I’ve relied on a common understanding of the word “beauty” up to this point. But I think you who are reading know by now that I don’t mean a mere whimsical distraction of pretty things.
Jesus’ disciples pointed out the beauty of the lovely stonework of the Temple, and He said it would all be torn down. Peter wrote that the “beauty of the holy women of ancient times” was not the kind that was dependent on “an elaborate coiffure, or on the wearing of jewellery or fine clothes.” Of the incarnate Christ Himself, Isaiah prophesied no majesty and beauty, at least of the sort that humans recognize.
Why then should beauty matter?
Because the beauty I’m writing of isn’t the feeble word-wraith that we so often make of it — a pleasant aesthetic spectacle to be lightly praised and passed by. No; beauty in its rightful place pierces, sears, gleams, humbles. It clears a path.
The best description I’ve come across puts beauty in the context of a greater yearning: through it we are invited into “awed surmise, [or] the hush of the deep mystery of man’s finitude and creatureliness.”* At other times it “may come with a mounting sense of grandeur in the presence of natural beauty or with a piercing sweetness upon hearing a certain strain of music.”* Even as it moves us, this beauty awakens us to the distance between where we are and the Home — and King — for which we long.
I believe that, when it is given its rightful place under the kingship of Christ, beauty plays an irreplaceable role in maintaining the sanity, the faithfulness, and the Godward love of our redeemed lives.
I’ve always had a tendency to drift towards a view of God as austere and authoritarian. The habit is an old one and hard to shake, because in my “growing up” years as a believer, I got it into my head that valuing eternal things meant shutting my eyes to earthly ones. The spiritual ought not to be crowded out by the immediate.
When I leave it unchecked, this ascetic view affects all my communication with Him, and colors all my theology. If He is a no-nonsense God, I should likewise be a no-nonsense follower, even though I’ve continually found that this road leads to a starved attitude on life and a depletion of hope. “What’s the use?” and “I’m trapped; tomorrow won’t be any different from today” are familiar and reliable indicators that I’ve stopped looking for what is good, and stopped expecting to find wonder and delight around me — that I’ve stopped looking closely at the details altogether.
I’m thankful beyond words to find again and again that the Bible itself directs me to do otherwise.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Ps. 8:3-4, ESV)
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matt. 6:26-29, ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9, ESV)
Scripture keeps calling us to look at the beauty before us, and never with cool empirical eyes. See how far it is from the earth to the heavens? Such is the staggering magnitude of God’s love for those who fear Him. Can you grasp how far the east is from the west? That’s how far He will remove your sin from you.
We are called to experience, to taste, to marvel, to delight — and to not dismiss. Over and over I notice that my encounters with beauty repeatedly jar my misperception of God as a hard master or a perpetually stern parent; they re-center it in love, throwing open a window in that small, stifled room. The Word I profess keeps directing me to see Christ reflected in all of His creation, placed there not by happenstance but with great intention.
It is right not to idolize beauty. Lately I’ve been reminded that everyone who makes an argument is reacting to something. This essay is no exception, which is why I’ve endeavored to give you a solid picture of my personal background on this topic. When it comes to beauty, I have nearly always erred — and erred heavily — on the side of debasing it in the name of an undivided heart.
Other men and women throughout history have gone the other way and have sometimes confused beauty with truth, mistaking the signpost for a destination, following it as if it were a god. We are as capable of melting down our experiences of beauty into a golden calf and letting them lead us into delusion as anything else when we are not anchored to the whole counsel and the whole Word of God.
But shutting beauty off forever in order to avoid such confusion is foolishness as well, like putting in blackened contact lenses or starving ourselves to avoid gluttony. For sometimes we don’t have any reference point for what love looks like until we have seen it between a husband and a wife, or a father and a son. Sometimes we struggle to perceive the meaning of “grandeur” until we’ve beheld the burnished court of clouds at sunset, the arc of an ocean wave, a towering red canyon wall. Sometimes we don’t know what is meant by the great and majestic things Scripture mentions until we employ the very means He’s given to help us grasp them.
Look at the exquisite adornment of the lilies, He tells us. Observe the endless repast of the birds. Soak in the contentedness of a weaned child. Behold the green flourishing of a tree by the stream. Share the joy of a glorious princess as she goes to her bridegroom.
