Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Eli Bonilla Jr.By Eli Bonilla Jr.7 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Mixed: Embracing Complexity by Uncovering Your God-led Identity by Eli Bonilla Jr.


Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Have you ever used the phrase, “You can never judge a book by its cover?” For the most part, it’s a lesson about prejudice of the eye. Rarely, if ever, are we open-minded enough to avoid letting any assumption, prejudice, projection, or jadedness inject itself into a moment of visual perception. According to a Princeton study, psychologists found that we make our initial judgments of a person in the first one-tenth of a second. Alexander Todorov, one of the psychologists in the study, stated,

We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way.¹

The researchers also found that the length of time subjects looked at someone’s face after their initial judgments didn’t sway their initial opinions. If anything, they became more confident in their judgments, almost as if convincing themselves of their own reliability.

We often walk away from interactions with others holding one of two thoughts: They were exactly who I thought they were, or That went totally different than I expected. This goes for both negative and positive experiences.

My hope is that we would continually grow in our openness to the unknown and move away from categorically typecasting people in an unhealthy way. You can’t stop analyzing people at a glance, during a first interaction, or even after years of knowing someone. That’s human. What you can attempt to do is to listen to that person with intention and interact with them. When you do that, you’re one step closer to moving past what your eye test is asking you to accept. That, I think, is divine.

Fortunately for us, the Bible is filled with moments that teach us this. Moments when people were counted out because of their appearance but whom God used nonetheless. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is when the Lord asked the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse and anoint the next king of Israel. Jesse had a large family with several sons, the youngest of which was David, who (spoiler alert) was to become the greatest king in Isreal’s history. Here’s what the book of 1 Samuel tells us:

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 people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (16:6-7)

Let me give a little bit of context (and offer a little sympathy in defense of Samuel and his quick judgment call).

Eliab was the oldest son, and in that time and culture—in Israel around 1000 BC—the eldest son was the father’s heir apparent in resources and honor. Being the eldest afforded you privilege and prestige. So, especially given the limited information Samuel had, it wasn’t crazy for him to assume that things had lined up for Eliab to receive the honor of kingship.

This passage also describes Samuel’s reaction to physical appearance. Eliab had height and good looks. Was Samuel a fool? I don’t believe so. If anything, Samuel was one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. But he had already encountered a man who fit this description before: Saul, the now-rejected king of Israel. Though appearance wasn’t the reason he was selected, it would stand to reason that Saul, being the first and only king that Samuel had anointed, would have created a kind of mold for the next king. Look at Saul’s description here:

Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else. (1 Samuel 9:2)

Sound familiar?

Yes, the Lord’s anointed prophet was about to fall into the trap of judging a book by its cover. Without the intervention of the Lord’s voice—and Samuel’s choice to shake off his preconceived notions of what a king should look like—Samuel could have selected Saul 2.0 and saddled the nation with another bad king. Mind you, there had not been a king in Israel until Saul. God had made it clear that he wanted to be their King. The only mold for a king Samuel knew of was the image of a man who would stand head and shoulders above the rest. We very well might had done the same.

Taken from Mixed: Embracing Complexity by Uncovering Your God-led Identity by Eli Bonilla Jr. Copyright © 2023 Eli Bonilla Kr. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson.

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