Theology of Beauty in Action: Jesus

Beauty or Jesus

The rich young ruler loved his money more than anything in the world including the God who created him. We are all idolaters. Jesus comes to each one of us, points to our idol, and gives us an ultimatum. Give up your idol worship and follow me or perish in your idolatry. For the rich young ruler the call was to give up his money and possessions. We all know how the story ends. How about you? How does your story end?

Calvin once asserted that our hearts are “idol factories.” If this is the case then the idol of beauty is being produced in mass throughout our culture. For you it may be your golden calf; your replacement god that you worship with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. If you were in the rich young ruler’s shoes and Jesus was confronting the idol of your heart how would you respond? Would you leave all to follow him? Maybe you already have done this.

If you are a disciple of Christ it is good at times to be challenged in your loyalty and devotion. Is your answer to Jesus the same as it has been in the past? How does the story end for you? The reality is that we cannot serve God and mammon. And we cannot serve God and the idol of beauty.

If your conscience is heavy because the idolatry of beauty is something you grapple with, do not despair. Look to Christ. He is your substitute. His heart was a factory of goodness and perfection. And his perfect life has been accounted to you. He absorbed in himself the punishment for your idolatry. The result is that there is no condemnation hanging over your head as you struggle to be undivided in your loyalty to Christ.

He knows your heart and he knows the wrestling in your soul. He is a sympathetic, compassionate, and patient Savior. Fix your eyes on him whether your stride is strong or you are face down on the ground. Whether you are weak or strong, trusting or doubting, hopeful or despairing—-look to him.

The paradox in leaving behind the pursuit of beauty to follow Jesus is that you end up falling into beauty when you do. The principle of losing your life to gain it applies to beauty. By giving up an idolatrous pursuit of a certain physical appearance that is equated with beauty we come in contact with true beauty.

Our loss is always our gain. We meet beauty incarnate. By faith his beauty becomes ours. And by the Spirit he transforms us to reflect his beauty more and more. The rich man would have become truly wealthy if he would have given everything away to follow Christ. The person in pursuit of beauty does not lose it but truly finds it in Christ.

The Beauty of Jesus 

I have painted with broad strokes in attempt to capture some of the major biblical ideas that help us think well about the issue of beauty. I do not believe we have missed the forest for the trees. But I do believe a certain tree in the forest demands more of our attention. It is a tree in the forest of beauty that dwarves the rest. It is a redwood among pines, a sequoia among maples.

I have asserted that beauty is a Trinitarian reality made manifest in the person of Christ in the context of the gospel. The unveiling of Trinitarian beauty and gospel splendor intersect in God our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. If we would know beauty we must know Christ.

Of all the application we derive from a theology of beauty, this is the most important. Strive to permeate your heart and mind with the beauty of Christ. The longing of David to “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps 27:4) is a desire that can only be realized as we focus on the gospel. As we look to Christ, our deepest creaturely needs and yearnings find satisfaction.

It is in his presence and before his face that we recognize the reason for which we were created. As we gaze upon him we know liberation from our sin and our selves. As we look to him we are transformed into his likeness. As we are overwhelmed by his glory and beauty we are driven to glad obedience. Beholding the beauty of Christ would be sufficiently fulfilling in itself. But the beauty of Christ is also functional. Things happen to us as we behold him. For the Christian, beholding beauty leads to becoming beautiful.[1]

My encouragement to you is to continue building your biblical framework for beauty by focusing your study on the person and work of Christ. Let his beauty be a topic of conversation with others. Where do you see his beauty? What is his beauty like? What language is used of Jesus that is similar to beauty? In what way does he challenge the cultural perspective on beauty?

Search, explore, ask questions, make observations, think fresh thoughts—just focus your heart and mind on him. Look at his incarnation, his ministry, his cross, his resurrection, his ascension, his return, his intercession, his second coming, and his eternal rule—all with an eye to beauty.[2] The voice of God cuts through the chatter of our culture and beckons us to come, and “behold the king in his beauty” (Is 33:17). If we follow the sound of his voice, we will never be the same.

For a link to this entire series in an article/paper format: Gospel & Beauty: A Cruciform Majesty.


[1] Ibid, 46. Mahaney asserts something similar when she says: “If I keep my eyes on the One who is loveliness incarnate, I will grow more beautiful by reflecting Him.”

[2] If you want to read outside of Scripture on this theme check out John Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume 1: The Glory of Christ (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965). Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Jesus Christ” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Volume 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Incorporated, 2004), 680-690. This sermon can also be found online in article form. Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005). Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008). Fred Sanders & Klaus Issler, Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007). This document was authored in August, 2011.

Theology of Beauty in Action: Age and Sovereignty

Beauty and Age    

If motherhood is the death knell of beauty in our culture than aging is the funeral. Our culture is obsessed with appearing young. Since beauty is equated with a young appearance women are encouraged to do everything necessary to look that way. From a biblical perspective age has very little do to do with beauty.

Young or old, a woman who is beautiful in the eyes of the world yet lacks discretion is likened to a pig with a nose ring (Prov 11:22). External beauty is always hollow if the inner person is ugly. Youthfulness is no guarantee of beauty. Lack of discretion, however, is guaranteed to make a woman a sow.

At the ripe age of 90 Sarah was considered beautiful. Her spirit was gentle and she was clothed in submission (1 Pet 3:3-6).[1] It seems that her beauty only increased as she aged. As her physical appearance dimmed her gentle and quiet spirit only shined brighter (Gen 12:10). For it appears her submission matured with age.[2]

Since Peter is referring to her in the elderly years of her life it makes me wonder if he would have made the same assessment of her when she was younger. We can’t know for sure but we do know that he saw beauty in this older woman precisely because he viewed her with the eyes of faith rather than the lens of culture.

Men are not immune to this pressure. The pull to look young is pervasive. The Bible is not silent on this pull as it connects old age with wisdom. In fact, Scripture equates glory with aging men. Gray hair is a “crown of glory” (Prov16:31, 20:29). It is time to put to death the idea that beauty and youthful appearance are virtually synonymous.

Beauty and Sovereignty

What does the sovereignty of God have to do with beauty? A lot. Discontentment plagues the souls of men and women in our culture and in our churches. The sovereignty of God is medicine that drives away this ailment and at the same time produces peace and contentment. Mahaney once again does a great job of showing how.

