The longer I live, the more I see that balance is hard to achieve. That’s one of the (many) reasons why I need to keep coming back to Scripture again and again, repeatedly challenging my own worldview. I need to be constantly challenged to prove that what I believe about something (whether conscious or sub-conscious) is being corrected and informed by the mind of God.
One example of how I’ve been challenged lately is by thinking about beauty. As a father of three daughters, I’m responsible for thinking hard about beauty and trying to help my girls learn to value what God values.
Pendulum to the Left
In our culture, beauty, body image, being physically attractive — this is everything! Girls grow up in our day learning the fine art of taking photos of themselves constantly, always trying to make themselves look attractive.
Joe Carter posted some interesting facts on ‘female body image‘ back in April that indicate some very serious concerns about the emphasis our culture places on physical beauty:
3. By age 6, girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.
4. The best-known contributor to the development of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is body dissatisfaction. The median ages for onset of an eating disorder in adolescents is 12- to 13-years-old. In the United States, 20 million women suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.
5. Only four percent of women globally consider themselves beautiful.
Clearly, our culture swings the pendulum toward a view of external beauty that places far too much of a burden on girls and women in particular. Young women are being led to live and die — literally — for beauty.
Pendulum to the Right
Conservative Christians, like me, are able to discern the disproportionate value being placed on externals. We see that it doesn’t line up with God’s heart (1 Sam 16.7), so we call on each other to esteem hearts over clothes. We hear the words of the New Testament that call us to modesty of dress (1 Tim 2.9-10; 1 Pet 3.3-6; 1 Cor 12.22-24), so we call on each other to prioritize good works and good character over fashion.
And that’s all right and good.
But, there’s a tension present in Scripture that needs to pull us in from both the right and the left of the pendulum, back towards the centre.
In Praise of Beautiful People
As much as the priority for any Christian woman — and man! — should be on the heart and the deeds that flow out from it, Scripture clearly values what is beautiful. Think of how matriarchs of the covenant people are described:
When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman [Sarah] was very beautiful. (Gen 12.14)
The young woman [Rebekah] was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. (Gen 24.16)
Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. (Gen 29.17)
Think of how Job was blessed with daughters after all his suffering; and think of how they are described:
And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters. (Job 42.15)
Abigail, the wise wife of the foolish Nabal, was ‘discerning and beautiful’ (1Sam 25.3). The mother of King Solomon is described as ‘very beautiful’ (2 Sam 11.2), and David’s daughter Tamar was also ‘beautiful’ (2 Sam 13.1). Esther, who was to save the Jewish people from genocide, is given her privileged place, specifically because of her beauty (Esther 2.7)!
In none of these instances is beauty described in a less-than-virtuous way. In fact, we have every indication to the contrary: that God loves beauty!
In Praise of Beautiful Things
When God created Eden, we’re told that everything there that God created was ‘pleasant to the sight’ (Gen 2.9). That’s part of what it meant that everything was ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31). It’s no surprise, then, that when God called on his people, Israel, to create the mini, mobile replica of Eden (aka the tabernacle, where he would again walk with them), he required that it — and even the clothes of those who work in it — be beautiful.
And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty. (Exod 28.2)
For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. (Exod 28.40)
The same would be true of the more permanent replica, the temple in Jerusalem, even in their return from exile:
beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King. (Psalm 48.2)
Blessed be the Lord, the God of our fathers, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king, to beautify the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem (Ezra 7.27)
Our God Is the Beauty that Centres the Pendulum
The reason, ultimately, why beauty is good, is because the biblical God is the epitome of objective beauty.
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27.4)
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. (Psalm 50.2)
Splendour and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. (Psalm 96.6)
God made everything beautiful, and desires that everything in his presence be beautiful, because he himself is the definition of beauty.
The Balance This Brings
Clearly we don’t want to abandon the priority of the heart that fears the Lord (Prov 31.30) and the life that is clothed with good deeds; but at the same time we also don’t want to devalue or denigrate beauty as something merely worldly.
If we lose our desire for beauty, it will only serve to diminish our desire for our beautiful God. The balance, I suppose, is learning to long for the beauty that matches his character and reflects his beauty. And then, once we find it, we give praise to the one who gives beauty to all that is beautiful.
A Closing Qualifier:
This could just as easily be applied to men as to women. David (1 Sam 16.12), Absalom (2 Sam 14.25), and others (1 Kings 1.6) are praised for their physical appearance, and the beautiful clothes made for the temple were made for Aaron’s sons (Exod 28.40). I’ve mainly directed this towards the female longing for beauty, however, because I began by thinking about the beauty of the matriarchs and applying it to the fathering of my daughters.
The bottom line? Male and female are created in his beautiful image and should seek to reflect it in whatever ways they can.