There’s been a lot of talk about beauty around here lately. One friend has even labeled the ongoing conversation TBD—The Beauty Discussion. We’ve dragged Augustine, Reformers, Puritans, philosophers, and the Mahaneys into the discussion to help us and our daughters think about women and beauty as Christians. Here are five points:
Physical beauty is as real as spiritual beauty. Our culture tells women that physical beauty is all that matters. Some Christians react to this by saying that spiritual beauty is the only real beauty. But that’s not true; God created real, physical beauty, and in this world we see lots of it, including in other people. Something purely physical can be beautiful (a flower, sunset, and Taylor Swift’s hair), and we can be thankful for it. There is a tension between physical and spiritual beauty as we strive to maintain body and cultivate soul, but one is not less real than the other, though one is less valuable than the other.
Beauty can lie. Though this world is full of physical beauty, it is not the beauty that it once was. God created beauty and goodness and truth to be aspects of the same thing (reflecting His perfection), but in a Genesis 3 world, the three don’t go together all the time, if ever. That is why you can have a beautiful woman without discretion (Prov. 11:22) and a weak, wrinkled saint full of kindness and compassion and patience. External beauty does not always tell the truth. George Eliot said, “Long dark eyelashes, now—what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity…. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals…”. And that is why this issue is so tricky. Sin has severed beauty from truth and goodness, Satan distorts and abuses beauty, and we tend to look at the outside (1 Sam. 16:7), drawn to beauty even when it is divorced from or opposed to goodness and truth.
Our ideas of beauty are more informed by cultural standards than we think. In medieval Europe, women plucked their hairline to give themselves tall foreheads. Renaissance beauties were severely overweight by our standards. In other cultures around the world, long necks, stretched lips, and shaved heads challenge our ideas of beauty as merely cultural and temporal, not timeless and universal. We certainly have a hard time thinking outside of our cultural box, even when it comes to dealing with Scripture passages that extol grey hair as a good thing.
We are not beautiful just the way we are. There’s a battle going on in the secular culture over beauty. Both sides affirm that beauty is massively important. The one side, though, says that whatever we’re doing is not enough: we need to be thinner, have fuller hair, bigger eyes, more expensive clothes, etc., in order to be really beautiful. Then there’s the other side (I’m sure you’ve seen the ads): every woman is beautiful just the way she is. Not true. Anybody who thinks that they are perfectly beautiful just how they are either is in preschool or has perception issues. That is why, when you ask women what they don’t like about their appearance, they can name at least a couple things. And they might be right: spots and wrinkles and all such things are ugly (Eph. 5:27), not beautiful. We do have things wrong with our appearance, just as much as we have things wrong with our souls, and there’s not much we can do about it. Genesis 3 didn’t only make us sinners: it also made us ugly, though not as ugly as we could be, thankfully! Just as in the rest of creation, God has preserved much beauty in us, though we all know we fall short of the aesthetic standard just as we do the moral one.
We will be beautiful. Exactly where our culture leaves us hanging (we’re not perfectly beautiful and it’s a losing battle) is where the promises of the Word become especially clear. Our bodies are wasting away. They’re getting more wrinkled, saggy, spotty, bent, and colourless as the years go by. And a Christian woman, while she cares for her body as a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20), can be content and reasonable through this process. We can really, truly age gracefully in the fullest sense, knowing that this is the temporary, physical body that we will one day lay aside, then later receive back as a spiritual body perfectly re-made: strong, healthy, and so very beautiful.
Maybe three words should be shaping our thoughts about beauty: mortality, humility, and fruitfulness. These bodies are temporary and there is only so much we can do to shore them up while we have them. We’re mortal: we have an expiry date just as surely as the milk in the fridge. That mortality should make us humble, shouldn’t it? The most gorgeous 20 year-old should feel sober when she remembers that one day, her beautiful face and figure will be in a grave and people will want to not see her. That is where fruitfulness brings balance. If we’re all bound for the grave, what do we do with these bodies, that take up so much time and effort? Bear fruit. We know what fruit we should be bearing: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Knowing that we are mortal and will die, we should strive to be healthy and fit not because of cultural pressure, but so that we are able to serve others. Admitting that our bodies are fallen, we still shower out of love for others. We can hide those spots and wrinkles with a bit of make-up in kindness to the people who have to look at us. And we can use self-control and humility when dressing and doing our hair and the rest, because we will have to give an account for how we have spent every minute and dollar. Thankfully, it is at that second coming that we will also receive not only new bodies, but also the minds and souls perfectly able to use them in ways that best bring glory to God. Let’s start practicing now.