Content of Character

Mortals “look on the outward appearance.” But “The Lord looks on the heart.”

1 Sam 16:5-7: And [Samuel] sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Why did he have to say these words? Because, mortals “look on the outward appearance.” But “The Lord looks on the heart.” The Lord looks at content of character. In the Lord’s house, there are neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female – and surely, neither black nor white. Neither native nor foreigner. All are one in Christ Jesus – in the Lord’s house. But MLK wasn’t speaking to the Lord’s house. He was speaking to America. 

America, a land of possibility, and a land of contradictions. Founded to be free by slaveowners. A Constitution ensuring the rights of “We the People” with the glaring omission of women and people of color.  Neither of these omissions were rectified until very recently. 

Martin Luther King. Jr had a dream, and he had it not too long ago. He had more than a dream, a vision. In America today, they say we are more racially divided than ever before. They say MLK’s dream didn’t come true. The dream was lost. 

But many people in today’s culture don’t remember where MLK’s dream came from. I hear people speak often about MLK, about Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t hear them talk as much about the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. His dream came from the Holy Spirit. His vision came from the Word of God.  

The Reverend Doctor was a man of the cloth, as they say, and a man of God. A disciple of Jesus Christ. When he was assassinated, he didn’t die a civil rights leader only. He died a martyr for the testimony of Jesus Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We will all die – but the Reverend Doctor died at Christ’s bidding. 

MLK Jr. shared not just an imaginary dream of a reconciled America; but an inspired vision of the Kingdom of God in America. The Kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, black nor white; in which men judge another as God judges, not by outward appearance, but by the heart – by content of character. 

If you Google “content of character MLK,” you will quickly see the current state of the civil rights movement that America has inherited from MLK. You’ll see the current standing of MLK’s thought and his dream amongst those who pay the most to have their content at the top of Google’s search results. “Content of character” has become a lightning rod of controversy in the current conversation about race. 

MLK’s daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, said the “Content of character” quote is misunderstood. “People are always saying he was for a color blind America and nothing could be further from the truth. He was basically explaining that no, there is a beauty in who I am as a black person, but I should not be judged by those standards.” 

I can identify and sympathize with this sentiment. In the church, I know there is “neither Jew nor Greek” — yet I am Jewish, and there is a beauty in that. And if you’re Greek, there is a beauty in being Greek. And any other nationality. The Bible says that the nations will bring their glory into the heavenly city of God’s temple – that is to say, the living temple, made up of all of the world’s believers. And look at all the glory brought into the church by every culture that has produced its contribution to the Church traditions – I’m very proud of what my ancestors in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Emerald Isle have contributed. And we should be proud of what African Americans have contributed.  

My Jewish family is ruddy, like David. My Irish family is white and pasty, like Dracula, and we turn into lobsters in the hot Northeast summer sun! Dr. Bernice’s family is black. God has made us all to be beautiful in outward appearance. But God did not create this beauty to be the measure of judgment – he doesn’t judge by outward appearance, but by the heart. By content of character. 

If Americans have forgotten this, it’s not because the Reverend Doctor failed. It’s because Americans have strayed from the God of Samuel, the God of David, the God of Jesus Christ – the God of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

Our God has this figured out. The answer is in Christ Jesus – but the question is, are we ready to follow him? God has a challenge for us here. If we tune into the right network, we will hear all about racial division and hatred – we can hear and think about this trouble 24/7 if we’re tuned to the right station.  

But God says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8). This is what the Reverend Doctor did. He didn’t waste his time on the racism and hatred station – he gave his life to the dream. And that’s how he fought the good fight.  

It’s like Aikido, where you fight without fighting. He didn’t battle against flesh and blood – he engaged in spiritual warfare. Tearing down arguments and every presumption set up against Christ and the dream Christ revealed to him. And in the world revealed by his dream, MLK saw the world as God saw it – a world where folks go not by outward appearance, but by content of character. 

Once, I was at a pub after playing a concert. I was still wearing a kirta, a long North Indian style shirt. A drunk college student came up to me angrily and said, “You’re appropriating Indian culture. You’re a racist.” She didn’t know that the shirt was a gift from my North Indian classical music teacher for concert attire. She judged me by outward appearance, not content of character.  

I looked down at the moccasins on her feet. “Are you a Native American?” I asked. “No,” she said. I pointed at her moccasins, shrugged, and walked away.  

How could she have judged me by content of character? Only by mutual trust – she would have to want to know me, and I’d have to want to speak with her. Well, lo and behold, she came up to me a bit later, apologized, and asked me about my shirt, and I explained. And it was a nice conversation. 

This was such a mild example of judging by outward appearance – why mention it, when compared with the most horrific hate crimes committed in the name of race? Because it shows the tip of the iceberg of how even the best intentions can lead us astray when we choose the path of judging by outward appearance, rather than content of character. 

