A Pepper Grinder Post

The Lord Looks at the Heart

Ever notice how many ads you see for whitening teeth or losing weight or getting rid of wrinkles?  Ever thought about how much people spend for things like cosmetic surgery and hair replacement?  Can you look at the abundance of clothing being sold in America and not think that we are obsessed with how we look?

And for good reason.  Everywhere we are bombarded with the message that the admirable people are young and attractive.  The successful male is trim and muscular; the admired female is thin enough that she can look slim even through the fattening lens of a camera.  As a culture, we spend a large amount of money and effort to look good. 

My question for today is a simple one: Does God care about that stuff?  Should we be trying to look our best as a witness for Jesus?  Should we be deliberately NOT trying to look good?

The following is a passage from 1 Samuel.  The scene shows Samuel, a prophet, visiting a man named Jesse at God’s command.  God has told Samuel that he is to go and anoint one of Jesse’s sons as a replacement for Saul, the first king of Israel, who failed to carry out God’s plans completely.  Here is my translation of verses 6 and 7 from chapter 16:

When they arrived and he saw Eliab, he said to himself, “I must be looking at the Lord’s anointed.”  But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t pay attention to how he looks or his height, because I have rejected him.  The Lord doesn’t look at what man sees—Man pays attention to how things look/ but the Lord sees the heart.”

BarbieA came to the conclusion that for every extra inch of height a man or woman had, he or she would earn, on average, an extra $789 per year.  Apparently, not too much has changed in 3000 years!  The Israelites seemed certain that Saul was THE MAN, based primarily on his height, and in spite of Samuel’s negative experience with Saul, his first thought when he saw Jesse’s tall son was that he MUST be the one chosen by the Lord to lead his people.

God stepped in at this point and made it clear that, although people often judge a person by appearance, he does not.  This is either very good news or very bad news, depending on who you are.  If you are a “ripped” man or a gorgeous woman, it means that the temporary gift of good appearance that you have, which gets you so much in our society, means nothing to God.  If you are one of the 98% of people who doesn’t measure up to our culture’s current standard of visual perfection, it is very good news.

But, what, exactly, is it that God cares about?  What is the “heart”?  This is one of those cases where a disconnect in metaphors between our culture and the culture of the ancient Middle East causes us problems.  What do young couples experimenting with attraction carve around their initials on a tree?  A heart.  What do we stick all over valentines?  Dozens of red and pink hearts.  For us, the heart is the seat of emotions, with romantic love being the king.  We also use the word to talk not just about emotions, but about a deep sub-logical sense expressing our truest desires, as when we tell someone to follow his heart in making a career choice.

heart on treeWhat about in the world of the Old Testament?  It seemed to me that it should be fairly straightforward to find out how the people of that time understood the heart—just look at every instance where the Hebrew word which is often translated as “heart” is used.  As you might guess, it wasn’t as simple as I had thought.

For starters, the Hebrew word which we can transliterate as Lbb is used 257 times in the Old Testament. (The original Hebrew didn’t have vowels, only consonants.  Special markings to indicate vowel sounds were added long after the time of Christ.)  That’s a lot of passages to look up.  To make matters worse, the picture that starts to emerge is less than clear.  Here are a few examples.

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, "What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!" (Exodus 14:5 NIV)

The word which the NIV translates (correctly, in my opinion) as minds is the same Hebrew word Lbb that is used in the Samuel passage.  You could say that Pharaoh and his officials had a change of emotions, but the way they are reasoning with themselves in the verse makes it seem that more thinking than feeling is involved.

As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. (Leviticus 26:36 NIV)

This and other passages make it clear that the heart was seen as the seat of courage.  Thus, the Old Testament metaphors about peoples’ hearts melting with fear.

You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. (Numbers 15:39 NIV)

Here, the heart appears to be a center for desire.  Although the heart in the Old Testament is tied to emotions (though very seldom romantic love), it is much more than this.  The overall picture one gets, looking at all the passages, is that “the heart” is shorthand for all of the things that are inside a person—thoughts, will, desires, fears, decisions, etc.  Basically, I believe that God is saying to Samuel that he looks at the inside of a person instead of the outside.

I can hear someone saying, “Uh-huh.  And your point is?”  OK, I’ll admit, this is not a very earth-shattering idea.  However, where I think it does get radical is if we actually try to align our priorities to match God’s.  What if we actually lived our lives as if what was going on inside us was much more important than what we looked like?

bald spotI have never had a whole lot of excuse for vanity.  About the most positive thing that can be said is that the characteristic of looking younger than my age, which was a liability as a teenager, is kind of nice for a guy entering his mid-50s.  And yet, I spend a good chunk of time thinking about how my hair looks, how my clothes look, and whether the spot on the back of my head where the hair is a little (ahem) thinner is starting to look more like a bald spot (sigh).  I eat fairly carefully and try to exercise regularly.  I may tell myself that these latter activities are done so that I will have more healthy years of service for the Lord, but if I am honest, I mainly do it so I will look good, or more accurately, better than I might otherwise look.

I have even heard the argument made that Christian women have a spiritual duty to look their best, as a “witness.”  The thinking goes that if unbelieving women see that all Christian women look “frumpy,” (that was the word I heard in my youth; I’m not sure what the phrase would be now) they will never want to be Christians.  Somehow, I have a very hard time reconciling the idea of a savior who demands that we surrender EVERYTHING to come to him with a Jesus whispering to self-centered young women, “See her?  You can be my follower and still look really hot.”

This is really what I think Peter was getting at when he said:

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. (1Peter 3:3-4 NIV)

I don’t believe Peter was making legalistic rules about whether women could wear jewelry or nice clothes, or what they could do with their hair.  His point was that those outward things should not be their focus.  Their focus should be those internal qualities that reside in the “heart.”

skySo am I saying that we should make no effort to look good?  I’m actually not, though it probably sounds like I am.  My real point is that we should put more energy and thought into what we are like on the inside than into what we are on the outside.  I have seen “follically-challenged” men making trips to the rest room to carefully arrange what hair they have.  I see women driving to work in the morning using the time at a stoplight to put on makeup or put finishing touches on their hair.  My question is whether we are nearly so diligent at checking on the state of our inner man or woman.  Speaking for myself, I have to admit that there are many days when my inner man is unshaven, with greasy hair, and is wearing a striped shirt and checked pants that clash, and a black sock on one foot with a navy sock on the other.  That is the part that God sees.  Many days, I do the spiritual equivalent of throwing on some sweats without looking in a mirror, and then don’t think about the state of my inner man again until God forces me to.  I want to be someone who is frequently taking an inventory of my thoughts and motivations, and seeing if God will like what he sees.

I think this message has the potential to change how we relate to others just as radically as it does how we think about ourselves.  How do we react when we see a young, attractive member of the opposite sex?  How about when we see someone who is quite obese, or who has an obvious disfigurement?  What about when we see a pierced and tattooed teenager with an angry look?  Are we thinking about the person’s inner self in any of these cases?  Are we responding to them the way God would?  Speaking for myself, I can say without the least hesitation that I am not.  When I look at a person, I often form my judgments the same way Samuel did when he saw Eliab’s imposing appearance.  My prayer is that God will teach me to care more about the heart.


my head*Photo of Barbie Doll from .

**My wife, much to my delight, was disturbed by the photo in the above article of my bald spot. She said that it didn't give an accurate picture of what my head really looked like and wanted me to put another picture in which gave a more accurate view. I was so relieved to hear that it didn't really look that bad, that I readily agreed. Here is the photo she took.