“A loving God has determined what we each look like. He decided our body shape, how tall we would be, the color of our eyes, and all the unique features that make up our body type and appearance— right down to our fingers! We can either spend our lives pining about the results of God’s determination or we can receive with gratefulness His design, knowing that He does all things for His glory. David said, ‘I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Ps. 139:14). When was the last time you worshiped God for the way He created your body? Anything less than a heart filled with gratitude and praise to God for our physical appearance is sinful and grieves the Lord.” [3]

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Marriage and Motherhood

Marriage provides a unique context for beauty to be understood and seen. As we have learned, beauty is known in community. Marriage is the coming together of man and woman to form a new community. God intends for the married couple to be reflective of the Triune community and the relationship of Christ to the church.

As the couple reflects the divine nature and the loving relationship of Christ and the church they display beauty. The beauty of the wife from a biblical perspective is always connected to her relationship with her husband. Note carefully how beauty in this text is put in a relational context.

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:3-6).

Beauty is clearly tied to submission in this text. The internal beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit is manifested in following the lead of the husband. The holy women of old adorned themselves “by” submission to their husbands. Submission is beautiful. Peter tells us that all physical adornment pales in comparison to this beauty. This is the beauty of character action. Submission is equated with beauty because it reflects the Triune community. Paul helps us see this connection in another place where he addresses the issue of submission. Look at this text.

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). 

The text gives us three examples of headship and submission. Paul is establishing the appropriate order in the corporate worship setting. He does so by helping the Corinthians understand authority and submission. He uses three examples that shed light on the dynamic of submission. Most striking is the submission of Christ to God. It is fitting for humans made in the image of God to submit to one another precisely because the God they were created to reflect does so.

Headship Christ Husband God
Submission Man Wife Christ

In the Triune community there is mutual submission. The Son and the Spirit both submit to the Father. The Spirit submits to the Son. The Son submits to the Spirit. God submits to God. Perfectly equal yet submitted to one another—this is the mystery and glory of the Triune dynamic.

Submission is therefore a beautiful quality that is fundamentally God-like.[1] A posture that husband and wife are called on to demonstrate toward one another (Eph 5:21). As wives follow the lead of their husbands they reflect the splendor of the obedient Son. As women gladly walk under the authority of their head they shine forth the radiance of the self-effacing Spirit. As the husband submits his entire life in the service of his spouse, he reflects both the Son and Spirit as well. This is a beauty missed by the world. It is the beauty of God.

The beauty of submission is also intended to reflect the posture of the church before it’s Savior (Eph 5:22-24). As wives follow their husbands the light of the gospel shines out of their homes. The picture of a husband daily sacrificing himself for his bride and submitting his life to her service will point onlookers to the gospel.

This means that the beauty reflected in marriage is both a Triune beauty and a gospel beauty. Wives are called to live in relationship to their husbands and children in such a way that the doctrine of the gospel is not maligned (Tit 2:3-5). As they do this they reflect the beauty of the gospel.

From a biblical perspective rejecting submission is equivalent to rejecting beauty. If beauty is rooted in the Trinity and submission is integral to that community it follows that beauty in human existence will also have that component. This is true for both the husband and wife.

This is another area where we must combat the prevailing worldview of our culture. Submission is a dirty word in most circles especially when used in the context of marriage. We need our thinking transformed in this area. The pursuit of true beauty for a married woman will focus on God, the gospel, and the family. It is her engagement with these three areas of her life that will ultimately determine her beauty.

Beauty and the Mother

If our culture has the last word then beauty is a lost cause for the mother. Our culture asserts that after children your body is ruined and beyond beauty. It tells us that the everyday existence of a mother makes beauty impossible to attain. Your mirror time is gone because the kids will not wait for breakfast. You look and feel tired all the time. You’re so busy trying to take care of your family and hold down a job that you’re getting behind on the latest fashions.

If you are at home, the tasks of the day crowd out time for physical appearance. Doing your hair seems pointless since it is only a matter of time before your child’s food ends up in it. Our culture quips that having kids is a critical moment in the process of moving away from the cultural standard of beauty. What goes through your head as a mother when it comes to beauty? My guess is that crummy lies like these often occupy your mind. How does the evil one utilize the world’s definition of beauty in the life of a mother? He takes up the pen and writes letters, often. They normally read something like this.

Dear Mother,

I just wanted to remind you today that you are ugly. I hope you feel like a worthless piece of trash because in reality you are. You will never be beautiful just look at yourself. You might have a chance if you would just neglect those worthless children that are only getting in your way and get to the real business of looking good. Even then it is probably a lost cause. Be discouraged. I will stay in touch.  

Sincerely,

Satan

The problem is that the return address is often ignored. Though the left hand corner of the envelope reads Hell in all caps the letter is received as gospel truth. These are wretched and damaging lies. The gospel teaches that superb beauty is found in the Christian mother.[2] At the heart of motherhood is sacrifice. We have seen that sacrifice is at the heart of beauty.

The gospel enables us to recognize the marks of sacrifice on the mother’s body as marks of beauty. It helps us discern in tired eyes the endless hours of service for the sake of another. It grants us perspective to see the beauty of household tasks and holding down a job. With gospel eyes we perceive that the essence of motherhood is self-forgetting service. This revelation causes us to step back in awe of beauty. So who really embodies beauty: the model or the mother? You decide.

The truth of the gospel and beauty is something that must be embraced over and over again as a mother. The letters from the pit will not be discontinued in this life. You must become proactive. Preach the gospel to yourself. Engage with other mothers around the gospel. And take up the pen yourself and write your own letter.

Satan,

I have burned your letters. One day your lies won’t be the only thing in flames. I will have you know that you are not the only one who writes me. The letters of God tell me the truth about beauty. Beauty is found in the one true God and is manifested concretely in his son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The beauty of Jesus is seen primarily in his sacrifice for me on the cross. He has died for my ugliness and has granted me his beauty. Thank you for the reminder of my need for the gospel. I do need beauty and I have none apart from Christ. In him I am beautiful. His beauty is now mine and my ugliness has been swallowed up in him. And as I follow him and live a life of self-sacrifice for my family and my neighbor I reflect the beauty of Christ. Your letters are lies that contradict the words of God. You are a liar of the worst sort and I refuse to listen to your voice. I reject you and your definition of beauty. I know you will have a speedy response to this letter. But just know it will be wasted ink.

