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Pursuing Beauty

August 2011 | by William VanDoodewaard

In 2008 the American YWCA published a report entitled ‘Beauty at any cost’. This stated that ‘Every woman in the United States participates in a daily beauty pageant, whether she likes it or not.’

‘Engulfed by a popular culture saturated with images of idealised, air-brushed and unattainable female physical beauty’, women are daily pressured to join in the idolatry, even as men by lust propel the cycle.

The snare of beauty idolatry in our culture is blatant. Pursuit of female beauty has risen to a fevered pitch. Natural beauty is not what is expected; even make-up doesn’t do the job anymore. We need Botox and plastic surgeons.

Beauty distorted

Marketers work with graphic artists to airbrush and reshape images. The results are placarded across magazines, TV, films, billboards and the internet. The pressure to join in this idolatry is tremendous. Christian women, wives, even young girls, are often down about their appearance, feeling ugly and unattractive.

The symptoms of becoming addicted to this world’s beauty are wide-ranging. Physically they may include anorexia, bulimia and depression. Idealised female physical beauty, combined with a pornographic and promiscuous culture, pressures even the closest relationships.

It impacts marriages, as women desire to outdo their celluloid counterparts, fearing that beautiful images will seduce their husbands. Even the workplace is impacted. Research shows that women who best adhere to societal beauty standards are most likely to be hired and promoted.

So how can Christians break this idolatry? What should a woman’s view and pursuit of beauty be like? New Testament culture was no different than ours; Graeco-Roman society was also obsessed with physical beauty. God knew that, just as he knows it in the present. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son made flesh, knows all about it. And so he instructed his messenger, the apostle Peter, to speak to us about it.

In 1 Peter 3:3-5, he graciously says, ‘Your adornment must not be merely external … but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. ‘For in this way, in former times, the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands’.

Beauty celebrated

While internet statistics report that Americans spent $18 billion last year on makeup alone, we should recognise that some of this is simply a blessing of prosperity. It is a good thing to be able to buy shampoo.

Contrary to those ascetics who reject physical beauty, Scripture does not deny beauty and adornment, but rather displays delight in them as potentially reflective of God’s handiwork and blessing.

In Ezekiel 16 God describes the lavish adorning of his bride. Psalm 45 speaks of the princess ‘all glorious’ in her beauty, preparing for her husband. The Song of Songs’ bride also delights to make herself beautiful for her groom. Certainly there is a legitimate, healthy, even glorious pursuit of beauty; God’s Word celebrates it. Augustine remarked that, ‘beauty is indeed a good gift of God’. However, Scripture also teaches repeatedly that when the pursuit of beauty is distorted either by errant motives or sinful ends, it becomes a snare.

Wrongly motivated or idolatrous beauty is vain. Adornment is not to be merely external. Rather, true beauty only exists where it has begun within.

Peter directs us to the essential priority of internal beauty that comes through faith, and life in Christ. He describes the pursuit of real beauty as the pursuit of adornment with the fruit of the Spirit. True beauty, through salvation in Christ, is also in view in Psalm 45. The psalmist celebrates God’s salvation through the picture of a bride made beautiful.

The goal is to glorify God, to live in worship. When this is the case, the cultivation of outer beauty and pleasantness falls into its appropriate, secondary place.

Beauty defined

External physical beauty is only skin deep. Due to the effects of the Fall, it is temporary, fading with age and sickness. No one can win the battle to look like the woman on the magazine cover. But consider the woman of godly beauty. She delights in God; her husband marvels at her; her children rise up and call her blessed.

She does not reject physical adornment, but follows the Word of Christ in pursuing true spiritual beauty, above all, the beauty that shines through a person making them beautiful when aged 18, 40 or 85. Her motto is: ‘Let your beauty be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God’.

Do you long, even groan at times, for a continual, perfected physical beauty? You can do so with confident hope in God, and his resurrection promise. But, for now, rest content in Christ, knowing that while the outward man perishes, even that failing body is precious in God’s sight and will be fully redeemed.

There is such a contrast between the woman consumed by the fading image of beauty and the holy woman — a person of true beauty, glorious and attractive in her whole being.

She finds her Saviour the one who is ‘altogether lovely’ (Song 5:16), and is being made like him, radiant in beauty and glory.

William Van Doodewaard is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, serving as Associate Professor of Church History, at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, Michigan)

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