What is beautiful to you?
I suspect an image has been conjured in your mind. For me, I am whisked away to a camp in the French Alps where I once worked. Mountains that shine like gold as the morning sunlight reflects off their face surround me. While there is much in this world that deserves the label of beautiful, there are no images that portray more grandeur to me than this.
It would be my assumption that most of us link beauty with sight, as something we are primarily meant to behold with our eyes. Perhaps a flower, the face of our beloved, the plaster handprint of a child, a fine painting, an ornate gown, a majestic animal, a serene lake, ancient ruins, a classic car or a cathedral. The list is inexhaustible because, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We are prone to defining beauty as individuals and as a culture. What is beautiful to one may not be deemed beautiful to another. Yet, of all that beauty is linked to in our culture, there is one that stands out among the rest – women.
If you do a Google image search of the word beauty you will find that every image displayed is that of a woman (you might want to take my word for it, not all images are appropriate for all audiences).
As a woman, I see the inherent beauty of other women. I also know the destructive nature of this pairing – namely through the twin sisters called competition and shame. In recent years, many individuals within our culture have gone to great lengths to broaden the definitions of beauty as it pertains to women, and especially the female body. I know this struggle and I am grateful for those who have forged ahead and courageously labored to create new and better definitions. Many women, myself included, are walking in new levels of freedom because of those who refused to be defined by cultural constructions of beauty.
Some of the most notable voices in the campaign to redefine female beauty have come through Jamie Lee Curtis and the Dove ads and models like Denise Bidot who buck against traditional stereotypes. Yet, it is this project that has struck me lately:
To avoid any potential confusion, I want to be clear that I am against body shaming and any form of self-loathing. These responses are never helpful in any context. These are not God’s ways nor should they be ours. But, as I reflect on the video shared above I have been continuously wondering if all we are doing as a society is trading in one impartial, often destructive, concept of beauty for another. If beauty is no longer defined as slender, blond-haired and big-busted does it somehow make it better to define it as size 14, disproportionate, with curly red hair and freckles? Isn’t it really just the same thing? Yet, what I think most saddens me is that at the end of it all beauty continues to be defined by what we see, as opposed to who we are.
Self-acceptance is good but we are much more than what can be seen. Rarely, in the ads and projects about beauty is beauty defined by the attributes that truly make a person beautiful…attributes like strength, kindness, patience, love, faithfulness and wisdom. When is the last time you remember a sharp-minded female politician described as beautiful? I am sure this does happen, but I want to keep the focus on societal constructs as opposed to individual stories. To be fair, the Church often acknowledges these non-physical attributes but at the exclusion of the physical. This can cause a host of other issues and is another post for another time. Overall, it is rare occurrence in our culture for beauty to be defined beyond what can be seen and subsequently is almost always turned into something to be objectified, consumed or held as a standard of measure. I would like to offer that perhaps it is so difficult to avoid this because the beauty we are searching for and trying to name is something altogether different.
As I mulled this over in my mind, I was reminded of Psalm 27:4:
“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.”
While writing this Psalm David was facing some tumultuous times and serious life challenges. He was fearful for his life and had every right to feel that way. Yet even in his utter despair he longed for God and His beauty. The irony of this statement is that God was not visible to David, just as He is not visible to us. Within the beauty of nature we see creation that is reminiscent of God’s beauty. The greatest artists in history have attempted to capture His beauty through cathedrals, paintings and mosaics but those relics are not God.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he reminds us that Jesus was “the image of the invisible God.” So, a few people in history got a glimpse of God’s image in its physical form but none of them seemed to think it too important to leave us with a drawing or a narrative regarding the way he looked. However if we go back to Isaiah 53 and its prophetic picture of the Messiah, we discover these words penned regarding Jesus’ physical appearance: “He had no form or majesty that would make us look at him. He had nothing in his appearance that would make us desire him.” Therefore, it would be safe to assume that according to cultural standards Jesus was not the handsomest God-man (albeit He was and is the only one).
So, when David longs after God’s beauty – when we long after God’s beauty – what are we talking about? What are we searching for? I assure you it is not a cultural construct that includes height, weight and hair color. In fact, it must be something more than physical. God’s attributes attest to His beauty – His strength, glory, faithfulness, love, kindness and longsuffering. Yet, His beauty is its own attribute. We know that it is good and is something worth longing for more than anything else. David teaches us that gazing at God’s beauty can bring contentment and peace even in the midst of the most severe circumstances. Certainly there is some physicality to it because it requires a gaze but it is more than that. God’s beauty is sensual. Yet, as I reflect on all of this a definition continually eludes me. Perhaps that is the way that it is supposed to be. Perhaps it is the mystery that draws us into deeper longing and captivates our gaze toward Him. Perhaps I am completely wrong about all of this.
To be honest, I don’t any have solid conclusions. What society offers regarding beauty is not enough and God’s invitation to gaze at His beauty leaves me with more questions than answers (like what am I actually gazing at if I can’t see Him). But through all of this, it is my hope to stir in your heart a desire to pursue God’s beauty – in all of its elusive mystery – all the days of your life as David did. This pursuit may not fit within the parameters set forth by our culture but it certainly seems to be worthy of our devotion.
So as you consider, ponder and gaze it is my prayer that you continue to enjoy that which you find beautiful – the physical and the non-physical. Accept yourself as you are and allow God to continue to form you into the person He has created you to be. Behold the beauty in and around you and share it with others freely. There is more than enough beauty for everyone. Embrace the mystery and dance with it. Allow all of your senses to engage the beauty that is God through the ways He reveals Himself to You. Gaze, not only with your eyes, but also with your heart, your soul and all of your being.
“We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. “ ~C.S. Lewis