 Looking expectantly to Christ’s final triumph and your eternal demise,

A mother trusting the gospel


[1] Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 85, 138. “It is the nature of God both to exert authority and to obey in submission. And since this is the eternal nature of God, we may know that it is beautiful and it is good…So, if we are to model our lives after the nature of God, we must learn joyfully to embrace both rightful authority and rightful submission.”

[2] Martin Luther, The Basic Theological Writings (2nd Edition), ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). Luther wrote about the beauty of motherhood from another angle. “Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, ‘Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful, carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.’ What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, ‘O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.’”

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Men

Though we often equate beauty with femininity this study has sought to demonstrate that this is too narrow. If God is the essence of beauty and all the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus then beauty must also be masculine. The most beautiful human who ever lived was a man. Even writing that last sentence feels weird to me. Using beauty as an adjective for man just seems wrong. But if we go with the definition that understands beauty to be synonymous with glory it makes sense.

Beauty is the sum total of God’s perfections. All of the attributes of God comprise his beauty and glory. Since Jesus is God in the form of a man he is also glorious and beautiful. By the work of the Spirit both men and women are conformed to the likeness of Christ. As we are transformed to reflect his character we are changed to reflect his beauty. This beauty will be appropriately refracted in men and women. There is a masculine manifestation of beauty and a feminine one but they share the same source and character.

Men need to think deeply about beauty. We are influenced and shaped by our culture when it comes to beauty. Just as there is a standard of attractiveness for women (which is the equivalent of beauty in our culture) so there is for men. As men we are encouraged to be conformed to this ideal. We are also influenced in the way we view females. The elevation of physical appearance in our culture is mirrored in our minds. We are encouraged to use the cultural yardstick to assess women.

Our thinking, our eyes, and our speech betray the fact that we have bought into godless thinking about beauty. This error in our thinking is a factor in sexual immorality, lust, pornography, conflict in relationships and marriage, adultery, and divorce. We need our minds to be conformed to the mind of Christ on this matter.

Men are influencers and culture shapers when it comes to beauty. As men, we have done untold damage to women. By establishing or affirming the cultural standard of beauty we have contributed to the current state of affairs. Just who is responsible for excessive exercise, extreme diets, tanning booths, endless hours in front of the mirror, anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery, and insecurity? We are wrong if we think our hands are clean. We may never encourage someone to get plastic surgery but by affirming the cultural standard of beauty we are essentially communicating that we wish they were different.

By defining beauty as a certain color of eyes, type of hair, complexion of skin or shape of body we create a beauty complex for anyone who does not fit. When this happens on a large scale, the result is a caste system. Your status and value are determined by how close you conform to the standard.[1]

At one end of the spectrum is the outcast who fails in every way to conform to the standard. On the other end is the model, the embodiment of the standard. And then there is everyone in between. The goal of everyone below the standard is to move upward by any means possible. When we elevate physical appearance and equate it with beauty we do so to the detriment of women.

Men of God must be influencers and shapers of a culture based on biblically defined thoughts of beauty. The fact that we have contributed to the problem requires repentance. We must own the fact that our thoughts on beauty have not been captive to Christ. We must commit ourselves to changing our thinking on this issue so that our attitudes and actions might also be transformed.

We must strive to understand the biblical meaning of beauty. We must allow this perspective to permeate our homes, churches, and workplaces. We must make it our aim to help sisters in Christ understand their God and their position in him. We must also seek to do justice in the area of beauty. We must recognize that the issue of beauty in the world is tied to issues like prostitution, pornography, and human sex trafficking. The famous Edmund Burke quote applies here: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” A robust vision of beauty will compel us to justice. It will not do to remain silent and passive on these issues.

As men we have the privilege and responsibility of being fathers. As fathers we have the unique role of instilling in our children a God-centered perspective on beauty. This will not be easy. We will be rowing against the cultural current. It is imperative, however, that we model and instruct our sons and daughters how to think about the issue of beauty.

Our daughters need to know the freedom of true beauty. Our sons need to know how to properly view women made in the image of God. A robust theology of beauty in the home—centered in the Trinity and shaped by the gospel—will pay tremendous dividends for our children and their children. The prevalence of this issue in our culture should remind us of the urgency of this task in our homes. The voice of the father must rise above the voices of culture. And the children must discern in that voice the words of God.


[1] The letter of James identifies this sort of attitude as “evil.” The entire unit is worth a look. This is James 2:1-4. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” James condemns partiality based upon outward appearance. Here the outward appearance is focused on clothing. By deeming one person more valuable than another on the basis of outward appearance these people have become “judges with evil thoughts.” These are strong words for those who would build a standard of judgment on outward appearance. Since God does not look on outward appearance “but on the heart” he calls us to do the same (1 Sam 6:17). According to James, it is wicked to do otherwise.

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Action, Sacrifice and Community

Beauty and Balance

This section provides an important qualification for all that has gone before. There is nothing innately sinful about pursuing an outward physical appearance that complies with our culture. In other words, there is nothing wrong with taking care of yourself and wanting to look nice. In fact, we are called to be good stewards of our bodies, which includes our physical appearance. The key here is perspective and balance. Mahaney explains,

“Seeking to please the Lord does not mean that we neglect our personal appearance. Pure devotion to God will produce an appropriate concern for physical appearance. A godly woman will seek to present an outward appearance that honors God and attracts others to her character. It is not wrong to seek to enhance our own appearance, but we need to evaluate our motives and our commitment to modesty. It is not necessarily evil to wear stylish clothing and an attractive hairstyle. It is not sinful to wear makeup and jewelry. The Proverbs 31 woman wore colorful, high-quality clothing. The bride in the Song of Solomon adorned her appearance with jewelry. We are told that Esther underwent twelve months of beauty treatments—six months with oil and myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. The Bible does not condemn wearing and using these things. It is wearing them for the wrong reasons that God’s Word forbids. As John Piper says in his book A Godward Life: ‘With God at the center—like the ‘sun,’ satisfying a woman’s longing for beauty and greatness and truth and love—all the ‘planets’ of food and dress and exercise and cosmetics and posture and countenance will stay in their proper orbit.’”

The two major problems we run into when it comes to outward appearance are misunderstanding true beauty and idolatry. As we deal with these issues we are better equipped to maintain balance in this area.

