Speaking about hard-corn pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said it was hard to describe or define,
“but I know it when I see it.”
The same cannot be said for beauty, though, can it? No doubt you, like everyone else, have your own subjective understanding of what it is, but is it possible an objective standard of beauty exists? Do you know how God defines beauty?
We all have a tendency to be drawn to beauty, visual or otherwise. Although what most people consider the aesthetic of beauty changes across cultures and eras (think, for example, about those pulchritudinous porkers that made Peter Paul Reuben famous), the fact remains that those who are considered beautiful achieve greater financial success than their less striking counterparts – but, somewhat counterintuitively, they are also more likely to struggle with lower self-esteem.
Who truly possesses beauty? How often do you notice it, and how often do you miss it? Is it possible that superficial, transitory beauty prevents us from seeing that which is genuinely lovely and worthy that daily passes by?
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with eye candy. God arguably made us in such a way that we enjoy and desire beauty. There are beautiful people in the Bible: The Matriarchs Sarah and Rachel were extremely attractive (the latter is also referred to as “well endowed”). Both of Israel’s first two kings are described as quite handsome. Solomon’s most famous bride was beautiful – she, for her part, described him as “altogether lovely” – and of his brother Absolom it was said no man in the nation exceeded him in beauty. And lest we forget, it was Esther’s good looks that positioned her to save her people from extermination.
And yet, in this as in many things, what is good can obscure what is best.
Outward looks, in and of themselves, are neither lauded nor condemned in Scripture. But external beauty is temporary at best, and must never form the basis of our identity or worth. Worse yet is when outward beauty leads us into narcissism, self-centeredness, and idolatry. Spending one’s time and money on jewelry and fine clothing, for example, while neglecting to care for the poor and needy earns God’s condemnation.
In a passage speaking strictly to women, the Apostle Peter commands their adornment (kosmos, from whence comes the modern English cosmetics) not be merely external. Instead, he says, the beauty you should focus on cultivating is spiritual:
“It should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
In a parallel passage, the Apostle Paul says women professing to be godly should have good works as their “cosmetics” (and, given that Psychology Today says the “beauty gap” between males and females is finally closing, these verses probably equally apply to men as well).
The eminent New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson was of the opinion Peter & Paul are not in these passages forbidding patronizing beauty salons, clothiers, and jewelers; rather, he says, they draw a sharp contrast between temporal, expensive, and vain attempts at beauty versus a kind of beauty that is inward and eternal. The former is only bad when it detracts from the latter.
We tend to forget this, even when it comes to Jesus.
From 1927’s King of Kings to this year’s Son of God, the Messiah has always been portrayed on the silver screen by a hunky (if not outright sexy) actor. That’s the nature of Hollywood productions. But the flesh and blood Savior was nothing like that. As the Prophet wrote,
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
Have you ever noticed the Orthodox cross? Attached to the vertical beam are not two horizontal lines, but three: an accusation plate (in this case, “King of the Jews,” i.e. guilty by reason of sedition), a patibulum for the outstretched arms, and a footrest. The latter is always cocked at an angle, based on the idea that Jesus was a clubfoot. There is no historical reason to believe he was deformed; as in all Orthodox iconography, the depiction is not intended to be technically accurate as to remind of and focus on divinely-revealed truth, in this case the above verse from Isaiah. Messiah, he foresaw, would not be dashing or inspiring. Messiah appeared ordinary, perhaps even ugly. It was his character, his personality, his love and his intercession on our behalf that draws us to him, not his good looks.
We all have a tendency to be drawn to beauty. We also all have a tendency to remake Jesus into something we find more palatable, and not merely in terms of his physique. We like those Bible verses that speak of his kindness and humility, and dislike the ones that describe him a judge. Or we love to think of him wrathfully punishing sinners – as long as his anger is directed at someone else, not us (the Westboro Baptist folks come to mind here).
Who is Jesus? He is the Creator who subjected himself to his own creation, the ruler of heaven’s armies, a warrior, a healer. He turns no one away, yet he turns over tables of moneylenders in the Temple (and wove a whip for the occasion, too). He is both kind and stern. Accept both as true parts of his character, and don’t fawn over one side while neglecting the other. Both aspects of the King are wonderful in their own way.
“Is there in truth no beauty?” asked 17th century poet & Anglican priest George Herbert. Is it not enough that Jesus is whom the Bible presents him to be? Can you accept and embrace him as he is, and not try painting him over with the façade of who you’d prefer he be?
Much hinges on your answer.
Image credits (L-R): Head of Christ, Walter Sallman (1940); actor Diogo Morgado from Son of God (2014); Prince of Peace, Akiane Kramarik (2004); 1st century Semite male composite based on forensic evidence,http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186 (2002)