Image vs. Substance: Avoiding the ‘Saul Syndrome’ and Cultivating a ‘David Heart’

Image vs. Substance: Avoiding the ‘Saul Syndrome’ and Cultivating a ‘David Heart’
By Tony Cooke

image versus substance by Tony CookeThere wasn’t anyone who seemed to be better “kingly material” than Saul. Scripture tells us, “…There was not a more handsome person than he among the children of Israel. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2).

Saul not only looked good, but he was also humble. When Samuel declared to him that God’s hand was upon his life, Saul replied, “…Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? Why then do you speak like this to me?” (1 Samuel 9:21).

Unfortunately, the humility that marked Saul’s early days evaporated with his ascension to the throne and his subsequent usurping of inappropriate power. Through impatience and presumption, Saul foolishly intruded into the priestly office — an office to which he was not called (see 1 Samuel 13:8-14).

Later Saul disobeyed God’s command to “…attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them…” (1 Samuel 15:3). When the prophet Samuel encountered Saul, Saul lied and said that he had, in fact, carried out the Lord’s command. Saul tried to make himself look good in Samuel’s eyes, but the prophet didn’t buy it (see 1 Samuel 15:13-23).

What was God’s response to Saul’s presumption, rebellion, and disobedience? Samuel said to him, “But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:14). There was even a reference to Saul’s humility in days gone by: “…When you were little in your own eyes, were you not head of the tribes of Israel? And did not the Lord anoint you king over Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17).

I don’t want to focus on the negative, but I’d rather learn from the mistakes of others than have to learn unnecessarily from my own mistakes. In fact, we learn from First Corinthians 10:11 that many of the things recorded in the Old Testament were written as examples, admonitions, and warnings to us so we wouldn’t have to experience the same disastrous results as others have suffered before us. Regarding Saul’s life, one of the things we learn is that something can begin with great promise and potential and yet end in great heartache and tragedy.

No Substitute for Substance

Having said all that, let’s turn to the positive. God did reject Saul as king, but He didn’t give up; He sought out David, “a man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). What does it mean to be a man after God’s heart? It’s obviously not something that’s found in a façade — in someone’s external image or appearance. Saul had every appearance of being kingly, but his character eventually revealed serious flaws.

Before David was anointed to be the next king, even the great prophet Samuel was almost misled by the wonderful “appearance” of one of David’s brothers.

…He [Samuel] looked at Eliab and said, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him!’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
1 Samuel 16:6,7

I want to discuss the identifying traits of a person after God’s own heart. But first, let’s talk about the dangers of magnifying image and appearance while ignoring substance and content.

We live in a day of “image management,” and that’s not entirely a bad thing. We all want to put our best foot forward, have a good reputation, and present ourselves well. However, a problem develops when image becomes a substitute for substance — and especially when the image is so doctored, practiced, and polished that it presents a misleading and disingenuous portrayal of reality.

Perhaps the harshest words that came from the mouth of Jesus had to do with those who focused on projecting an outward appearance of righteousness but were internally corrupt.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

Matthew 23:25-28

Likewise, Paul had some very stern words for those whose focus was merely on their appearance. He spoke of such people as those who “…exalt and furnish testimonials for themselves…” (2 Corinthians 10:12 AMP).

Paul went on to describe those who project one image outwardly but possess an entirely different character internally. He said, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The Greek word that Paul uses here for “transform” is not always used negatively in the New Testament. However, here it means to assume an appearance; to disguise, masquerade, or pose.

Injured by betrayal that came under the guise of friendship and trust, David was painfully reminded of this truth that “all that glitters is not gold.” He wrote: “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (Psalm 55:21).

We Must Value What God Values

God values honesty, truth, and sincerity; therefore, we must avoid deception of every kind. Consider the following instances in Scripture where we are admonished to avoid focusing on appearance and image.

  • “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them…. They [hypocrites] love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men…. For they [hypocrites] disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting…” (Matthew 6:1,5,16).
  • “But all their works they do to be seen by men…” (Matthew 23:5).
  • “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
  • In addressing the church at Sardis, Jesus referred to an entire congregation that seemed to be enjoying a great “image.” However, Jesus indicated that their internal state of affairs was far less healthy. He said, “…You have a reputation for being alive — but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1 NLT).
  • Paul spoke of those who “…boast in appearance and not in heart” (2 Corinthians 5:12).