Beauty and Action      

In our culture we do not put beauty and action in the same category. Since we tie it to physical appearance it is something that a person possesses rather than something they do. We have seen from Scripture that it is in fact both. Beauty is something possessed and something dynamic. Action reveals character and character determines action. The two are inseparable, which means that beauty must be understood as both attribute and activity.

Practically speaking this means that we must learn to discern beauty in the things we often do not. There is beauty in feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, helping the widow, and protecting the orphan. There is beauty in hospitality, writing a letter of encouragement, praying over someone, sharing the gospel, and weeping with someone grieving. Actions rooted in love are beautiful.

Beauty and Sacrifice

At the heart of our discussion on beauty stands the cross. I have suggested that the very core of beauty is sacrifice. We have seen in Christ the self-giving and sacrificial nature of the Triune God. Beauty is manifested in us as we take up our cross and give our lives away (both figuratively and literally). In our culture physical appearance is so valuable that we are encouraged to sacrifice in order to possess it or maintain it.

Jesus was willing to have his physical appearance “marred” to such a degree that he was unrecognizable (Is 52:14). He sacrificed everything for us that we might know grace. The beauty of this is not in the disfigurement itself, but in the heart and purpose behind it. The Holy Spirit labors to create within us this kind of heart. When we put our lives on the line for the sake of others we reflect this beauty.

Beauty and Community

In the West we tend to think of beauty as an individual thing. Either a person is beautiful or they are not. It has nothing to do with anybody else. Each person stands alone to be measured by the cultural yardstick of beauty. The mirror is the final standard of beauty, nothing else. As we have seen, this is a flawed perspective. Beauty is relational to the core. The beauty of God is the beauty of community. The beauty of the image of God is tied to relationship. The beauty of the church is a corporate beauty.

Practically speaking this means at least two things. First, if you have confessed Christ as Lord then you have been incorporated into his church. The church of Christ is his bride. Through his death and resurrection he has purchased and beautified his bride once and for all (Eph 5:25-27). Individually then you are a member of a body that is considered beautiful and pure in the eyes of God. You belong to a beautiful community.

This communal perspective on beauty is difficult for us to grasp. But we must grasp it if we would understand beauty. From God’s perspective it is this corporate beauty that seems to take precedence over individual beauty. If you read Revelation 19-22 with an eye to the beauty of God’s people you will see that the body as a whole rather than its individual parts is the focus. When Jesus returns to consummate his saving work the end result is a beautiful bride. There is beauty in belonging and we belong to the Triune God and to his church.

The second thing is that beauty is manifest in community through the way we relate. How we interact at home and in the church has everything to do with beauty. If beauty is seen in the way the Father interacts with the Son and the way the Son engages with the Father then certainly it will also be manifested through our interaction with one another.

As we interact with love, patience, gentleness, kindness, compassion, honesty, generosity, grace, forgiveness and selflessness we reflect the beauty of God in our community. If you want to assess your beauty the mirror is not the place to look. Turn your attention instead to your relationships. Let the mirror of community probe you and measure you.

Theology of Beauty in Action: Faith and Repentance

Beauty and Faith 

The problem with the world’s standard of beauty is the absence of faith. If you were to ask someone in our culture what faith has to do with beauty they would likely say nothing. We have seen that faith has everything to do with beauty. Everything we have discussed must be taken by faith. The beauty of the unseen Triune God must be received by faith.

Only eyes of faith see the beauty of the incarnate and crucified Christ. The beauty of being restored image bearers in union with Christ is a matter of faith. The beauty of our coming glorification is something we await by faith. The fact that so much of beauty is unseen requires faith. As believers we are called to “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

There is a battle going on and beauty is the arena. The weapon of the enemy is falsehood and deception. He is working overtime to get us to buy in to his lies. His lies are a web that entangle us and disable us from free, selfless obedience to Christ. As the ruler of this world and the designer of this present age beauty is just one more area where the Deceiver wields influence. Our greatest weapon is faith. At the heart of this conflict is one question: whom will you trust? Understanding the Word of God is not difficult, but trusting it can be. This is why we need our faith strengthened and refreshed over and over again in this area.

Beauty and Preoccupation with Self

The world and our sin beckon us to live a life devoted to self. Beauty in our culture is one aspect of this self-worship. We are sold the lie that attaining beauty means a tremendous amount of focus upon ourselves. If we buy into the cultural view of beauty we buy into the cult of self.

We are by nature “curved in on ourselves”[1] and the cultural pursuit of beauty only feeds this inward focus. We have learned that beauty by nature is selfless. Beauty forgets itself and is preoccupied with the good of neighbor. The gospel of the beauty of God frees us from ourselves in order that we might devote ourselves to him and to neighbor (2 Cor 5:14-15, Tit 3:4-8).

In our study we have also seen that beauty stands outside of us. The Trinity teaches us this, the image of God teaches us this, the person of Christ teaches us this, the restoration of the image teaches us this, union with Christ teaches us this, and glorification teaches us this. A true preoccupation with beauty would therefore be a preoccupation with God.

As we forget ourselves and center our hearts on The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we encounter uncreated beauty. It is in this place that we receive the proper view of ourselves and an appropriate understanding of created beauty. Beauty is in the business of liberating. If our view and pursuit of beauty enslaves us to ourselves and to the opinions of others then we are deceived. Beauty is always connected to freedom, never to bondage. If we properly align our minds with the gospel of God in this area of beauty we will know this freedom.

Beauty and Repentance

We will fail often in this area of our thinking. Both men and women will be lured into believing false things about beauty. We will view things the wrong way. We will judge people with a bogus standard. We will strive with all our might to live up to the cultural yardstick. There will be days where you think of little else than the way you look or the way you think others view you. You and I will struggle with the idolatry of self until the return of Christ. This is a reality.[2] A reality, that must not drive us to despair but to repentance.

Luther said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[3] It is true, we stand in need of daily cleansing and repentance. Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread and daily forgiveness (Matt 6:11-12). As we stumble and fall let us own our sin, confess it, turn from it, and embrace the gospel afresh. The heart of repentance is a changed mind, which leads to transformation of behavior, action, and attitude.

This ongoing repentance requires learning the truth about beauty and confessing the lies we have believed about it. It requires being honest about the fact we have been idolaters in this area. In all of this we must keep before us the hope of the gospel. There is no condemnation for us as we struggle with our sinful thought patterns. No hint of judgment hangs over you as you fall and get up over and over again in this area.

