It seems fitting to start a talk on beauty with a Psalm of David… so here is my paraphrase of Psalm 63
O God, you are my God; fiercely I desire to seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; as in a dry and wearied land.
So I have looked for you in all of your holy places,
and I delight to behold your power and beauty.
Because your eternal love is better than life,
my lips will move in praise
So I will bless you in every moment you give me;
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
for you have been my safest refuge,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
and you hold me through the beautiful day
and through the fearful night.
I spend a lot of time reading and listening to the Psalms because they are so poetic and just so… beautiful.
I’ve spent the last many years trying to lock in on the importance of our experience of beauty as it relates to our relationship with Christ and our enjoyment of God.
Beholding and Beauty belong together. You don’t just look at something beautiful… if you are really going to experience beauty you have to fully “Behold” it. I encountered the idea of beholding early on in my Christian walk while reading A.W. Tozer. In his book, The Pursuit of God, he talks about the “gaze of the soul” and suggests from Hebrews 12:2 that faith is not one time event, but a continual gazing into the heart of the Triune God. Hebrews 12:2 says that we should cast aside everything blocking our view and spend our entire lives “looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith”.
If you look up the word Behold in the dictionary, you’ll find something along the lines of “a really old word which means to look or see” but if you start in Genesis 1 and start counting every occurrence of the word Behold, you will reach nearly 1300 by the time you get to Revelation 22. Obviously God wants us to look and see with more than just our physical senses, in fact – you might easily assume that Faith itself is some kind of supernatural eyesight and its primary function is to “Behold” God.
“We Become what we behold”
Marshall McLuhan, was a Canadian philosopher of communication theory – he’s the guy who said “The Medium IS the Message” and is often referred to as “The Media Prophet”. I quote him, not because he was famously Christian, but I quote him because he noticed something about the world and about humans that I want to notice as well. Marshall probably wasn’t talking directly about God, but he was noticing the power of this strange behavior we call attention and how devoted attention will begin to shape us until the thing we behold becomes our very identity.
What this quote might suggest to us is that we become more Godly by simply beholding God, that we actually become more Christ-like through this continual gaze, this looking unto the Author and Finisher of our faith. Obviously there is some requirement for our understanding to grow and mature in Truth, and for the work of our hands to model His works through Goodness, but at the core of our beings is this undeniable desire to seek out and behold that which is beautiful – and that our experience may actually drive the direction of our minds and the work of our hands.
Audrey Hepburn said:
“Make-up can only make you look pretty on the outside but it doesn’t help if you are ugly on the inside. Unless you eat the make-up.”
I realize that the topic of Beauty may be a difficult one to grasp from a Christian perspective, and then even more difficult to try to apply. A large part of the problem is that our culture has re-defined the word on us – deplorably so. Chances are that the word Beauty sent most of your minds to the covers of Cosmopolitan or to commercial jingles – Maybe she’s born with it… maybe… it’s Maybelline. As the quote-unquote “Beauty Industry” has grown it has twisted our idea of beauty more and more to its own advantage. Now granted, they are only trying to make a buck like the rest of us – but the consequences to you have been insidious and even tragic.
Here is a small example – I found this in a health and fitness magazine:
“Most women would just as soon leave home without makeup as they would walk out the door without wearing pants. Makeup is an essential, which is why one of a woman’s most important accessories is her cosmetics bag”
Is this really true? Is not wearing makeup really considered a crime of Public Indecency? You can ask my wife Lori how I feel about makeup… it is not bad or wrong to wear makeup, but it should never be “essential”… There is something desperately wrong when women feel they have to wear makeup in order avoid public ridicule or especially to even see themselves as beautiful. If I were a woman, I would intensely resent being made to feel like my personal value was determined by how much product I had painted on my face – and you all know it goes much further than just makeup, there is a constant barrage of harsh unspoken value judgments from the Beauty Industry about your hair, your clothes, your weight, and so on…
And us men have not escaped either. Of course most of us know we are never going to look like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, but that’s not the real danger for us… our definition of beauty has been twisted and distorted in order to sell us all kinds of things, from power tools to crappy beer. Today the easiest way to manipulate men into useless purchases, or nearly any bad decision, is with sexually-charged “beauty”.
The truth is though, beauty does have a great deal of pleasure attached to it – even the sham-beauty being marketed to us a thousand times a day. But I would guess that even this word “pleasure” can be a challenge to you though. As Christians, many of us realize that sin, of course, is bad… and at the same time, we know sin may also feel very good and give us lots of pleasure. We therefore jump to the conclusion that pleasure is bad along with sin, and if beauty brings pleasure, well then it’s a small skip to silently assume beauty is also bad.