When the Word of God tells us to pay attention to beauty, it often bids us look closely, and then tells us, “Like this, but even better. Even lovelier. Even more breathtaking.” It seems we are to use our God-given imaginations in our eternity-shot lives to walk our roads with faithfulness.
Beauty isn’t a pleasant diversion that runs parallel to the reality of the world but never touches it. It fits us for the coming glory by drawing us in and pointing beyond. And in speaking of longing — for I’m aware I’ve been talking about beauty in a way that makes it somewhat interchangeable with longing — Corbin Scott Carnell notes:
This archetype which is so potently endowed with “the tug of the transcendent”. . . gets spent and misspent on indulgent emotionalism. It gets debased by trite and sentimental use, as in pulp fiction and popular music. But the romantic muse is still called to be a handmaiden of the Lord, and . . . the Maid of Longing dances wildly but chastely in praise to God. (Bright Shadow of Reality, 162)
For all we have done to distort and cheapen and idolize it, we have not managed to erase its potency. Beauty, this rich and merry gift of the Father, has a serious office in the gritty realities of the Christ-claimed life.
What’s more, I believe beauty isn’t only significant to our personal lives. In the advancement of the Kingdom, it matters greatly to the Church universal.
The Church in Wartime and the Homefront of Beauty
Martial language goes hand-in-hand with the Biblical call to a sacrificial life.
“[W]e do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God. . . ” (Eph. 6:12-13a, ESV)
Paul exhorts Timothy to “put up with [his] share of hardship as a loyal soldier in Christ’s army” (II Tim. 2:3, Phillips), and elsewhere refers to other companions as fellow soldiers. When it comes to His mission of salvation and redemption and its reception among men, Christ Himself says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” A wartime mentality is necessary and helpful for all His disciples.
Not surprisingly, within this framework of faith, I’ve always focused on the soldier at war. But a beloved old book reminds me that war isn’t waged solely in the trenches, or even on the battlefield.
Rilla of Ingleside, the last in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne series, is the only Canadian novel by a female contemporary about life on the homefront during WWI. Rilla is the youngest of Anne’s children, coming of age in an upended world, and she watches as each of her brothers leaves home to enlist. Her favorite is Walter, who has the soul of a poet.
Walter, more than any of the others, is keenly aware of the devastation and the monstrosity of war. On the day he volunteers, he tells Rilla, “I’m going to fight for the beauty of life, Rilla-my-Rilla — that is my duty.”
Later, a poignant letter from the front shows us that Walter’s fight isn’t merely to secure his own ability to enjoy beauty.
It’s for the sake of much more.
Always home has seemed so far away — so hopelessly far away from this hideous welter of filth and blood. But tonight it is quite close to me — it seems to me I can almost see you — hear you speak. And I can see the moonlight shining white and still on the old hills of home. It has seemed to me ever since I came here that it was impossible that there could be calm gentle nights and unshattered moonlight anywhere in the world. But tonight somehow, all the beautiful things I have always loved seem to have become possible again — and this is good, and makes me feel a deep, certain, exquisite happiness. . . .
I’m not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied . . . . I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future — for the workers of the future — ay, and the dreams, too — for if no man dreams, there will be nothing for the workers to fulfil. . .
Is there laughter in your face yet, Rilla? I hope so. The world will need laughter and courage more than ever in the years that will come next. . . [T]ell your children of the Idea we fought and died for — teach them it must be lived for as well as died for, else the price paid for it will have been given for nought. This will be part of your work, Rilla. And if you — all you girls back in the homeland — do it, then we [will know] that you have not ‘broken faith’ with us.
Without spoiling the story for you, I can safely say that Rilla does “keep the faith,” along with the other valiant men and women at home.
And I can say, too, that the same spirit of courage and perseverance is at work in Christ-followers I know today.
In this age of wrestling and war, I believe the Church is engaged in battle along two fronts. There are those who at this moment are deep in the ditches, taking the onslaught of the Enemy head-on, carrying the flame. Some of them burn bright and brief, like those whom I mentioned in the introduction.
