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.’”

 

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The Gospel and Sex

I was doing some research for a project on the topic of marriage. The project required some work on a theology of sex within the confines of marriage. As I researched, I came across this quote by Tim Keller which spurred me on to read more from him on the issue.

The ecstasy and joy of sex is supposed to be a foretaste of the complete ecstasy and joy of total union with Christ. The moment we see Christ face to face …. we will be naked, yet so delighted in [our nakedness that] we will be unashamed …. The Lord God will look at us through Jesus and say, ‘I love you.’… Great sex is a parable of the Gospel—to be utterly accepted in spite of your sin, to be loved by the One you admire to the sky.

The quote, “great sex is a parable of the gospel” blew my mind. It pushed me to dig deeper. I tracked down an article that Keller wrote titled: The Gospel and Sex. The article was so well written and helpful that I wanted to reproduce a section of it here for you to read. Take a look and let me know your thoughts. To me, this is just another brilliant example of how critical it is to view life through a gospel lens.

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Sex Procreates: The Politics of Sex

Sex is sacred because, with God, it co-creates a new soul. Sex propagates the human race (Gen. 1:28). Its purpose is not merely for the building up of a family name. The purpose of sex is to create families of disciples, to establish new kingdom communities. And, ironically, the main way we learn this is through the Bible’s remark- able attitude toward singleness.

Christianity, unlike most traditional religions or cultures, holds out singleness as a viable way of life. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul were single. Jesus spoke about those who remained unmarried in order to better serve the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:12). Paul says singleness is often better for ministering as a sign of the coming kingdom (1 Cor. 7:29–35). One of the few clear differences between Christianity and Judaism is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers. . . . Singleness was legitimate, not because sex was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that “between the times” the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. . . . And we must remember that the “sacrifice” made by the single is not that of “giving up sex,” but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act than this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p.189–90).

Therefore, we are to choose between marriage and singleness not on the basis of whether we want the personal happiness and status of a family but on the basis of which state makes us most useful in the kingdom of God. Both singleness and marriage are necessary symbolic institutions for the constitution of the church’s life as the historic institution that witnesses to God’s kingdom. Neither can be valid without the other. If singleness is a symbol of the church’s confidence in God’s power to effect lives for the growth of the church, marriage and procreation is the symbol of the church’s understanding that the struggle will be long and arduous. For Christians do not place their hope in their children, but rather their children are a sign of their hope . . . that God has not abandoned this world (Hauerwas, 174, 190).

See, then, how different the Christian prohibition of extramarital sex is from the traditional one? In traditional cultures premarital sex was taboo but so was singleness, because the family and the propagation of its economic and social status were idols. The Christian prohibition of premarital sex is clearly different in its inspiration, because singleness is now considered a viable alternative. In traditional societies premarital sex was forbidden because it undermined the family. In Christianity it undermined the kingdom. Why? First, sex outside of a marriage covenant undermines the character quality of faithfulness, which builds community.

The issue is not just whether X or Y form of sexual activity is right or wrong, as if such activity could be separated from a whole way of life. Rather such questions are but shorthand ways of asking what kind of people we should be to be capable of supporting the mission of the church. . . . Chastity, we forget, is not a state but a form of the virtue of faithfulness that is necessary for a role in the community. As such, it is as crucial to the married life as it is to the single life (Hauerwas, 194-195).

Second, we abstain from extramarital sex in order to witness how God works in the gospel. God calls his people into an exclusive relationship, a marriage covenant, and to give him anything less in return is unfaithfulness. “By our faithfulness to one another, within a community that requires, finally, loyalty to God, we experience and witness to the first fruits of the new creation. Our commitment to exclusive relations witnesses to God’s pledge to his people, Israel and the church that, through his exclusive commitment to them . . . people will be brought into his kingdom” (Hauerwas, 190-191). So although it is common to hear people say, “Sex is a private affair and no one’s business but my own,” it is not true. How we use sex has significant community and political ramifications.

Sex Delights: The Dance of Sex

Further, sex is sacred because it is the analogy of the joyous self-giving and pleasure of love within the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in a relationship of glorious devotion to each other, pouring love and joy into one another continually (cf. John 1:18; 17:5, 21, 24-25). Sex between a man and a woman points to the love between the Father and the Son, as well as that between Christ and the believer (1 Cor. 11:3).

Despite 1 Corinthians 7, which explodes the romanticist views of sex as strictly personal fulfillment, the Bible rather baldly and openly celebrates the delights of sex. Sex is supposed to be wonderful because it mirrors the joy of relationship in the Trinity and because it points to the eternal ecstasy of soul that we will have in heaven in our loving relationships with God and one another (Prov. 5:18–20; Deut. 24:5).