Desire and pleasure are part of how we were created. In the first days in the garden they were pronounced good by their Creator and so they were. Sin did not create desire and pleasure, it simply malformed them. I learned this from C.S. Lewis a long time ago… Christians do not accept a dualistic universe – that is, good and evil are not unique stand-alone entities battling for supremacy. Only good is able to create, evil does not have that power – it only has the power to twist and deform that which good has made.
Therefore, Beauty is good and ugliness is only a deformation of beauty. When we use beauty to our own advantage – to our own glory, it gets twisted out of shape and it becomes ugly, and then attraction and pleasure take the shape of sin.
But when beauty is a word from God, a love letter from the very greatest lover of your soul, your experience of attraction and pleasure has a holiness to it.
Our next quote is from the ever-glamorous and ever-self-composed Miss Piggy.
“Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but it may also be necessary from time to time to give a stupid or misinformed beholder a black eye. ”
I feel the need to address the so-called subjective nature of beauty because it is, at least to some degree true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When we behold beauty, I believe that there is in that beholding, an experience of God Himself. As was previously mentioned, these three transcendentals of Truth, Goodness and Beauty are not just made up ideas, but are mighty representatives of the character and nature of The Transcendent One – God Himself.
God speaks to us in many ways. In the beginning of the book of Hebrews we see this:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He (Jesus) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
When Jesus was preparing to leave Earth before the day he was crucified, He said that the Counselor, the Holy Spirit will remain with us and He will guide us and speak to us in many ways. As we read the scriptures throughout our lives here, the Holy Spirit will mix our life experiences and our faith with the living and dynamic Word in order to continually reveal God’s will and ways to us. This does not make God’s word subjective, not at all, but there is a sense in which we all grow and mature in different degrees and directions, each receiving a unique and dynamic communication from God through it. We will likely even arrive at varying impressions of what is beautiful. This doesn’t make beauty completely subjective, it only means we each will have different sensitivities to it.
Jazz music can be really difficult to appreciate. It seems to defy the rules and the common forms of what I have typically considered music. And yet I know there are many people who find Jazz beautiful. The same thing is true with opera – honestly… some people really do like it! As many of you know, I enjoy listening to music – a lot, and I honestly strive to listen to all different kinds regardless of what my own personal tastes happen to be. See I know others are finding beauty in forms like jazz and opera, and so I have forced myself to listen – and let me tell you it was painful at times. Slowly but surely, I started to “get” jazz music, and then even started to enjoy it. Opera, on the other hand, I am still working on 🙂
I suspect what happens is that you can develop a certain sensitivity to various forms of beauty, and the greater the sensitivity, the greater the pleasure is you receive from it. Poetry and painting and story and song and woodcraft and sculpture and any other art you can imagine – along with all the beauty available to you by just looking out your window – all has potential to result in pleasure depending on how aware and sensitive you are to the forms of the art.
Ps 37 says this:
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart
Could it be that as we delight in God, our sensitivity to His form, to His beauty will grow? And as our sensitivity grows, so will the pleasure we receive by beholding Him and worshiping Him. This ever-increasing and ever-transforming delight is ultimately the way God is glorified in our lives. It is for this reason that I will insist that beauty is important, and in fact may even save the world.
I find beauty in unusual things, like hanging your head out the window or sitting on a fire escape.
I don’t know whether Scarlett intended it, but this simple quote is highly poetic and beautiful. The first thing she says is “I find beauty”, and while subtle, it is a powerful statement. She tells me that she is actively looking for beauty and this inspires me to do the same. Next she comments that where she often finds it is in unusual things or places – but really, what could be more usual or common than hanging your head out your window? I am encouraged by this because it means that even though most people only expect to find beauty in particular places, like maybe the peak of Mt Rainer or a Hawaiian coastline, it actually can be found just about anywhere.
Good poetry very often does this. It quietly drags you into a common moment and then shows you some extravagant beauty that you have probably missed. And then that moment is no longer common, it has become magical – or perhaps even – mystical … filled with worship.
If you will allow me, I would like to drag you into a moment right here and now. I’m going to show you some things you likely already know but you will have to exercise your imagination to see them.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath.
Realize that you are sitting on a chair. With closed eyes, simply feel the chair against your backside.