As a white man, I’ve never been severely hurt or harmed or excluded on account of my skin color. In other words, I’ve never been profoundly victimized because of my race. But my ancestors were, I only stand here because my great grandmother Anna was the only member of her Jewish family to escape Nazi persecution in the early 20th century. Her family’s persecutors, ironically, felt that they were the victims of the Jews. So they went after them all – judging a whole people by outward appearance, rather than individuals by content of character. 

It wasn’t so much that they didn’t like the way Jews looked, but what they believed Jews did and therefore representedThey believed that Jews created the capitalism – the banking system, the financial system, the moneylending system — they were fighting against, and therefore they believed all Jews were their oppressors. “Jews couldn’t help but be this way – it’s inherent in their Jewishness”. They believed this, and they taught it to their children. 

What do you think? Can one person be judged by the actions of another? Not at all! How much more so, then, can one person be judged on the basis of skin color or ethnicity shared with others. This is an important lesson: content of character can only ever be judged on an individual basis. 

In America, if we were to boil down our problem with race, it begins with the lie of slavery. When you are a slave, you have no rights as an individual  – and therefore no one cares about your content of character. It is only your outward appearance that matters – your value as a slave. What an evil lie! 

Without having respect for content of character, you see what evils take place. People are treated inhumanely – as if they’re less than human. The only way to break this cycle is to get to the level of content of character – and that means, there has to be mutual trust – where you get to know eachother’s hearts. 

If you do not know the heart of a person – all you have is outward appearance, and nothing else. If you judge someone you don’t know, you are judging according to outward appearance only – then you are not judging in a Godly manner. 

Just as my Jewish ancestors lived in a time when Jews were taught that their Jewishness had inherent vices, so now we live in a time when all people are being taught that there are certain inherent qualities to their outward appearance – to their race — whether blackness, whiteness, latinness, etc. This is the world’s way now, and any student of history with a passing grade knows it’s been the world’s way since the beginning. 

But it’s not God’s way. And this is why the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. preached not about the judgments he passed, but the dream he had. There are not enough Christian leaders out there in the world preaching this dream. I repeat: there are not enough Christian leaders out there in the world preaching this dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  

MLK’s dream was for the nation of America – but it begins in the nation of God. It starts in the hearts of those who believe in the God of Grace. I feel tremendous sadness and pity for those trying to get into this fight for racial reconciliation without the hope of the gospel. What reconciliation is there outside of the cross? The nations of the world have spent their fortunes for millennia in their sin offerings, in war reparations, in peace accords – when has the score ever been settled?  

Do we as Christians honestly think that sin offerings will make atonement, that reparations will make right, or laws will change peoples’ hearts? Has that ever worked? It’s like Malachi — “You cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and groaning, because He no longer regards your offerings or receives them gladly from your hands…you have wearied the LORD by saying … ‘Where is the God of justice?’”  

Have we learned nothing from the Bible? Only God can save us, and far from abandoning us, he is mighty to save

We must take hold of the cross of Jesus Christ. We must cling to the old rugged cross! Because it is the cross that reconciles us – not just to God, but to one another. How can I accept the forgiveness of God Himself and not offer it to my brother? How can I take part in a blood feud for the sins of my neighbor, when the blood of Christ was shed for the sins of the world?  

Jesus once asked, “Which is easier? To say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or to say [to a paralyzed person], ‘get up and walk’?” And the miracle he worked was to raise the paralyzed man up to his feet – why? To show just how much more difficult a challenge it is to forgive sins. This is the challenge before us. Jesus shows us here that it requires even more supernatural power to work the miracle of forgiveness than of physical healing – and so it is a greater miracle for God to work on the heart of man than the outward appearance of his body. 

God indeed judges man not by outward appearance, but by the heart – by content of character. We are tempted to say — “And so should we.” And this is true. But the judgment God makes of man is to be seen in the cross. “Now judgment is upon this world…when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to Myself.” (Jn. 12:31, 32) 

The cross shows us the wrath of God that passed over us and afflicted Jesus, the lamb of God, instead. And by this act of judgment, we are also forgiven. So also, when we judge the heart, content of character, should we be equally forgiving. This is Christ’s call to us – drawing us all to himself on the cross. As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  

So as we obey our calling to Christ, and are drawn toward the cross to die to ourselves as we go about this ministry of reconciliation, let us also look around at the people of the world, and judge not according to outward appearance, but by the heart – by content of character. And should any of those offend us, or hate us, or harm us, then may God give us the supernatural grace, as we are crucified with Christ, to say the same words He did from the cross — “Father, forgive them. They know not what we do.”  

May God our Father empower the church by the Holy Spirit and bless this world with the healing ministry of reconciliation, in the glorious name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

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