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: 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.”