Toward a Theological Understanding of Beauty

The True Meaning of Our Longing for the Beautiful

Norman-Rockwell-Girl-at-Mirror-1954Nearly every girl wants to be beautiful, and nearly every boy wants to be handsome. Our popular culture teaches us that it’s the slender, beautiful girl with perfect hair and skin who is most popular, who gets the glamorous jobs like modeling and acting, and whom every boy wants to go out with, or sleep with; and that it’s the strong, handsome boy who gets all the girls and becomes the heartthrob actor or football player. Our young people long to be that girl or that boy, and even as we grow older and wiser, we still walk in the shadow of an unattainable ideal.

The Christian culture tries to oppose this.

“God made you who you are,” we say. “God looks on the heart, not the outer appearance.”

“Beauty is deceiving,” we say. “Beauty doesn’t equal truth. You are lovable for who you are, not what you look like.”

We try to convince the girl with bad skin that her skin simply doesn’t matter, because God loves her, and the wimpy boy without bulging muscles that he’s destined for something better than football, because God made him.

Though we speak truth, though we’re closer to the heart of the matter than the popular culture that drives young people to despair because of such perishable things as skin or muscles, I am convinced that we, too, are missing part of the whole picture. God, after all, did not make us beautiful and vibrant personalities that float around and interact with each other on a spiritual plane without a physical interface. God clothed us in physical bodies that matter, and He gave us eyes and minds that automatically evaluate everything we see based on its physical appearance. When we tell each other that the physical doesn’t matter, we’re denying a major aspect of the way God intended us to interact with each other, with the world He gave us, and with Him.

God created beauty. What is more, God created beauty for us to enjoy. Our brains are designed to take pleasure in beauty, and to use beauty as a way of evaluating whether something is good or bad. A piece of fruit that is ripe and healthy is one of the most beautiful things on earth. A piece of fruit that is rotten is incredibly ugly and probably stinky. Ill health can destroy natural beauty in days, while good health is intrinsically attractive. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes wreak destruction, turning lovely landscapes into scenes of horror and devastation. There is built into the world a deep understanding that beauty is good and ugliness is bad.

This is even true of biblical language. Both Hebrew and Greek have a word that means both “good” and “beautiful,” tov in Hebrew and kalos in Greek. Their opposites are words meaning “bad, evil, ugly, deformed.” Built into the very language of the Bible is the concept that beauty is based on goodness and that what is good is beautiful.

In the beginning, God created, and He called it good, tov. His world was perfect, and it was beautiful. In the beginning, God created goodness and beauty to be perfectly congruent. Then sin entered, and with sin came ugliness—and with sin also came deception.

Suddenly what was good, beauty, could be used to deceive. Sin made it so that beauty was no longer congruent with goodness. Sin turned a beautiful thing, a fruit God made, into a tool of deception and death for a beautiful woman, who became a tool of deception and death for a beautiful man. Our world has been turned upside down, deceived by a kind of beauty that is at its core the ultimate ugliness. But that can’t nullify the truth that God created beauty and still uses it to reveal Himself to us.

Our good God has opposed the deceptive malformation of beauty by redeeming what is ugly. When we truly love, our loved one becomes beautiful in our eyes. The pain of loss or illness can become a process by which we are healed and strengthened. Where the enemy twists beauty into something ugly, God redeems ugliness and makes it beautiful.

Beauty is important. True beauty draws our eyes to the One who made it. After all, even Christians don’t look at the flame of a perfect autumn day or the grandeur of a line of snow-capped mountains or the perfect little body of a grinning baby and say to ourselves, “Hrmph. Beauty is deceitful.” No, we are inspired to cry out with the hymn-writer, “Oh, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made . . . then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, ‘How great Thou art!’” But when we see a young girl who wants to be beautiful, then we forget that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”) and tell her simply that she is wrong to desire beauty. Why are Christians allowed to see beauty in everything except each other?

It’s true that beauty in humans can deceive. However, we Christians are so fixated on this idea that we can no longer see that it is God who has placed a longing for beauty inside each of us. At the heart of it, a girl’s longing to be beautiful is not only a longing to be loved and valued, but also a longing for that world where perfection reigns, where what is good is what is beautiful, where ugly, sin-caused things like loss from tornados, pain from illness, and the humiliation of acne can never exist.

Let’s not denigrate her longing for physical beauty. Let’s help her transcend the deceitfulness of sin’s ugly beauty by seeing, and helping her see, her longing for what it is: the ultimate longing for love, for that better world designed by the perfect Exterior Designer, and for our beautiful God.

Image courtesy of About.com's Art History page.

Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.

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A very thoughtfully written article; thank you. It reminds me of what a friend said about the first lines of Psalm 84, that is, that they should be recited while we look around the room at the people who are there with us. "How beautiful is Thy dwelling place,O Lord Almighty!" Psalm 84:1