Ironically, there is beauty in owning the fact that we have failed in the arena of beauty. Repentance is beautiful. Recall the link between God’s dwelling, presence and beauty. Now hear Isaiah 57:15.

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

 


[1] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 182-183. Bayer expounds on Luther’s doctrine of the ‘inward curve.’ “The human being, who can live in any sense of the word only because the Spirit of the Creator has turned toward him beforehand (Gen 2:7, Job 33:4, Ps 104:27-30), turns himself away from God and turns exclusively to himself. In contrast to the nature that God has determined for him, as an ecstatic (i.e., outward-looking) being—through faith in God, through love for one’s fellow creatures—the sinner curves back in on himself. In being curved back in on himself (incurvatio in se ipsum) he cuts his ties with life, which consists in receiving from others and giving to others. The relationship with the self, which originally involved being in harmony in the relationship with God and the world, changes now so that the self is isolated and made into an absolute. The human being, who is made by nature to respond by looking outward, ends up entrapped now in the endless downward spiral of a circle, talking to himself ceaselessly and to those who are like him, and spends his time doing nothing but being completely absorbed in his own existence in an arrogant and hybrid way. At the same time, the sinner draws his fellow creatures in, so that they have to suffer (Rom 8:18-23).”

[2] Carolyn Mahaney, “True Beauty” in Biblical Womanhood in the Home, 35. “The temptation for women to be preoccupied with their physical appearance has always existed. However, it appears that contemporary women are more driven in their pursuit of physical beauty than ever. Blitzed by the media, we are presented continuously with voices and images that define what we are to look like. In previous centuries, women might have compared themselves with the other ten women in their village; today women compare themselves with pictures of the supermodels put on display by the worldwide fashion industry. That image of beauty is so narrow in its range that most women feel unattractive in comparison.”

[3] Martin Luther, The Basic Theological Writings (2nd Edition), ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 41.

 

Theology of Beauty in Action: Objectivity

It is important to think through some practical ways these truths should impact the way we think and live. As we embrace this biblical view of beauty we will undergo a significant paradigm shift. Here are some ways I think a theology of beauty finds feet in our everyday existence.

Beauty and Objectivity

I have always been intrigued by the pursuit of beauty throughout history and in different cultures. Carolyn Mahaney catalogues this pursuit in a book on biblical womanhood. What she writes is worth recalling in full.

“Over the centuries, women have mauled and manipulated just about every body part—lips, eyes, ears, waists, skulls, foreheads, feet—that did not quite fit into the cookie-cutter ideal of a particular era’s fashion. In China, almost up until World War II, upper-class girls had their feet bound, crippling them for life but ensuring the three- or four-inch-long feet that were prized as exquisitely feminine. In central Africa, the Mangbettu wrapped the heads of female infants in pieces of giraffe hide to attain the elongated, cone-shaped heads that were taken to be a sign of beauty and intelligence. During the Renaissance, well- born European women plucked out hairs, one by one, from their natural hairlines all the way back to the crown of their heads, to give themselves the high, rounded foreheads thought beautiful at the time.

Among the Padaung people of early-twentieth-century Burma, the ideal of female beauty involved a greatly elongated neck, preferably fifteen inches or more. This was accomplished by fitting girls with a series of brass neck rings. At a very young age, girls began by wearing five rings; by the time they were fully grown they were wearing as many as twenty-four, piled one on top of another. The weight of the rings leads to crushed collarbones and broken ribs, and the vertebrae in the neck become stretched and floppy. Indeed, these women wear the rings round-the- clock because, without them, their stretched-out necks are too weak to support their heads.

The author goes on to capture the frenzied search for ideal female beauty. Overweight women in England in the 1600s were bled; chic women in the 1930s swallowed tapeworms. Queen Elizabeth I, in search of porcelain skin, used a potentially deadly combination of vinegar and lead that resulted in the total corrosion of her skin. Ancient Egyptian women used drops of antimony sulfide to make their eyes glitter, eventually destroying their vision. Victorian women summoned their maids to tight-lace them into corsets, cutting off their oxygen and displacing internal organs in order to achieve an eighteen-inch waist. Flappers in the 1920s folded their breasts to simulate a fashionably flat torso or used constricting devices like the one from the Boyish Form Brassiere Company.”[1]

There are two important lessons to be taken from this. First, men and women have always been on a quest to know and attain beauty. The search for beauty at any cost is not new. Second, this lengthy quote demonstrates that there is no consensus on a standard or definition of beauty. Ultimately every culture determines its own definition of beauty to which all within strive to conform. This means that a woman of beauty in one culture could be unattractive in another.

It also begs the question: how does one choose a standard of beauty to assess themselves? For which definition of beauty should a woman strive? Should she go for the thin or heavy look, the pale or tanned skin, the painted toenails or crushed feet? If a woman goes to a tanning booth why doesn’t she also try to stretch out her neck? If a woman plucks her eye brows why not her hair to show off her forehead? How do you choose? And ultimately how does one ever know they have attained beauty if they might be considered uncomely in another culture or era? The utter subjectivity of the pursuit of a cultural standard of beauty seems nothing short of chasing the wind. The Proverbs capture the emptiness of this quest: “beauty is vain” (Prov 31:30).[2]

We are on shaky ground if we allow the culture to have the final say on beauty. Scripture makes plain that there is one objective standard and definition of beauty: the Triune God who has revealed himself primarily by the Son in the context of the gospel. Beauty is not up for grabs. It is located firmly in God himself.

This truth along with the fact that he confers his beauty upon us by creating and renewing us as image bearers is liberating. We are free from the empty pursuit of Hollywood’s standard of beauty. You do not have to invest your time, energy, and money to meet the standard held out by this culture. The light of truth dispels the darkness of falsehood and deceit. As we strive by the Spirit to transform our thinking in this area liberation and freedom are sure to follow.


[1] Carolyn Mahaney, “True Beauty” in Biblical Womanhood in the Home, edited by Nancy Leigh Demoss (Wheaton: CrossWay Books, 2002), 34-35.

[2] Ibid, 37. “Scripture reveals the falsehood and the futility of the quest for physical beauty. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting” (Prov. 31:30). ‘Charm’ in the Hebrew means bodily form. Form and beauty are two things that our culture esteems and pursues with fervor; yet God exposes our pursuit of the perfect figure and beauty to be idolatrous.”

