Much like most other elementary schools throughout the United States, trips to the library were a regular part of our schedule.
I can still see the layout of the library in my mind’s eye. In my early years, I was not what you would call an avid reader. I was never diagnosed with ADD or any of those lists of letters that indicated it, but attention was not a form of capital of which I had an abundance. So when we made our obligatory trips to the library, I was looking for something shiny and new with a copious number of pictures.
In my young mind, the cover was key. If it had bright colors, slick illustrations and an exciting title on a glossy dust jacket, whatever was inside had to be equally epic. I can’t remember how many trips to the library I took or how many flashy covers I took home before I realized my logic was flawed, but it was more than would be considered reasonable. Contrary to what I believed, a cool cover and an amazing title didn’t translate into an equally epic and engaging story.
In one corner of the library, there was a shelf full of tattered books with dull, faded colors. If they had illustrations on them, they were poorly drawn. The titles were boring and bland. But after several trips to the library, I realized most of my more academically inclined classmates were checking out those books. By this time, I had decided reading wasn’t for me, so it didn’t really matter what book I checked out.
If I couldn’t be smart, I could at least look smart, so I randomly grabbed the most tattered and torn, dull brown book I could find and checked it out. I knew I would have to read for 15 minutes, but I figured I could fake it for that long for the positive optics.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to fake it. The book was the story of Jim Bowie, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It is the first book I can remember reading in its entirety. From then on, those books with dull, dirty looking covers became my favorite books. I learned, through experience, an oft cited truism: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
One of the oldest known usages of this phrase is found in an 1867 edition of the Piqua Democrat newspaper. The paper warned its readers, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, see a man by his cloth, as there is often a good deal of solid worth and superior skill underneath a jacket and yaller pants.”
It is a lesson that is more often preached than practiced, particularly in the internet age. We are inundated by glossy, finely edited images at every turn. But the hard truth is we don’t need the media’s help to evaluate others and develop opinions of others based upon externals. Humanity has been judging books by their covers throughout all of history.
The Bible contains many examples of this principle at work, not the least of which is the story of David. In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel invites David’s father and seven brothers to a dinner to determine a new king of the nation of Israel. Samuel, upon seeing the oldest brother, believes he has seen all he needs to see. But the Lord God encourages Samuel to exercise some caution.
The Lord says, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
What’s most interesting about this statement is David’s own family had done exactly what the Lord says people do. David’s own family looked at the proverbial cover of his book and determined he wasn’t even worthy of a seat at the dinner table with polite company. Where everyone else only saw a punk kid, God saw a king in the making.
It is so easy for us to judge books by their covers, both those that sit on shelves and those that sit in seats. But what we see rarely tells the whole story. Almost always there is much more than meets the eye on the inside. With books, I have learned it is those with tattered covers, dirty and torn pages, highlighted lines and notes in the margins that contain the most interesting stories with the greatest lessons to share.
My experiences with people have been much the same. Those that the world often sees as “less than” have more to offer than we could ever imagine. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Take the time to get inside and see what story lies underneath. It may not look like much on the outside, but there could be kings and queens within.
The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Visit jeremysmyers.com. Send comments to [email protected]