“Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:17)
I had always figured this statement referred to the human tendency to judge people by their appearance: their physical appearance, to be sure, but also their worldly achievements: money, status, power. The kind of appearance shaped by workouts, credentials, position, possessions—or the lack thereof. God looks deeper than that, for which we non-rich and non-famous can be grateful.
But I think there’s a deeper way to understand this. Humans judge each other by their sins, foibles and peccadilloes. The everyday failures that frustrate our intentions to follow Christ are the grounds for casting a disapproving eye on each other and ourselves.
But God looks on the heart, and sees our desire: to please him, to glorify him, to be one with him. The surface-level stuff is just dirty feet: “The one who has bathed is clean, and needs only to wash his feet. And you are clean” (John 13:10). If God has washed us, then it’s just the everyday shuffling through the world that kicks up the dust and keeps us washing our feet from one day to the next.
God’s got perspective—is, in fact, the only one who really has. And I believe the “outward appearance” that God looks past includes much of the stuff in ourselves that worries us: the surges of frustration, ego, impatience, aggression. The “dammit, don’t you dare cut in front of me, because my whole life people have been cutting in front of me” that leaps out of me on the freeway and makes me feel like I’m starring in a new sequel to Alien. I believe God sees that these things come from the broken places within us that still need to be healed. God understands a work in progress, and is the only one in a position to judge just how far that progress has come.
A Jaguar can have a flat tire; a Jaguar can have a dented fender; a Jaguar can even have a cracked engine block. But none of those things turns a Jaguar into a tractor. And God knows the difference. Lent is a time for attending to the dents and rattles that we’ve known about for a while, even a time to gingerly check for things we don’t know about. But let’s keep some perspective: God looks on the heart, and what’s most important is that our hearts belong wholly to God, that we desire God with all we have and all we are. Or at least, that we desire to desire it. A heart like that is pure, whatever else is going on with the feet below it. And the pure in heart, Jesus promised, will see God: face to loving Face.