Beholding beauty

 
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Photo Credit: Andrey Danilovich—iStock

I’m walking along a remote beach in Hermanus, South Africa. There’s not a single other footprint in the sand. I take off my shoes and let my feet sink deep into the warm, fine powder. Bliss. My friend, a local who drove me here, takes one look at my face and asks with undeniable pride, “What do you think?” But I can’t answer. I’m awestruck. I choke up. Eventually, I venture, “This is too beautiful. I can’t take it in.”

We’ve all experienced it: a bright starlit sky, a particularly attractive face or a melody so exquisite that it transfixes us. Its power seems to bypass our brain and strike right at the heart, rendering us speechless. But we’ve also experienced the insidious side of beauty; that tendency within that pushes us to consume, compete and compare ourselves. It can easily become a destructive obsession.

Is beauty a friend or a foe? Christian history reveals a deep ambivalence about beauty—vivid stained-glass windows, awe-inspiring cathedrals and lush, rapturous choirs on one hand, and concerns about worldliness, the temptations of the flesh and idol worship on the other. But what if beauty itself—much like food or money—was neither the enemy nor a god? Properly harnessed, could our passion for beauty lead us to the Divine?

A foe?

According to Psychology Today, research shows that, on average, attractive people get better jobs, earn more money and are less likely to be convicted by a jury. Why? Because of beauty’s halo effect. We tend to believe that what’s beautiful is good.

The Old Testament prophet Samuel sure thought so! The story goes that he went to Bethlehem to choose the next king of Israel. God had told Samuel that He had chosen one of Jesse’s sons to fill that role, and Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, made quite an impression on Samuel when he first saw him. But in spite of his handsome looks, God warned Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Following God’s instructions, Samuel chose David, Jesse’s youngest son—an unimpressive shepherd boy who would became one of Israel’s greatest warriors, poets and kings, and by far the most famous.

Beauty and goodness aren’t synonymous today, but they once were, before sin arrived on our planet. The Bible says that God “has made everything beautiful” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), an expression of His remarkable artistic skill and goodness. But because the world is no longer perfect, the Bible warns us against putting too much trust in our appearance, or tying our self-worth to it
(1 Peter 3:3, 4).

However, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater! Beauty itself isn’t the enemy. If it were, God would have commanded us to avoid it completely. Instead, God ordained a lavish system of corporate worship for the early Hebrew tribes (see Exodus 25). It included golden furniture, richly embroidered scarlet, blue and purple curtains, musicians and incense—truly arresting the senses. God also revealed Himself through the Bible writers using a variety of genres, including song lyrics, prophetic oracles and even erotic poetry. This literature does much more than just convey information; it is rhythmic, full of rich metaphors and vivid illustrations, which deepen the reader’s experience. To top it all off, God the Creator filled the natural world with wonders, from galaxies to glistening dragonfly wings. While God won’t be fooled by appearances, He knows that beauty can enhance an experience and its spiritual im­­pact. Thus, He wants us to relate to beauty in a healthy way.

A friend?

Did you know that admiring a beautiful sunset can make you more generous? Let me explain. When we are in the presence of something sublime, we feel small and less important. Research shows this experience of awe—feeling like a tiny speck in the universe—can boost our sense of wellbeing and increase our generosity. Encountering vastness seems to shrink our egos and helps us connect with others.

In a study conducted at the University of California in Berkeley, researchers asked one group of students to look at majestic eucal­yptus trees for one minute, while a second group looked at a plain building. Then the researchers pretended to trip and casually dropped a handful of pens into the soft dirt. The people with the awe-inspiring view helped pick up more pens. In subsequent studies, researchers found that awe also leads people to cooperate, share and sacrifice for others. The ever-growing list of awe-­benefits even includes boosting your immune system.

While the science of awe is still emerging, marvelling at God’s majesty as demonstrated in His creation is an ancient spiritual practice. The book of Psalms is filled with awestruck lyrics about nature: “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small” (Psalm 104:24, 25).

