itself. I wonder if a cheque is a better analogy: a cheque is only as good as the person who’s signature appears on it.

    Philip J. Rayment

  16. Bill,

    No disagreement with the degree of obsession with physical and external appearance today and no denial that it has been a tendency in mankind for centuries or millennia.

    After all, whether one believes in creation or in evolution, the sex urge is important to the reproduction of our species and external beauty is related to the sex urge, and rather interestingly, this is not so among animals but is so among humans.

    Faith in God, the reading and listening to his word, repentance and living a godly life will definitely mitigate or even suppress such tendency.

    However, one key factor you have been silent on in your arguments is the role of capitalism, hence commercialism and the media in encouraging such attitudes, especially in more vulnerable youth, and this does not apply to outward appearances and physical beauty alone but to consumer products too, and this militates against God’s words on this matter.

    In fact, the commercial interests are like Satan working against God and one of the most insidious forms of marketing and advertising is to create an environment in which peer pressure makes people want to conform to an outward image, whether it be in slimness, fashion, clothes or wanting to have the latest to impress our peers or feel “inadequate” without it.

    I see this a lot in how people feel they “must” have the latest and most powerful PC or mobile phone, or they must be seen in some “chic” part of town.

    The first thing a book on salesmanship teaches is the need to create a desire in customers to want to have something, even though they may not really need it.

    So until the second coming of Christ, if we want to at least stop this reinforcement of our human weakness, a Christ-centred government will have to pass laws which prevent vested commercial interests, their advertising agencies and the media from fanning the flames of our human weaknesses for their own gain.

    Otherwise, however much writing, preaching and arguing which we may do against this will end up being a losing battle against these moneyed interests,

    Call that anti the free market. Well yes I am, since letting the free market run rampant and we let this kind of artificially created additional temptations free reign.

    In any case, the world after Christ’s second coming won’t be a democracy and neither are heaven or hell democracies right now.

    Rather, the earth under Christ’s reign will be an absolute monarchy, as heaven and hell are, though earth and heaven will be a benevolent monarchies.

    Also, markets, free or otherwise, capitalism, socialism, politics or any other aspects of our lives today will be things of the past.

    Charles Moreira

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