The role of the woman throughout the Song [of Solomon] is truly astounding, especially in light of its ancient origins. It is the woman, not the man, who is the dominant voice throughout the poems that make up the Song. She is the one who seeks, pursues, initiates. [In Song 5:10–16] she boldly exclaims her physical attraction. . . . Most English translations hesitate in this verse. The Hebrew is quite erotic, and most translators cannot bring themselves to bring out the obvious meaning. . . . This again is a prelude to their lovemaking. There is no shy, shamed, mechanical movement under the sheets. Rather, the two stand before each other, aroused, feeling no shame, but only joy in each other’s sexuality (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies: Rediscovering God’s Design for Marriage and Becoming Soul Mates for Life, Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1999, p.253–54).

Sex is, then, an important part of what Lewis calls the “great dance.” According to Lewis, all of God’s reality— from the stars and solar systems to the act of sexual intercourse—form an ongoing, dynamic dance, in which “plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra, New York: Macmillan, 1968, p.217).

Sex Unifies: The Ceremony of Sex

Third, sex is sacred because it constitutes a covenant renewal ceremony. The original purpose of sex was to “become one flesh,” meaning a complete personal union. Sex creates deep intimacy, oneness, and communion between two people (Gen. 2:24; 4:14). In the Bible oneness is not simply a matter of emotion but is always the creation of a covenant. Romanticism considers emotional happiness to be the main condition for marriage; if there is interpersonal happiness, sex is warranted, and then comes marriage. But when love dies, it is also allowable to walk away from the marriage. In the biblical view, however, the main condition of marriage is a binding covenant. In the romantic view, sex is self-expression; in the biblical view, sex is self-giving.

The Bible is full of covenant renewal ceremonies. When God enters into a personal relationship with someone, he is not so unrealistic as to think that mere emotion can serve as the basis for it. He knows that human emotions come and go and that there needs to be something binding to provide consistency and endurance. So God requires a binding, public, legal covenant as the infrastructure for intimacy. It is far easier to be vulnerable to someone who has bindingly promised to be exclusively faithful to you than to someone who is under no obligation to stay with you for more than one night. Thus God demands covenants. But even that is not enough. He regularly gets his people together to reread the terms of the covenant, remember the history of his acts of grace in their lives, and recommit themselves through renewal of the covenant.

The ultimate covenant renewal ceremony is the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper renews the covenant made at baptism; through the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine it reenacts the selfless sacrifice of Jesus to us. In addition, in the receiving and eating of the sacrament it reenacts the giving of ourselves to Jesus. We reenact the total commitment and oneness we have in Christ as a way of renewing and deepening that oneness.

In the same way, marriage is a covenant, one that creates a place of security for vulnerability. But though covenant is necessary for sex, sex is also necessary for covenant. The covenant will grow stale unless we continually revisit and reenact it. Sex is a covenant renewal ceremony for marriage, the physical reenactment of the inseparable oneness in all other areas—economic, legal, personal, psychological—created by the marriage covenant. Sex renews and revitalizes the marriage covenant.

 

Salvation by Vocation (2)

In the last post, I argued that God uses the common stations of life to work his saving grace in us. We saw that God uses child rearing uniquely in the life of women. His saving concern is also lavished on men in their work place and in their homes. Every station of life is transformed into an arena where God is now present to work his salvation: marriage, parenting, manual labor, business, public service, education, etc.

How exactly does God work his grace into these life contexts? I understand him to do this in a few different ways. This list captures a few of the main ways.

  • Vocation exposes our sinfulness
  • Vocation curbs and kills our sin
  • Vocation drives us to the gospel of Christ
  • Vocation is utilized to train our character
  • Vocation forces us outside of ourselves and into the service of our neighbor
  • Vocation is where God works through us to shape culture
  • Vocation is the context where we magnify God with our heads, hands, and hearts

Remember that vocation was a term that was only applied to priests and monks during the time of the reformation. It was a high calling to denounce the mundane life of working a 9-5, getting married, and taking care of children. The real holy and spiritual folks were those who spent their days praying and reading their bibles. Into the fray of all this, Luther asserted that every station of life is worthy of the title vocation. Once Luther stated,  “when God wants to save a monk, he compels him to occupy himself with earthly things.” Gustaf Wingren is correct in the reason for such a statement, “in the cloister one is removed  from the anxieties of vocation and from the transformation of vocation.”

It is in the regular, normal, every day existence of people that God is present. A 9-5 is hallowed ground. Parenting is a holy endeavor. Gustaf Wingren captures the sacredness of the mundane.

