We’ve all done it: made split-second judgments about people or reached instantaneous conclusions about a set of circumstances based on nothing more than external appearances.  False assumptions were made and inaccurate inferences were drawn because of what a person looked like or what a situation appeared to be.  Perhaps we followed our erroneous thoughts with words to match.  We snapped at our children, a spouse, a co-worker, or fellow church member only to learn later that we had reacted quite prematurely based on extremely inadequate information.  At such times, we feel like idiots.  We should.  We feel a burning sense of shame.  We need to.

Over and over again we are reminded that things are often not as they appear. 

Percival Lowell (1855-1916) was a noted American mathematician and astronomer who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1894.  Lowell built upon the earlier work of an Italian astronomer who sought to explain the lines that appeared to traverse the surface of Mars.  After years of study, Lowell ultimately concluded that these lines were too symmetrical and systematic to have been natural phenomena and that they were actually a system of canals which channeled water from the planet’s melting polar caps.  In Lowell’s estimation, the canals had to have been constructed by an intelligent civilization.  Despite the inability of other astronomers to see the canals and Lowell’s own admission that he could only see them at certain times, his book Mars and Its Canals was published in 1906.

Subsequent astronomical study of Mars and more recent unmanned exploration of the planet have revealed that there are no melting polar caps, no canals, and no evidence of habitation by intelligent beings.  How could Percival Lowell have been so wrong?  It wasn’t a lack of intelligence.  He was a brilliant man.  Long before Pluto’s discovery in 1930, Lowell had postulated the existence of a ninth planet, Planet X , based on his observations of Uranus and Neptune.  Never mind that Pluto has since lost its full planetary status; Lowell was right about its existence.  So, why was he so mistaken about Mars?  Some have postulated that it was an eye disorder or just an optical illusion, perhaps one fed by what he wanted to see.

Scripture is replete with warnings against making hasty judgments, especially those that are based on nothing more than external appearances.  We are challenged to not be so blatantly superficial and shallow in our estimation of others.  After being initially impressed with Jesse’s son Eliab, the prophet Samuel was admonished by the Lord, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).   Jesus put it this way, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). 

One’s height, weight, skin color, hair (either its color or amount), attractiveness, manner of dress, quality of clothing, jewelry, tattoos, piercings, etc., are not the criteria by which we are to evaluate others.  What we think these externals may say about someone is often very far from the truth of their real identity as a person created in the image of God.

When it comes to making judgments (and there are some that we have to make), proceed with caution; extreme caution.  We must make sure that our judgments are not hypercritical and hypocritical.  Remember Jesus’ description of someone who needed a tractor and a log chain to pull a rafter out of their head and yet they were preoccupied with wanting to perform micro-surgery on someone else’s eye?  See Matthew 7:1-6 and Romans 2:1-3.  We must not arrogantly pass judgment on the opinions of others in matters of individual conscience and freedom in Christ (I Corinthians 8; Romans 14).  While we may have to evaluate the actions and behavior of another person, passing judgment on their motives or intentions is way above our pay grade.  Only God and His living and active Word are capable of that (Hebrews 4:12).    

We must humbly acknowledge that our judgments are temporal (here and now) and imperfect.  Sometimes they are unnecessarily harsh and often just plain wrong.  God’s judgments, however, are eternal and perfectly infused with both divine justice and mercy.  Our assessments do not obligate God to see things the same way. 

“Therefore, do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (I Corinthians 4:5).

It’s hard to believe that The Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is 40 years old this year.  I wish the title were true for me.  Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I keep getting fooled when I make superficial judgments of others.