 

The Gospel and the Beauty of God’s People

We have established that God in himself is uncreated and eternal beauty. Man made in his image is created beauty intended to reflect him. The image of God in man is essential to understanding the pinnacle of created beauty in the world. The whole of creation speaks to us about the glory and beauty of God. But none of this beauty is comparable to that of the human being.

This beauty, however, has been marred since the image of God within us has been fractured. As broken image bearers we stand in need of God’s mending work. The solution to our distorted image is found in Christ, the true image-bearer, who comes to restore us. There is a strand of New Testament thought that links together Christ, the image of God, and our salvation.

The apostle tells us explicitly that Jesus is “the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 15:49, Col 1:15, 2 Cor 3:18). Jesus was a perfect man who yielded to no temptation (Heb 4:15), never sinned (1 Pet 2:22) and lived a life of unbroken worship and obedience before the Father (Rom 5:18-20). This means that Jesus was and is the perfect image bearer. When we look at Jesus we see what a human being was intended to be.

His life of perfect image bearing was lived in our place as our representative. His perfect life and his sacrificial death are equally necessary for our salvation (Heb 2:5-18, Rom 5:17-21). His life and death are in fact a dual substitution. He lived as a blameless image bearer and died in the place of broken image bearers. In his death he received in himself the punishment due every fractured image bearer (Note the connection between Romans 1:18-32, Rom 3:23-25, and Rom 8:28-32).

The problem with a fractured image is that it no longer gives a true reflection of that which it was created to reveal. We tell horrendous lies about God with our lives though we were created to reveal the truth about him. Jesus, the true image bearer, lived a life that told nothing but the truth about God.

In his death, however, he died like the biggest liar in the world. God piled upon him all the sin of our broken imaging. Indeed, he became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). He took this upon himself and the Father consumed him with wrath, punishing him in our stead. Then the Son rose from the grave with a glorified body (1 Cor 15: 42-48) to complete our justification (Rom 4:25).

The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God regenerates men and creates faith in them in order to unite them to the Jesus (1 Jn 5:1, Eph 2:8-10). Once united to Christ all that is his becomes ours and all that is ours becomes his (Rom 6:1-12). His righteousness and perfection is now ours while our sin and filth is swallowed up in him (2 Cor 5:21). Through Christ we are considered perfect and blameless (Col 1:22). God sees us in Jesus as perfect image bearers once again.

The reality of our perfect standing before God progressively becomes a reality in our experience here and now. Paul tells us that this was God’s predetermined plan. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his son” (Rom 8:29). Through the gospel and suffering the Spirit molds us into the image of Christ. As we behold the glory of the Lord in the gospel we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

As we suffer hardship God works all these sufferings for our good that we might finally be molded in to Christ’s likeness (Rom 8:28-32). The Spirit labors within us aiding us in putting off the old man and putting on the new man, which is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10, Eph 4:23-24). At the final resurrection we will put off forever our mortal bodies and be clothed with immortality. It is here that the image of God within us will be fully and finally renewed. For it is at the resurrection that we will “bear the image of the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:49, see the larger context of 1 Cor 15:42-58).

Implications   

  • Jesus is the one in whom the beauty of God is deposited. Since Jesus is the perfect image bearer it follows that he is the fullest expression of God’s beauty. Once again we see that an accurate definition of beauty must be centered in Jesus.
  • Since Jesus is fully and perfectly human it follows that he shows us what human beauty genuinely looks like. What does this mean for beauty? It means it is not restricted to gender, it is not preoccupied with the physical (though it includes this), it is tied to character, it is not static but active, and at heart it is sacrificial service for another’s good.
  • The beauty of God in Jesus Christ saves the world. The place where beauty is most clearly displayed is the same place where God restores the beauty of this fallen world. Begbie puts it like this: “In Jesus Christ is the measure of divine beauty, so also of created beauty. In Jesus Christ, divine beauty has, so to speak, got to grips with the wounded and deformed beauty of the world; in the incarnate Son, crucified, risen, and now exalted, we witness God’s re-creation of the world’s beauty.”[1]
  • Jesus provides all that is necessary for broken image bearers to be restored. By faith in Christ we are reckoned righteous, clean, and whole before God. Jesus makes us beautiful by saving us. The beauty of humanity is once again a gift that comes from outside of us. The work of both creation and new creation are the work of God. God alone creates and recreates beauty.
  • Beauty is here connected to the saving work of God in our lives. The Spirit is laboring within us with the tools of gospel and suffering to make us more and more like Jesus. It is a beautiful thing to be regenerated, justified, sanctified, and ultimately glorified. We are God’s workmanship and we reflect the beauty of his handiwork. Beauty is not something we strive after it is something given us in Christ. In position, we are considered beautiful because we are united to Christ. In experience, we are progressively being conformed to the image of Christ. In other words, we reflect who we are in Christ more and more as we follow after God. The beauty of the Christian does not fluctuate. Gregory of Nyssa nailed it on this point. “He has transferred unto himself the filth of my sins, and communicated unto me his purity, and made me a partaker of his beauty.” We are participants in his beauty and this cannot be altered. As the Spirit sustains our faith in the gospel and produces the obedience of faith in us he works out the beauty that is already ours in Christ. We do not become more beautiful we simply manifest what we are in Jesus. Through Christ we hold the position of beautiful image bearers and it is this reality that works its way out in our practice.
  • Glorification is the final stage of restoring the image of God within us. This is significant for a few reasons. First, this confirms the fact that the image of God includes the whole person. It is not enough to be renewed within we must also be renewed from without. Apart from restored bodies the image of God would still be broken. Second, it follows that beauty is also external and physical. There is a unique beauty to the resurrected existence of Christ. Paul refers to his resurrected body as “glorious” (Phil 3:21). At his return our bodies will be conformed to the beauty and glory of his (Phil 3:21, 1 Jn 3:2). One day we will “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of God (Matt 13:43). Just like the angels and Moses reflected the light of God’s beauty when coming from his presence so shall we. Our bodies will reflect the luminescence of Christ’s glorified body. Third, all of this points to the fact that even physical beauty is a reflective beauty that comes from God. There are three components to the physical beauty of glorification: conformity to the glorified body of Christ, the reflective radiance of seeing God and residing in his presence, and the restored cohesion of both internal and external elements of an individual.