“Thus a Christian finds himself called to drab and lowly tasks, which seem less remarkable than monastic life…and other distractions from our vocations.  For him who heeds his vocation, sanctification is hidden in offensively ordinary tasks, with the result that it is hardly noticed at all that he is a Christian.  But faith looks on simple duties as tasks to which vocation summons the man; and by the Spirit he becomes aware that all those ‘poor, dull, and despised works’ are adorned with the favor of God ‘as with costliest gold and precious stones.’  The monk is always uncertain about his works; but in work which really contributes to the neighbor’s well-being and is commanded by God, peace and certainty are found.”

It is in these “offensively ordinary tasks” that God exposes, curbs, and kills our sin. Mark Kolden says this about the doctrine of vocation and the mortification of sin.

“Luther speaks of the work of the law (second use) as putting us to death, and he says that this is the way that God carries out our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. According to Luther the Christian ‘dies daily’ (is ‘drowned through daily repentance’, as the Small Catechism puts it). The idea of daily dying has often been spiritualized, to the effect that dying is only understood metaphorically as being penitent for sin. Yet the more realistic emphasis to the effect that each day we actually die a bit seems equally true to Luther, because he also thinks of the eventual physical death of the old sinful self when he uses the phrase ‘dying daily.'”

“Where does this dying happen? In one’s vocation, in which the ‘cross’ of family, hard work, demanding times, etc., gradually (or more suddenly) puts us to death. In addition to being our participation as co-workers in God’s ongoing creative activity (according to the law in its first use), our vocation is also the location of God’s sanctifying work of mortifying the flesh, of putting to death the sinful self (the work of the law in its second use); all of this is so that on the last day only the self that is righteous in Christ will live.”

Gustaf Wingren addresses this same issue in his own words and from his own angle.

“Different aspects of external circumstances serve their function in the crucifixion of the old man. According to Luther, ‘these are true mortifications, not in deserted places apart from the company of people, but right in the social and political order.’ It is in the external and earthly that the slaying of the flesh is to be effected; the crucifixion of Christ was certainly not something inward and refined. Fellowship with Christ is realized in something apparently very unspiritual…We are disciplined in vocation, in labor, and in the demands of social life. Vocation is earthly, just as shockingly earthly as the humanity of Christ, apparently so void of all divinity.”

Sin is put to death in and through vocation. Godliness is also fostered there. Vocation by nature forces us outside of ourselves. It bends our inward focus outward toward our neighbors. Here is Wingren again.

“We have noted above that vocation is so constituted that it is conducive to the well-being of neighbors; it servers others (love). Now we see that it compels one to look to God, to lay hold of his promise (faith). Man is thereby put into right relation both to earth (love) and heaven (faith). God’s complete work is set in motion through vocation: he changes the world and sheds his mercy on hard-pressed humanity.”

Marriage is a perfect illustration of how God works his grace in vocation. Luther said that marriage is of such a character that it “teaches us and compels us to look to God’s hand and grace, and simply drives us to faith.” Wingren states, “Marriage has the function of compelling one to work for the good of others. And when that happens, man generally stands empty-handed and helpless before God; that is to say, faith then has a chance to be born.” Here is Wingren one more time.

“The human being is self-willed, desiring that whatever happens shall be to his own advantage. When husband and wife, in marriage serve one another and their children, this is not due to the heart’s spontaneous and undisturbed expression of love, every day and hour. Rather, in marriage as an institution something compels the husband’s selfish desires to yield and likewise inhibits the egocentricity of the wife’s heart. At work in marriage is a power which compels self-giving to spouse and children.”

Marriage shows us our sin, pushes us to Christ, pulls us outside of ourselves, creates character, fosters godliness, and absolutely transforms an individual. This is God’s design. These things are true because God is in the midst of marriage to save. This is true in every vocation—if we would open our eyes and recognize what God is doing and desiring to do.

In my opinion, this view of vocation infuses all of our roles and tasks with significance and value. It also roots godliness in the every day existence of most people. Mark Kolden captures this well.

“Just as God’s redemptive act in becoming incarnate affirms that salvation is not an escape from creation but a restoration and fulfillment of it, so also the Christian life will not be an escape from creaturely life but a calling to it. The call to follow Christ leads not to any religious vocation removed from daily life, but instead it transforms the attitude and understanding one has of the situation in which one already is.”

On a personal note, my own exploration into the doctrine of vocation has changed me in significant ways. The doctrine is like a reset button regarding our perceptions of every day tasks. It has helped me engage my various roles and tasks with fresh vigor. It has caused me to view all areas of work and responsibility as holy and important. I hope this little exploration has been helpful to you as well. I encourage you to continue researching the topic.