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.