This exploration into the theme of beauty has not been comprehensive. But it has provided us with the necessary anchor points for constructing a framework for a theology of beauty. We can identify these anchor points as the nature of the Triune God, the image of God, the person of Christ, the cross of Christ, union with Christ, the church and the doctrine of glorification.

We have viewed each of these doctrines under the umbrella of God’s nature, dwelling, and people. By taking this angle on the question of beauty we have learned some new and fresh things. It is my hope that your thinking on beauty has been challenged, shaped, and sharpened. Now we need to put this framework to action—hence the next posts on the theology of beauty in action.


[1] Jeremy Begbie in The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 27. Bruno Forte agrees. “Crucified beauty leads us back to Beauty at the end victorious.” The Portal of Beauty, 119.

 

The Gospel and the Beauty of God’s Place

In the Old Covenant the temple was the chosen dwelling of God where he manifested his beauty. With the coming of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant the temple continues to be the chosen dwelling where his beauty is made known. The difference is that the temple is no longer a stationary building. The temple in the New Covenant is the person of Jesus Christ, individual believers united to him, and the corporate people of God joined to him.

John says that Jesus “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14). He identified himself as the temple that would be destroyed and rebuilt in three days (Jn 2:18-21). He made it clear that true worship would no longer be tied to a physical locale but would take place as people came through him, the true temple, to his Father (Jn 4:20-25). In Jesus, the true temple, the fullness of God’s presence was manifest (Jn 1:14, 18, Col 1:19).

In Jesus, the Holy Spirit dwelt in unique fullness making him a fitting temple (Jn 3:34). In Jesus, the beauty of God was located (2 Cor 4:6, Heb 1:3). As people were united to Jesus by faith the Holy Spirit came to dwell within them thus making them temples of the living God (1 Cor 6:19). This is extended to the church corporately. The people of God are understood to be a temple where God’s Spirit resides and therefore where his beauty is now made manifest (1 Cor 3:16-17, Eph 2:21, 1 Pet 2:5). As we are united to Jesus the true temple we become the temple of God individually and corporately.

Implications   

  • Since Christ is the true temple of God he is also the place where God manifests his presence, beauty, and glory. This is yet another line of evidence that firmly locates the beauty of God in the person of Christ.
  • Since the presence of Christ is the presence of beauty then where he chooses to dwell is where beauty will be found.
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who comes to dwell within us to make us the temple of God. The beauty of God’s dwelling place is therefore closely linked to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence or absence of the Spirit is therefore the presence or absence of beauty.
  • The fact that believers are temples of the living God makes them repositories of the beauty of God. The beauty of God manifest in the incarnate Christ is now becoming discernible in regenerate men and women. Since sin still resides within us there is a conglomeration of beauty and deformity in our make up. This beauty is made a reality within us from a force outside of us. It is the presence of God within us manifested through us that makes us beautiful. Beauty is never located in the human being apart from God. It is God’s handiwork, image, or presence that makes a human valuable and beautiful. Our beauty is always and ever contingent upon God.
  • Beauty is a corporate reality within the Triune God and it is also a corporate reality among human beings. The fact that the church is the corporate temple of God points us to another place where beauty is to be known and seen. We are a people bound together by the Spirit and as our interaction is reflective of the Triune community we show forth God’s beauty. Beauty is impossible without others. Beauty exists in the context of relationship. Since the church is a congregation of broken people its reflection of God’s beauty will be fractured until Christ returns and purifies his bride completely.
  • Practically speaking, the presence of God is beautiful among us as he leads is into cruciform obedience and love. It is as we reflect the beauty of Christ in the gospel that we are beautiful. It as we reflect the unity and love of the Triune God that we are beautiful. God’s presence within us empowers us and shapes us in such a way that gospel beauty is progressively a reality in our existence. God’s beauty is his being in action. He works this in us as well. He transforms our being at the deepest level and out of that transformation produces action that is in line with his beauty.

 

The Gospel and the Beauty of God

Having focused on the themes of God, God’s place, and God’s people in the Old Testament we have laid a foundation for the remainder of this exploration. We will now bring these three themes into dialogue with the gospel. By threading these themes through the gospel we will seek to shed more light on the topic of beauty.

The birth of Jesus signaled an entirely new and distinct phase of God’s self-revelation in history. All the fullness of God dwelt bodily in the human man Jesus Christ. Jesus the true man reveals to us the human being. Jesus the true God reveals to us Yahweh. In Jesus, we see God and man with utmost clarity. To see Jesus is to see God. Jesus is the embodiment of the very nature of God and therefore manifests to us the very beauty of God. A few texts of Scripture illustrate this point.

John’s gospel tells us about the Word that was in the beginning with God and yet distinct from God (Jn 1:1-3). This Word became flesh and made his dwelling with humanity “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). He affirms that this revelation is unique and definitive. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Jesus has explained the Father. He has led the Father out into the light for all to see. Jesus is the living exposition of God. In Jesus we see the beauty of God.

Paul agrees with John that the glory of God is seen particularly in Jesus. He speaks of the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). The glory and beauty of God is firmly located in the person of Jesus Christ.

This beauty is made manifest in the person of Christ as he works our salvation. Paul can speak of the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) and the “gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11). It is in the gospel that we see the beauty of God most vividly. This is a shocking fact, one that we will spend ample time unpacking.

In the person and work of Jesus the beauty of God is not redefined. It is clarified, explained and illustrated. All the perfections of God discussed earlier find their greatest expression in the person and work of Jesus. From the virgin birth to the second coming we see in this man the very beauty of God. The fact that Jesus is the revelation of God to us has massive ramifications for our thinking on beauty.

