I was conversing with someone the other day when the topic of the presidential election came up. I mentioned a candidate, to which the person replied, “Oh, he could never win. He’s too fat.” I began reflecting on that response. In all likelihood, this person was exactly right. Few modern Americans could see beyond his girth.
It is not just weight, of course. We Americans tend to be obsessed with judging the value and worth of a person by his or her appearance. I’m sure you have seen the studies—scientific and otherwise—about the preferential treatment we tend to give to good-looking men or women vis-à-vis plain-looking ones. We are drawn to beautiful people like moths to a light. We steer clear of unattractive ones. If a beautiful person has an opinion, we take heed. If a not-so-beautiful person ventures a thought, we ignore it. I am generalizing. I am exaggerating. But the tendency is all too real.
Paul instructs believers to avoid this very thing. Do not judge a person by his appearance, he tells the Corinthians, judge a person by his “heart.”
We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you.… Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. [2 Corinthians 5:12,13,16; NASV; emphasis mine]
Some among the Corinthians apparently find Paul embarrassing. They don’t like the way he comes across. He is some sort of fanatic (“beside himself”); at least, that’s the way he comes across. Out of contempt for Paul’s “presentation,” they have closed themselves off to his wisdom. He has nothing to teach them. If they are going to be taught, it will be by someone more sophisticated, more cultured, more suave. Why would you listen to someone that contemptible?
Paul mentions three things in response: (1) what we should respect in another person is his heart (the deep inner convictions and wisdom that make him the person he is), not his outward appearance; (2) to evaluate a person by his outer appearance is a “fleshly” (a natural, human, sinful, and ignorant) thing to do; and (3) as people being transformed by our belief in the Messiah, we must no longer judge people “according to the flesh” (that is, according to the superficial standards of sinful humanity). With respect to his last point, Paul comments on how our very belief that Jesus was the Messiah required us to shift our perspective. From outward appearance, it was implausible and unthinkable to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. It was only by learning to apply a different standard—to judge by inner substance rather than outward appearance— that we could come to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah.
When I think back through human history, some of the greatest people were the short, fat, ugly, and unimpressive ones. Paul is accused of being uninteresting and unimpressive: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible’” (2 Corinthians 10:10, NASV, emphasis mine). The philosopher Socrates was notoriously funny-looking. The prophet Isaiah predicted that the Messiah himself (Jesus) would be unattractive:
For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
[Isaiah 53:2, NASV, emphasis mine]
If these men were here with us in person, would any of us modern Americans give a hearing to any of them? Would we respond to the wisdom, godliness, humility, goodness, and glory of Jesus? Or would we dismiss him because there is nothing outwardly attractive about him? Would we recognize the deep understanding of Paul? Or would we be put off by his stumbling speech? Would we listen to the values of Socrates? Or, would we laugh him off because he is so ugly?
The modern American obsession with looks and presentation is “fleshly.” It is ignorant and sinful. But it is also self-destructive and stupid. We elect good-looking politicians who are incompetent, corrupt, ambitious, and narcissistic. We choose charming, charismatic pastors who are self-absorbed, foolish, and terrible guides. We ask Hollywood actors and actresses to tell us what to think. We don the latest ideas and values like the latest fashions because it’s what the beautiful people are wearing; only to see our culture and civilization destroyed by the corrosive power of those false ideas and values. And we judge the value of a celebrity or public figure by his technology-manipulated, manufactured image, not by the real person rooted in his invisible inner being.
Do we seriously want to understand our faith through the smooth-talk of a nice, smiling, mega-church pastor, or through the halting, unimpressive speech of a Paul? Do we seriously want some Hollywood actor to mentor us in philosophy, or do we want Socrates? Do we want political leaders who are handsome and have nice smiles, or ugly, misshapen ones with sharp minds and sound character? Do we really prefer to give celebrity to John Lennon over Jesus? Whom do we respect and listen to? It is good to take stock of why.