Not too long ago a good friend of ours [I am co-writing this with Sean Harrelson] attended an evangelical pastors’ conference to tell people about his ministry to the disabled, to their families, and to their churches. There were nearly one thousand godly, theologically-astute, gospel-enamored leaders in attendance. What an opportunity, right?

As we spoke to our friend in the aftermath of the event, he told us that his booth, located in a prime spot in the busy exhibit hall, had generated a grand total of five conversations—five conversations in three days. Two of those were with inattentive attendees who apparently mistook the display for something else. In an attempt to escape the awkward moment, one of them uttered, “This doesn’t affect me” before turning his back and rushing away. Apparently booths displaying mentally disabled children and disfigured adults in wheelchairs do not attract crowds. Of the thousand people who repeatedly walked by the booth, only three engaged our friend. One pastor watched the promotional video, wept, and said “Thank you,” telling about his son who has a rare neurological disorder.

We love that man. We understand his reaction. We too are pastors. We too have seen disability up-close, in our churches and in our families. We too have wept and thanked our friend for his ministry. And we have a keen interest in why 997 aspiring evangelical leaders avoided The Elisha Foundation.

The Thing With Beauty

To be fair, there may have been many reasons. But our friend has manned his booth at many conferences and has usually experienced a great response with many meaningful conversations. So what was unique about this event? What we realized as we thought it through was that this conference had two significant emphases: beauty and mission.

Ours is a highly marketed culture popping with logos, sound bites, and all kinds of bling. Where the mainstream church of yesteryear was criticized for isolating itself from culture, our younger generation of evangelical leaders care a great deal for aesthetic quality in music, technology, architecture, interior design, and graphic arts. They value beauty.

We are grateful for this emphasis on aesthetic quality and the resurgence in art and creativity, and especially so when those same people value sound doctrine and biblical preaching. But make no mistake: beauty has become more than a catchword to many Christians today. Beauty has joined truth, worship and mission as a core value in many churches.

This conference displayed beauty at every turn and heralded beauty from the pulpit. It expressed that beauty is missional, that we can appeal to people better through beauty than through ugliness. And in that beautiful and put-together event there was just one area that stood apart: a booth covered with pictures of broken bodies and disfigured faces.

Could it be that the emphasis on beauty and the lack of interest in disability are related? We think it may be. After all, the disabled have a way of disturbing our commitment to beauty.

Beauty’s Purpose

Let’s be clear: There are good and biblical reasons for a focus on beauty and aesthetics. Our God is an aesthetic God. He created all that exists and pronounced it good and very good. He took rigorous care over the design of the tabernacle and priestly garments in the book of Exodus, demanding that they be exquisite in their design and creation. We see many places in the Bible where “beauty” is loaded with theological meaning associated with God’s glory and God’s salvation. Beauty is good!

Beauty serves an especially important purpose in this broken and sin-stained world. God is beautiful and God made us in his beautiful image. Every bit of beauty in this world is just a glimpse of his beauty. In his perfect Creation there was not a single stain of ugliness. But then we chose to be ugly before him. We chose to go our way instead of his way, and in doing that we became hopelessly marred and disfigured. Now God’s beauty highlights our lack of beauty. It draws attention to the stark contrast between God and us. What every Christian wants to do is give unbelieving people a vision of God’s beauty, and primarily, the beauty of the salvation he offers to people who have deliberately made themselves ugly through sin. God’s beauty draws those whom he gives eyes to see. In this way beauty is closely tied to mission. We tell people about a beautiful God who wants to bring a beautiful salvation to lead to a beautiful future.

Beauty’s Dilemma

Beauty is good, but allegiance to it can be damaging because so often the disabled do not fit our perception of beauty. The greater our focus on beauty and the greater our desire to be known for it, the more jarring their presence may be. A heightened emphasis on aesthetics simply creates a greater contrast. Could that contrast become so pronounced that it causes us to walk away from booths at a conference, or away from an opportunity to serve the disabled, their families, their churches?

Isaiah tells us that our Savior came into this world with “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Nor did Jesus surround himself with beauty. He spent most of his time with the blind, sick, diseased, deformed, demon-possessed, and dead. Why? Because they were Jesus’ mission. He had come to seek and to save the least, the lost, the last, and the lame, not the beautiful, the whole, the put-together.

What concerns us as we think about that conference, and toward our churches as they, too, pursue beauty, is the apparent contradiction between exalting the missional importance of beauty, but all the while ignoring or neglecting the disabled because their lack of beauty makes us uncomfortable. You cannot have true mission while ignoring the disabled! They too, are marred by sin, they too need to be told of the beauty of salvation, they too need to be our mission, they too are the church.

 

Over the past few years I have found myself thinking often about beauty. I suppose my interest in the subject may relate to the fact that I am the father of two girls. Though they are still young, they are already being exposed to so many messages about the importance of beauty and the kind of beauty society expects from them. They already know they will be judged on the basis of it. For this reason I want to equip them with a knowledge of what the Bible says about beauty. But what does it say? What should I be teaching them?