It’s not that appearance is irrelevant; we should certainly avoid the appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). But substance is what ultimately matters. Dwight L. Moody said, “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.” John Wooden observed, “Your character is what you really are. Your reputation is only what others think you are.”

If we don’t cultivate and maintain a godly character, we can easily end up leading a double or secret life. Charles Spurgeon said, “We have all heard the story of the man who preached so well and lived so badly that when he was in the pulpit, everybody said he ought never to come out again, and when he was out of it, they all declared he never ought to enter it again.”

We must be on guard lest we end up becoming a public success but a private failure!

It’s easy to sit back and point a self-righteous finger at those wicked hypocrites who live behind a mask of diabolical deceit — but is it only “the other guy” who gets caught in a trap of focusing on image and appearance? I wonder how many “good-hearted” ministers have struggled with the fear of man and with “approval addiction.” What about us? What about me, and what about you? Have we ever allowed these to cause us to act less honorably than we should?

Consider the following characteristics that might cause us to be less than genuine and sincere for the sake of appearance.

  • Exaggeration. Has insecurity or the fear of disapproval (or the craving for approval) ever caused us to exaggerate a claim to make us look a little better?
  • Name-dropping. Have we ever name-dropped to impress others and to make them think we are important?
  • Flattery. Have we ever flattered someone in hopes of obtaining some kind of favor from that person?
  • Rationalization. When we made a mistake for which we should have apologized, have we ever rationalized or minimized our mistake instead in an attempt to save our image?
  • Criticism. Have we ever spoken badly of someone, thinking that it somehow made us look better?

It seems from Scripture that it is sometimes simply insecurity, fear, or a desire for approval that causes people to be untrue to their inner convictions. Peter and Barnabas weren’t bad guys, but they violated their convictions in Antioch because Peter didn’t want to displease James’ representatives from Jerusalem (Galatians 2:11-14).

Consider some of the rulers from Jesus’ day (John 12:42,43): “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”

Those rulers didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be evil; they just wanted to be accepted, approved of, and in favor with the people they thought were important. However understandable that may be, it still caused them to miss out on a vital relationship with God.

So what was it about David that differentiated him from Saul? What was it that caused David to be called “a man after God’s own heart”? Let me share five observations.

  1. David truly desired God more than anything else (Psalm 63:1-8).
  2. David loved the Word of God (Psalm 119:47,48,103,127-131,162,167).
  3. David was willing to confess his sin and repent with his whole heart (Psalm 51:1-12; 119:11; 101:2,3).

Part of the contrast between Saul and David is revealed in the way they each responded when they were confronted with their respective sins. Saul acknowledged the sin but seemed rather flippant about it, merely asking Samuel, “…Please pardon my sin…” (1 Samuel 15:25).

David, however, seemed to have taken the seriousness of his sin much more deeply and personally. He didn’t simply ask Nathan the prophet to pardon him; instead, David said directly to God, “Against You, You only have I sinned…” (Psalm 51:4). David realized that he hadn’t merely transgressed a commandment — he had sinned against God Himself. However, although forgiveness was granted, the social and relational consequences of David’s sin reverberated throughout his life. As Nathan said, the sword never departed from David’s house after that (2 Samuel 12:7-15).

It was perhaps the way David repented in spite of his failings and sins that substantiates the next point.

4. David was a man after God’s own heart because he was a man of integrity (1 Kings 9:4,5; Psalm 26:1; 15:1-5)

5. David was a man after God’s own heart because he was a man of gratitude and a man of praise (Psalm 34:1; 119:164)

I believe that God is still seeking people who are after His heart! Second Chronicles 16:9 (NASB) says, “…The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His….” Jesus confirmed this when He said that the Father is seeking those who worship Him “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).

We need to keep in mind that God has not called us to be the judge of anyone else’s motives; rather, our job is to focus on the motives of our own hearts. Paul even admonished us, “So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time — before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due” (1 Corinthians 4:5 NLT).

Paul further elaborated on his own personal commitment to keep his heart right and his motives pure when he said, “For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money!” (1 Thessalonians 2:4,5 NLT).

Purity of heart and motives is huge with God. It was important to Him in Saul’s day, and it’s still important today. If we want to avoid the failings of Saul in our own lives — and to cultivate a heart like David’s — we need to examine our hearts regularly and be brutally honest with ourselves. If we do, we’ll maintain a clear conscience throughout life and reap wonderful rewards throughout eternity.