Take time to contemplate the beauty of God’s handiwork. If you live in a noisy city, away from the tranquil serenity of nature, you can still find your daily dose of goose bumps. Stop to admire a street performer’s act. Listen to a song that transports you to another time, or play with your children. Let beauty soften your soul.

One more thing

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoy­evsky wrote that “beauty is the battlefield where both God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.” I agree. No human is immune from its magnetic appeal. King David, centur­ies before Dostoyevsky, acknowledged this truth. In a prayer that at first glance sounds a bit “soft” for a warrior, David asked to see God’s beauty: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).

David is basically saying, if I can only have one thing, then let me see Your beauty. And not just once, but every day of my life!

David didn’t have an easy life. In the preceding verses of the same psalm, he wrote about murderous enemies wanting to devour him and armies amassing against him. Yet David’s one request was to see God’s beauty. In our society that’s so obsessed with productivity, it may seem like David had his priorities wrong. Didn’t he have far more urgent threats to pray about? But David wanted to enjoy God’s presence for no other reason than to delight in His beauty.

So what exactly is God’s beauty? In his book One Thing, Christian author Sam Storms addresses this question. “[God] has disclosed Himself on the platform of both creation and redemption that we may stand awestruck in His presence, beholding the sweet symmetry of His attributes, pondering the unfathomable depths of His greatness, baffled by the wisdom of His deeds and the limitless extent of His goodness. This is His beauty.”

We were created to bask in God’s beauty. We were made to spend every day of our lives admiring the glorious beauty of our God as it is revealed in Christ Jesus. Thus, when rightly guided, our soul’s thirst for beauty serves a transcendent purpose: it leads us to a deeper knowledge of God.

God doesn’t want us to carry our spirituality only in our brains, fearing our emotions and keeping them at bay. Instead, He wants to align our hearts and minds so that they pull together rather than fight each other. To captivate our hearts, He invites us to gaze upon His beauty, the depths of His love.

In her book Toward a Theology of Beauty, theologian Jo Ann Davidson remarks, “Surely, the human mind is a critical aspect of human nature. However, God rarely limits His communication to the human creature through abstract reasoning. . . . Rather, He regularly utilises aesthetic means, thus affirming wholistically the entire human being. God engages not only the mind but also the entire person.”

Beholding God’s beauty is profoundly transforming. The apostle Paul alluded to this in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he wrote, “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” We become what we see. Much like older couples who end up resembling each other or good friends who unconsciously speak similarly, beholding God’s beauty beautifies us.

David understood this. He knew that willpower alone could not change his character. He needed to be smitten by God’s beauty. He wanted his imagination to be fully captured by it, so that anything else would look dull by comparison. That’s why he prayed to gaze on God’s beauty every day. He wanted to allow it to take hold of him and change the allegiance of his heart. “Beauty has the power to dislodge from our hearts the grip of moral and spiritual ugliness,” writes Storms. “It forges in us an affection that no other earthly power can overcome.”

It’s only in God that our longing for eternal and perfect beauty is satisfied. All other sources of beauty are shallow waters, and this is no coincidence. They are meant to lead us to Him, whose beauty is so vast that it fills the universe and our souls along with it.


Seeing God’s beauty

Pray David’s prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Keep a journal of the impressions God puts in your heart.

Study the life of Jesus. God’s love, His beauty and glory are best revealed in the life of Jesus Christ.

Think about heaven. One day we’ll see the King in His beauty. He offers us restoration into a perfect connection with Him. Think about it often. It will give you a sense of longing, perspective and identity.

Enjoy nature, music and the arts. Find out what your heart is sensitive to and use it to feed your soul. Grow a garden, take a walk in nature, attend a concert, care for a pet or listen to poetry. Take time to thank God for the beauty you see.

Surrender your own ideas of beauty. Some things can be ugly physically but beautiful morally, like the cross of Christ. Ask God to show you what beauty truly means and to dislodge any ugliness from your heart.