I know you’ve heard it. It’s an adage that appears everywhere. Perception Is Reality. or Image Is Everything. We live in a world bursting at the seams with companies who spend millions of dollars every year to exploit the psychology of the average consumer into giving up their most valuable asset: cold hard cash. In fact, there is an entire cluster of cubicles in the very office in which I work that would likely defend this presumed fundamental principal to their dying breath. But they would be wrong. Because there are still some of us that cling to another classic adage: One that allows for the complexity of the unseen interworkings of the individual thing itself. Indeed, you cannot judge a book by its cover.
I remember sitting in church one morning, listening to the sermon of a guest pastor. He presented to us the following illustration: He told us that his family hated it when he wore the outfit he had on. This was a rather odd revelation as he looked perfectly nice in his freshly pressed suit with the tie and dress shirt peaking through. But then, he began to remove his jacket to reveal that his dress shirt was tattered and stained, and the back of the shirt had been ripped away completely. The scene was a bit hackneyed, but his message was clear. To the us, from our pews, he appeared perfectly put together. But the reality, and what his family secretly knew to be true, was that he was wearing tatters and stains.
Perhaps you have heard of the empty mansion illusion? There are people who so desperately want to appear as though they are in a higher station than their paycheck would land them that they purchase homes that are far outside what their income can afford them. They subsequently only furnish their homes with the most bare of essentials, and only those that they can afford after the house payment. The illusion of their wealth may fool the neighborhood but surely they eventually tire of living a lie? And look at the countless leaders and politicians we see that so adamantly tout their disapproval or judgment towards a certain behavior or lifestyle they themselves are participating in. Or on a more basic level, we could only look at leaders who ask us to follow them while they lack the personal integrity to see their leadership to full success.
It is because of that word, integrity, that I make my argument. I am quite sure you have heard the expression “integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” It would be rather difficult to find anyone who would make the argument that integrity is anything less than a virtue, and one that is unfortunately lacking in our day to day. While I might argue that we have become rather cynical at times in regards to our expectations of our leaders, I maintain that we continue to be disgusted by those who blatantly act without integrity. We hate hypocrisy when we see it performed, despite often turning a blind eye to our own and to that of those we love or agree with. And because we consider integrity a virtue, we also must accept the argument that doing the right thing only while people are watching falls short of virtuous. The value of goodness does not come from the observation, but rather from the ACTS of it, independent of what is or is not observed. If goodness is independent of observation, is it not logical to say the same of observation being independent of goodness? Therefore, simply because something is observed that looks like goodness, that does not mean that it is a good thing. And then, alternatively, just because something looks bad, wrong, sinful, evil, does not mean that it is any of those things.
To exemplify this, I think we could look to the rarely told Bible story of Hosea. It seems unbecoming of a prophet of God to take on an adulteress woman with a number of kids, as his wife. Not only did he do this, but when Gomer left him to be in another relationship, Hosea, at the behest of the Lord, went after her again. Can you imagine the blow of credibility it would be to a pastor today if he were to marry a woman who was commonly known as an adulterous and had a number of children by other men? Here we have a prophet, describing to Israel how they have become whores towards their God all the while standing next to a woman who would be described as a whore. What do you think was going on in the mind of Hosea? Do you think that you would be able to listen to that kind of judgmental language from a person who had taken on a wife that was adulterous and untrustworthy? But the book was canonized. We accept his testimony, his prophecy as being from God. And so, those who would stand in judgment of his behavior, were wrong. He was acting on a plane that they likely did not understand, and yet it was a higher plane than theirs.Granted, the response to the people of Israel towards Hosea is not indicated in scripture. All we know for sure is that they didn’t listen to him. But it does not seem illogical to suggest that Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was not particularly well received. And it seems even more logical to suggest that were it to take place today, we as a society, would likely boo that leader off any stage they attempted to step foot on.
And while we are looking at the Bible, it would be nothing short of negligence for me to exclude the example of Jesus. We see in Him a man who was constantly misunderstood, wrongly judged, and who was not once, in any account of His life, affected by the perception of Him or His ministry. I could point to the obvious examples: In Luke 7, while dining with a Pharisee Jesus heals a sinful woman. In Luke 17 Jesus heals the lepers who had been quarantined and outcast. Luke 18 where Jesus speaks honestly to the rich man, pointing out his sinful love for his money. In Luke 19 Jesus follows Zacchaeus,the despised tax collector home. Jesus in John 18 defends a woman caught in the act of adultery. But I feel the argument for the limitation of perception is best made in Jesus’s own words as he speaks to His disciples about the poor widow who gave only two copper coins as an offering. The story is told in Mark 12 beginning at verse 41. It’s short and sweet but it goes like this: Rich men were giving large amounts of money to the temple treasury but the poor widow had so little that she gave only 2 copper coins. Jesus explained to them that despite her poverty, the woman gave everything. While common perception would suggest that the rich men were far more virtuous in their giving because they gave significantly more. The reality, however, is exactly the opposite.
The most worrisome result of living a life that is concerned with perception is that it breeds timidity. If you live in constant concern of how people will interpret your good and faithful actions then you are less likely to be bold when it comes to good and faithful actions. If you live a life fearing that people will think you look foolish dancing, you will never dance. If you let your pride prevent you, you may never attempt something you might fail. I heard it said recently that if you really want to achieve humility you should never refuse an opportunity in which you might be humiliated. The discussion of perception is rather common in our church these days when it comes to how we are meant to behave around people of the opposite gender or what we choose to consume or even what we choose to wear. To me, I am confused and upset at how much time and energy some people in the church today put into the appearance of things being on the up and up. If you act with integrity, that is, if you are doing things in a Godly way, then why should it matter how you are perceived by others? By practicing this overly careful behavior solely for the avoidance of misinterpretation, are we not simply encouraging, or at very least conceding, to the judgmental behavior of others? Are we not then telling them that “yes, you are right to be suspicious of improper actions simply because you have a little information about something that could be something completely different than it is.” In my opinion, it is far better for our leaders to say to their flock “I am to be held accountable to you, but you are not to assume wrongful doings based on what you do not understand.” That honest and open communication between each other will encourage TRUTH seeking and discourage foolish or malicious conjecture.
On a personal note, I would like to also suggest that this type of judgment can exist on an internal level also. That is to say, we can often allow ourselves to perceive ourselves as something we are not. For instance, I have recently been fighting back lies of feeling worthless, insufficient, and inadequate. In the light of day, and with the insistence of others, I see that those things are simply not true. That I am incredibly important to some people and to my creator. And because I am made in His image, and I am empowered by His strength. I am neither insufficient nor inadequate. But I still can’t help but buy into the lies every now and again. I cannot stop myself from judging myself. I cannot turn off the perception of my life as I believe I am seen through the lenses of others. And I am wrong.They do not perceive me the way I think they do and yet I value myself based on those inaccuracies.
So then, not only is perception not reality, even when it is self focused, but perception can be the absolute opposite of reality, and why on earth would we chose to value perception over reality? We should always be acting with integrity. Do what is good, right, and what is Godly, and be bold in doing those things. Take council in the words of Paul to the church of Corinth:
1 Corinthians 2
11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?”[b]
But we have the mind of Christ.