Implications   

  • Since Jesus is the fullest revelation of God it follows that our thinking on beauty must ultimately be tied to him. In Jesus the beauty of God finds its greatest expression. A biblical view on beauty will therefore be a Christ-centered perspective. If we would think aright about beauty we must think deeply about the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Since the gospel is the place where the beauty and glory of God are concentrated it follows that our thinking on beauty must also be tied to the cross and resurrection. As one man put it so well, “beauty happened once and for all in a garden outside Jerusalem’s walls.”[1] A biblical view on beauty will therefore be cross-centered. If we would think aright about beauty we must not think merely of Christ, but of Christ crucified.[2]
  • Since the incarnation and the gospel are central to all thinking on beauty it is impossible to have a full or accurate understanding of beauty without bringing all of our thinking into this orbit. Any discussion on the beauty of God that fails to make it to Christ is tremendously flawed. Any discussion about the definition and standard of beauty that does not ultimately have Christ and his work at its center will inevitably miss the mark.
  • If Christ defines beauty then beauty must be understood primarily as self-sacrificial service and generosity for the sake of another.[3] The life of Jesus, which manifested the very nature of God, was one continual act of service to God and to sinful man (Mk 10:45, Rom 15:2-3, Phil 2:5-11).[4] The cross, the greatest manifestation of this service, is superb beauty. In it we behold a cruciform majesty. The pierced feet of Christ are beautiful because they are the feet of a servant who would tread the globe to serve and save the world. The pierced hands of Christ are beautiful because they are hands of healing and welcome. Christ crucified is magnificent because it is here we see God give his all for the least deserving. It is the cross that teaches us that beauty is a giving of the self away for the sake of another. It is a posture, an act, a movement—all rooted in love and service.[5]
  • The beauty of God is at heart a paradox. The gruesome cross is the canvas upon which God paints his greatest masterpiece. The place of ugliness is the place where beauty is truly found. The hideous cross is the context for the greatest splendor. The man beaten to a pulp, nailed to a tree, suffering, gasping, dying—this is where beauty is found. The bright darkness of the cross is where beauty shines most brilliantly.[6] How can this be? It is here that God is demonstrating the glory of his character to us. It is here that we see his love, grace, holiness, justice, wrath, wisdom, power, and faithfulness. It is here that we see his beauty and glory. The sum total of God’s perfection is his beauty and it is at the cross that we see the fullness of these perfections. If the cross stands at the center of the beauty of God it must also be at the center of our understanding of beauty. This paradox instructs us that beauty is always found in the most unlikely places.
  • God’s definition of beauty is an attack against the world’s definition of beauty. One intention of the cross is to destroy the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:19-20). The cross has a way of obliterating the values, philosophies, standards, and definitions of human beings. This is one reason why it is so offensive. I think the cross is an assault on man-made definitions and standards of beauty. The embodiment of beauty comes as an unattractive man from some backwoods town, who lives the life of homeless vagabond, dresses in common clothes, hangs out with the lowest of people, and is hung on a cursed tree. This is beauty. Beauty is the hand that blesses children, touches lepers, heals blind men, and washes undeserving feet. Beauty is a mouth that speaks forgiveness and grace to the prostitute, the tax collector, and the murderer. It is the mouth that eats with the sinner and sings praise to God in the face of death. Beauty is dusty and tired feet that refuse to stop until the good news is proclaimed to all. Beauty is a pierced side, nailed hands, impaled feet, bleeding brow, and gasping lungs. Jesus is beautiful. Look as he gives himself away—this is beauty! How different is this from the world’s thinking on beauty. The cross annihilates our skewed thinking on beauty and reestablishes its true definition.
  • The beauty of God seen in Christ is focused primarily on character not physical appearance. There is one comment in all of Scripture pertaining to the physical appearance of Jesus. Isaiah tells us that he had “no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). It is my opinion that the choice of this physical appearance was not random but intentional. God clearly prepared the body that Christ would take to himself in the incarnation (Heb 10:5). He could have taken on a physical appearance that was “beautiful” in the eyes of the world but he did not. He could have come as the most attractive, well-dressed, well-groomed, and most physically fit guy on the planet. The fact is, he did not. What is he showing us through this? It appears he would show us where genuine glory and beauty are located; not primarily in physical appearance but in the character and movement of self-giving.

 


[1] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, vii.

[2] John Navone, Toward a Theology of Beauty 20. Navone says, “His cross, no form of beauty for worldly eyes, reveals what God’s beauty and glory are really about…the crucified and risen Christ is the form and splendor of the Beautiful.”

[3] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, viii, 27-28. Forte says that beauty is the “self-emptying of the eternal Word.” He states that beauty in its “highest form” takes place at the “hour of the abandonment of the cross.” He later describes beauty as “crucified love.” Jeremy Begbie argues that we find God’s beauty in the economy of salvation.

[4] Stephen M. Garrett, “The Dazzling Darkness of God’s Triune Love: Introducing Evangelicals to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” Themelios 35:3 (2010), 421-22. Balthasar discerned a “dialectic between the deep and threatening darkness of the cloud and the blinding and consuming light of the fire.” This dialectic discernible in the Exodus event climaxes in the cross of Christ according to Balthasar. “The Christ-form integrates the darkness of the cross and descent into hell with the Trinitarian love of God such that ‘the form which gives expression to the meaning of a radically sinful existence which yet stands under the sign of the hope for redemption…takes the modalities of fallen existence upon itself so as to transvalue them by redemptive suffering.’” Balthasar rightly discerned that “Jesus Christ radiates the splendor of God’s glory because he is perfectly in tune with the Father’s will, obeying the Father even unto death and thereby fulfilling his mission to the world. This is the beauty of Christ’s holiness. There is, thus, a dazzling within the darkness of the glory of Christ, something that is alluring within the tragic, when the Father through the Spirit glorifies the Son in his death and decent into hell that reveals the triune love of God for us in Christ’s glorious resurrection.” Balthasar argues that the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ is the definitive revelation of an eternal glory—the uncreated glory of the Triune God. In other words, the service of Christ at the cross reveals that the eternal nature of God is that of a humble, self-sacrificial servant. From his perspective the cross was a public display of what has been going on for eternity within the Godhead. In the relationship of the divine community there has always been movements of service, love, and humility. The cross points to something that always existed within the very heart of God.

[5] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, 43. Dostoevsky in his book The Idiot posed the question through the young nihilist Ippolit, “Is it true prince, that you said once that ‘beauty’ would save the world?…What sort of beauty will save the world?” The beauty of the crucified God is the answer to this question. Beauty is not merely static but it moves, indeed it saves. John Navone states, “the self-giving power of beauty itself saves the world.” Toward a Theology of Beauty, 82. Jeremy Begbie touches on this idea of movement when he states that in the “story of Jesus…Trinitarian beauty has, so to speak, been performed for us.” The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 22.

[6] Ibid, 53.