Sometimes the concepts that we interact with every day and take for granted are the most fascinating to explore. Consider beauty. A recognition and appreciation of beauty is a part of the universal human experience. But why? Have you ever tried to define beauty? How is it that we all appreciate beauty? And if we all appreciate beauty, why is it so difficult to define? Do standards for beauty change? Is the concept of beauty a cultural construct? Or is it universal?
Take human beauty as an example. In modern Western culture, physical fitness and tanned skin seem to be high on the list of what constitutes beauty. But 200 years ago, pasty white skin and a plump physique were the criteria for what was beautiful. Clearly our standards of beauty have changed. Or could it be that in both cases the same standard of beauty is being upheld?
I contend that while the physical manifestations may change with time, the worldly standard for beauty has not changed. Sex, money, and power: these are the standard for what is beautiful. Two hundred years ago, to be pasty white meant you did not have to be outside working, and to be pleasantly plump meant you had enough resources to be well fed. Today, to be physically fit means you have the time and financial resources to work out regularly, and tanned skin implies you have the leisure time to be in the sun. In either case the standard for what is beautiful has not changed, only the physical manifestation has been altered.
But we should not allow humanity’s three greatest idols (sex, money, and power) to define beauty for us. In our effort to understand a concept such as beauty, we must always move beyond a culturally driven understanding and seek to discover what the Bible has to say about the issue. Does the Bible actually have any relevance for the way we perceive beauty? Of course!
Why is it that certain aspects of nature (e.g., the ocean, Yosemite, the Alps, the Grand Canyon, a brilliant sunset, a star filled night, etc.) are almost universally considered beautiful? I suggest that we all find these things beautiful because, as expressed by Psalm 19, nature is screaming out the glory of God. These things are beautiful because they reflect God. We see beauty in creation because it reveals a powerful and creative designer whose every action is characterized by beauty.
The same is true of human beauty. Just like every other part of creation, each person displays the beauty of his or her Creator. In a physical sense, this is as true of the person who rejects Christ as of the Christian. Of course, a person’s inner beauty is determined by the extent to which they reflect God in their thoughts, actions, and character, so a person’s relationship with Christ should have a huge bearing on their inner beauty.
But should we think of physical beauty and “inner” beauty as two unrelated things? I suggest that these two types of beauty have much more in common than we might think. For example, a woman who reflects God in her thoughts, actions, and character will care for her body, she will not over-eat or under-eat, and she will not abuse her body through addictions to drugs or alcohol. These sinful activities often leave “scars” on our physical bodies that announce our sin to everyone around us. Even physical features that many consider to be appealing become ugly when they reflect our sin—like the man who overworks his muscles to such an extent that they stop reflecting fitness and begin announcing his self-idolatry to the world.
I’m certainly not suggesting that every person who is overweight, skinny, or scarred bears these physical characteristics because of sin. And I know this is a sensitive issue for many of us. But it’s imperative that we think through these things. My point is simply to make the connection that our lack of inner beauty often manifests in our physical appearance.
We also need to recognize the effects of sin on our world. Many people bear the scars of sin on their bodies. Whether it’s the result of a birth defect, some sort of “natural evil” (e.g., being burned in a fire), or abuse, these scars serve as a reminder of sin—not a person’s own sin, but the sin that pervades the creation through the curse. In these cases, a person’s inner beauty may have no connection with these aspects of their physical appearance. They are simply a reminder that we live in a sin stained world.
But the stain of sin is not the final word. Through the redemption available in Christ, even those physical scars that remind us of the curse can ultimately be transformed into signs of grace—just as Jesus’ nail-pierced hands point beyond the effects of sin to His victory over death.
I want add a brief note about the way we perceive beauty, though this will be the subject of a future post. Sin stains everything it touches, and our standard and perception of beauty are not exempt. People often find beauty in raw sensuality rather than godliness. Just as sin pervades and therefore distorts our culture’s perception of sex, love, happiness, hope, etc., so sin causes us to see beauty where we should see depravity. Conversely, our sin-stained perception causes us to overlook beauty in places where it ought to be seen. But I will explore this in greater depth later.
For now, I want to start the discussion by suggesting that God Himself is the standard for beauty, and that something is beautiful insofar as it reflects the workmanship, character, and love of its Creator.