Realize that you are also sitting inside a large metal box we call our church building – imagine you see it from the street, imagine the shape and color and size of it. You cannot see it at the moment, but you have memories of it to work with.
Now, realize that you, your chair and the big metal box are magically glued to land called North America. You have never seen all of this land with your own eyes, but you have seen representations of it. You have heard stories and seen pictures of it and sung songs about it, so you know it in a way.
Realize that this is just a small part of a larger land mass we have named Earth. And that is where you are sitting – in a chair, in a big box on a very large ball of land.
Realize now that Earth is spinning around on its own axis at just over a thousand miles an hour. We assume we don’t know what it’s like to spin at a thousand miles an hour, but really we do, because that is exactly what we are doing right now. So… what does it feel like?
Now let’s go faster… I hope nobody pukes… Not only are we spinning, but our ball of land is also circling around a giant ball of fire at 67,000 miles an hour. This may seem really difficult to imagine, but you have some representations. You might say we are spinning like a top and circling like swung-yoyo all at the same time. Your eyeballs are insufficient for the task, but your imagination can apply your knowledge to create a true experience for you right here and right now of what it really means to be sitting on a chair in a box on Earth.
Now I want you to realize the one who designed all of this and spoke it into existence, the Sun, the Earth, North America, metal for boxes and chairs and even your butt which is using them all in this moment, that One is intimately aware of you here in this moment – loving you. You have never seen this creator, but you have seen many representations of Him, so you know Him in a way.
What does it feel like to know him in this very moment? To be known by Him? Tell Him – you only really have this moment to do it, so do it. Sing Him a song about the sun and the earth, or write him a poem about a butt in a chair, draw him a picture of a child spinning in circles with their eyes closed tight.
Okay, open your eyes. I want you to realize that as long as you are here and awake, every moment you experience has a kind of super-potential. You have some true knowledge, and you have many representations, and so your imagination can lift you places you have never seen but know to exist. You can fly to the arms of God in any moment, just like we have done here, and beauty can be your spaceship.
“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.”
― John Steinbeck
I don’t know if Steinbeck was completely correct here, but his comment provides me the opportunity to discuss something I’ve been actively discovering over the last several years. See I’ve been in this search throughout my 40’s to discover what it is that I want to do when I grow up. Perhaps it’s a typical mid-life experience, but there are several big questions haunting me, like “What do I really want to accomplish with my life?” and “If I don’t make a serious impact on the problems around me, how will my life have had any value?”
The more I’ve have pushed into these questions, the more I have sensed God pushing back on me – and honestly it has been quite confusing at times. Doesn’t God want me to devote myself to worthy causes? Aren’t things like helping the poor and fighting injustice really big on His list of things I should do with my life? Isn’t this how my life is going to have true value?
So what have I discovered? Well let me tell you a story.
There was this man named Jesus who came from Nazareth. He was widely respected as a spiritual teacher, and some even suspected he was “the One” that was promised by God to come and save his people. He wandered into a village one day and found some friends to hang out with for a little while. Since he took every opportunity to share his light, he spent time just talking and telling stories in the house of these two sisters. One of the sisters was Martha. While she was very pleased to have Jesus visiting, also had much to accomplish and so remained busy with her work while Jesus spoke. Before long she noticed her sister Mary was being lazy and not helping with the work at all. She just sat there, quiet and still and refused to pay attention to anything that needed to be done and only focused on Jesus. Martha grew so frustrated with her sister that she began to whine and complain out loud. She was utterly surprised, flabbergasted even, by the response from Jesus
– Mary had chosen a better way.
Of course I read that story in Luke 10 many years ago, but I still spent much of my life in the way of Martha. But there are two ways – two “modes of being” if I can suggest them:
Somewhere along the way, someone suggested that if some thing or some being is not accomplishing something useful, it ultimately has no value. So Accomplishment Mode took center stage and some dangerous assumptions like Pragmatism and Utilitarianism were born. Today this mode largely rules the landscape of our culture – everyone is obsessed with improvement and performance and the “ten easy ways” and the “seven super habits” and the “three short steps”.
I might even go so far as to suggest that your Christian faith is likely centered on how you can “be better” and “improve your impact” and “grow your faith”. Now don’t get me wrong… these are not bad things. We should strive to grow in our faith and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. And we need to butter our parsnips somehow – we need to work to support ourselves and our families and our church, and even share with our neighbors in need.