True Beauty
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Beauty is the subject of a new book from mother-daughter team Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre. In True Beauty they go looking beyond society’s perceptions and misperceptions of beauty and attempt to bring the Bible to bear. They do it well.

Before I had two daughters I had three younger sisters, and for years I heard them grapple with being beautiful, looking beautiful, feeling beautiful. I heard them as they asked questions about the appropriate standards for beauty and as they doubted all we tried to tell them. I saw them try to deal with the false gospel of beauty: that beauty equals happiness, that more beauty brings more happiness, and that to be without beauty is to be without hope and fulfillment. What they didn’t want to hear is the too-easy message that outer beauty is meaningless while inner beauty is everything.

They could have used this book. Speaking for both authors, Mahaney says, “My hope is that you too will be encouraged to bring every question about beauty and every struggle with your appearance to God’s Word. My prayer is that you will trust in his Word and submit to his Word, finding hope, freedom, and delight in the beauty of his truth.” It is only God’s Word that can direct us to the deepest and sweetest beauty.

The authors begin by grounding beauty in the image of God. Because we are all made in God’s image, we all have inherent beauty. If God is beautiful, then so too are we, having been made in his image. “We are not beautiful because we fit the popular ideal of beauty, and we are not ugly or unattractive because we don’t measure up. Our beauty as human beings is not derived from ourselves. It comes from a beautiful God.” From Creation they go to the Fall and then to the gospel, showing that the gospel lays a double claim to our taste for beauty, first through creation and then through redemption. True beauty, they say, is to behold and reflect the beauty of God.

From the source of beauty, they go to the heart, showing that human beings are glory thieves, eager to steal the glory that is rightly God’s. A woman who wishes to use beauty to draw attention to herself, is robbing God of the glory that is his. From the heart they move to the body and deal with common issues—body image, weight, and the like. They speak here of stewardship, they encourage women to care for their bodies in ways that serve the Lord, and they warn against grumbling and dissatisfaction. They move outward again from the body to the clothing, discussing the importance of modest dress and rightly showing that clothing is simply an outer reflection of the inner woman.

As the book begins to draw to a close, they look at two important New Testament texts that speak to inner beauty and outer beauty. A helpful appendix provides guidance to parents who want to help their children understand God’s perspective on the subject.

What you will not find in True Beauty is the all-too-common attitude that frumpiness is next to godliness. You will not find the authors trying to convince you that beauty is a problem, that Christian women ought to be ashamed of the beauty God has given them, that they’d better not do anything to enhance it. You won’t find them saying that character is all that matters. What you will find is simple, clear, practical teaching on the nature of beauty and the sheer goodness of beauty.

Society gets beauty all wrong. As we examine the messages we see and hear all around us, we quickly spot the presence of idolatry. The beautiful are worshiped, while the plain are ignored or even reviled. Beauty is a cultural god. Mahaney and Whitacre do an exemplary job of going to Scripture to bring God’s wisdom to bear. And, as we would expect, his perspective is infinitely better. This is a book for any woman—an especially any young woman—to read and absorb.

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The teachings of nature in the Kingdom of grace, Song of Solomon chapter 2, pages 96-97, Pilgrim Publications.

“We are content with Him, and want no more.” 

It may be that in the midst of the forest, while you are hungry and thirsty, you come upon a strangely beautiful tree: its proportions are exact, and as you gaze upon it from a distance you exclaim: “How wonderful are the works of God!” and you begin to think of those trees of the Lord which are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He hath planted.

You stand under it and look up among the majestic boughs and the spreading branches, and you again admire the beauty of Nature as it comes from the hand of the Most High. But beauty can never satisfy hunger, and when a man is dying of thirst it is vain to talk to him of symmetry and taste. He wants food.

This reminds us that nowadays there be some who try to satisfy the souls of men with beauty. Look at their processions; who would not be charmed with their varied costumes, their spangled banners, their gilded crosses, and their melodious hymns? Listen to their choir; is not the singing perfection?

If you want a concert on the Sabbath day, and do not like to attend a theatre, you can find it in the cathedral, and in many a parish church, and please the Lord almost as well; if you want to have your senses gratified and cannot conscientiously attend an opera on Sunday, you can have ear and eye gratified at church—ay, and the nose as well in some places; and these amusements they mistake for religious exercises.

Compared with the plainness of worship which we follow, our casting out of everything like symbol, our abhorrence of everything that would take away the mind from God Himself and fix it upon secondary objects—compared with all this, their worship is enchanting indeed to the carnal mind, and we do not wonder that those who are led by taste should follow after it.

But oh, if a man once hungers after the bread of heaven, his taste for finery will be reduced to a very secondary position as a governing power of his mind. If once the soul craves after God, after peace, pardon, truth, reconciliation, holiness, it will seek the Lord Jesus, the apple tree, and forget the other trees, however shapely they may be.