And there are those who, at this moment, are tasked with keeping that flame burning. With “laughter and courage” in the midst of rubble, they uphold the truth and beauty and goodness at the heart of the Kingdom of God, holding their ground steadfastly and refusing to give way to cynicism and fear. This, too, is the work of the saints.
If this is true, we cannot despise or dismiss either camp. Christ Himself told us both that we were to follow Him in laying down our lives, and that we would join Him in glory — indeed, it was for the “joy set before Him” that He endured the cross, scorning its shame (Heb. 12:2, emphasis mine). Both the sacrifice and the upholding of beauty are necessary and true.
The two fronts aren’t mutually exclusive assignments, either. As in war, a soldier in the thick of the skirmish may be sent back home while the battle rages, and private fishermen may be called to drop their daily work and evacuate troops from battered beaches.
All of us serve under one Commander, each during his or her duty, each ready to move at His direction. Christ-followers in demanding seasons sometimes need to be reminded firsthand of what they are fighting for, through rest and wonder, through respite and refreshment. Others, who curate homes and way-stations of incarnate loveliness, must be available to the Lord of the Harvest to move them out as He will. Those who dwell intentionally — and wisely, in my view — in beauty need to have their ears open and their hearts kept tender to fight wherever there is true ugliness and horror. All of us need to be ready for His return.
In this kingdom that is both here and coming, we’ve got to actively live out the truth of what we believe amid challenge and skepticism and suffering. At the same time, I believe we have to keep alive our lived, felt, full experience of the hope of the glory of God.
Waging Beauty — and Art — under the Kingship of Christ
The gift of beauty in our lives, then, is not given to us so that we may adorn our own separate and tidy personal kingdoms. Beauty exists — if it is not too reductive a claim! — so that the truth of Christ may be brought closer to the clouded eyes of this world, cracking its darkness, and breaching its walls through the incredible mercies and hints of eternity revealed in our lives.
It’s our privilege, among all His creatures, not only to receive beauty, but to participate in the making of it. To “sub-create,” as Tolkien put it. Here our tactile and concrete contributions find their significance, because they come into their own as reflections and not as sources of true beauty. With beauty we make incursions upon despair and anxiety and brokenness, all the way from sublime and momentous works of art down to the most ordinary of deeds.
One of my favorite passages from C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength mentions that the unremarkable acts of “feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables” is as much a part of obedience to God as dramatic conflicts with evil. “It will often happen like that,” says the main character, which makes this homemaker and mother of young children smile. Our everyday acts of caregiving and creating beauty, of gathering in the name of Christ and “singing and making melody to the Lord in [our hearts]” (Eph. 5:19) are to be taken as seriously as the most eloquent apologetic statements we may ever utter in our lives.
And so — we pen books.
And so we paint portraits.
And so we write songs.
And so we set tea tables.
And so we cuddle babies.
And so we cut flowers.
And so we lead mountain hikes.
And so we persist in creative work.
And so we laugh at the illogical jokes of small children.
And so we honor the last years of our elders.
And so we write letters.
And so we celebrate birthdays.
And so we adopt the fatherless.
And so we leave our homes to speak of Christ’s death and resurrection.
And so we feed and cherish the least among us.
And so we image His beauty.
Bringing our thanks and small offerings, we come to glorify Him.
I believe with all my heart that all true beauty is from Him and for Him and unto Him. It anchors us in His love as we seek to give without stinting. It moors us to the truth of His goodness so that we do not drift away on the currents of our fears. It calls us Homeward and fills our vision so that we’re able to invite others to hear the invitation of our King.
In the end, beauty belongs in the sacrificial life because He has made it so.
“[Christ] sacrificed himself for [the Church]. . . to make her holy, having cleansed her through the baptism of his Word — to make her an altogether glorious Church in his eyes.”
– Eph. 5:25-28, Phillips
“Christ’s love makes the church whole. His words evoke her beauty. Everything he does and says is designed to bring out the best in her, dressing her in dazzling white silk, radiant with holiness.”
– Eph. 5:25-28, The Message
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
– Eph. 5:25-28, ESV
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Part 7: For the last installment of this series, friends, I can’t wait to share with you the story of a real-life woman who helped me see how sacrifice and beauty meet in a life of surrender to Christ.