I am suggesting that you may have been tricked into spending way too much of your time and energy and ultimately into trying to find your identity and personal value in this accomplishment mode. We have perhaps been duped into thinking that the chief end of our lives is to be productive and useful and to continuously look and smell better.
In fact all who are in Christ Jesus are clothed with His perfection – what could be better? And, in fact, our chief end in life is not to improve on Christ’s perfection but to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. Accomplishment Mode is often necessary to this goal, but can I suggest that Appreciation Mode is also critical – and we tend to just ignore it today.
Personally, I feel like my primary mode of being should be one of appreciation
– of simply beholding the beauty of every moment and the wonder in every living thing around us
– of worship and adoration of the one who spoke us all into being.
You will probably think me lazy as I devote myself to just standing back and enjoying it all – to valuing life – not for what it can give me, not for what I can accomplish in it, but valuing it simply for the beauty of it.
Yes, I will continue to work and be productive – the cat needs to be fed after all… but I’ve decided that I am no longer going to seek my identity and value in the work of my own hands, but rather in simply being one of the many beautiful things He has done.
Beauty is certainly a soft, smooth, slippery thing, and therefore of a nature which easily slips in and permeates our souls. -~Plato
What if – and I know I’m only spit-balling here, but what if Christian “witnessing” is not primarily about convincing someone to change what they believe or the way they behave? What if it is first of all about beauty, about fully experiencing it first-hand and then inspiring others to seek and find beauty as well? What if the greatest obstacle to faith is not so much stubborn will and sin, but simply blindness?
Could it be that it is an inability to see beauty and goodness and truth that keeps people away from God?
And could it be that salvation is less about making a decision and more about encountering and beholding the very most amazing Beauty for the very first time? These are just some of the things I’ve been wondering recently.
We live in a time where many are suspicious of truth claims and are often unconvinced by moral assertions – in these times it is beauty that has a surprising allure. And everything about Jesus Christ is beautiful!
Jesus said, “Let they who have ears to hear, hear and they who have eyes to see, see”.
But Paul says in 2 Cor 4: ”The enemy has blinded those who do not believe, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”.
So to keep us from God, our enemy is trying to make us blind – unable to see the glory of Christ. I’m sure you have heard this word “glory” many – many times, but what does this actually mean? The dictionary says:
1 high renown or honor won by notable achievements.
2 magnificence; splendor; great beauty.
So the gospel has been given to show us the honor and beauty of Christ. Satan believes that if he can keep us from seeing from this great beauty, that he can keep us separated from God, and so his mission, as Paul describes it, is to blind us.
Remember I mentioned that the holy pleasure we receive from worshipping God is increased as our sensitivity to His beauty increases? Well there is also threat that we can become desensitized to beauty, so that we no longer detect it or respond to it at all when we encounter it. I would suggest that our enemy who knows very well that this is a danger to our souls, and is actively engaged in trying to destroy our sensitivity to beauty. The reason behind this tactic may be a hatred for the very glory of God.
So how do we wage war on this kind of battlefield? We will never give sight to the blind by protesting them into moral conformity, that is only kicking their cane – what is needed most is a compelling presence of grace and mercy, being beauty within the world – attracting the world to the saving beauty of Christ.
It is only in an encounter with the glory of God, with all Christ’s divine splendor, that we discover what it really means to be the Imago Dei – human beings made in the image of God. It is in this sense that we can say that beauty will indeed save the world.
We are to love God with all our Heart, Mind and Strength. These might loosely map to Beauty, Truth and Goodness, and if so, loving God with all our heart would be all about Beholding Him – the gaze of awe and wonder, enraptured by beauty.
Yes, that is a picture of me, and yes, I am quoting myself here… there a law against that?
Actually, I tried looking for someone else who communicated this thought clearly but didn’t turn anything up. I’m certain I’m not the first to draw this conclusion, but if I have to take the credit for it, so be it 🙂
In Luke 10, Jesus says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”. I realize Jesus actually gives four categories, heart soul strength and mind but I couldn’t find a clear-cut transcendental to represent how might love God with our soul – in fact I’m still a bit muddy as to what the soul actually is so how would you feel about just grouping it in with heart for the time being?
However confusing the category of a soul might be, the clear bottom line is that we are called to love God with all that we are and all that we got. This idea of Beauty is a truly powerful vehicle for loving God, and I don’t want to see us lose that, or leave it to rust in the backyard.
This is all I really wanted to say in this talk…
Practice awe and wonder daily.
Allow music and poetry and story and art to drag you into His presence.
Behold His beauty, and become beautiful to our world.