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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Love Can Make You Beautiful

I had lunch today with a group of women and we talked about our aging faces. My friend, Ella, is timeless though. She’ll look just like she does today when she’s ninety. We all know women who have been blessed with smooth, silky skin and bright, intelligent eyes—beautiful people. External trappings like great clothes and impeccably coifed hair certainly contribute to a woman’s persona. Or is it her spirit—an inner magnetism that sets people at ease and allows them to confide in her—that makes a woman attractive?

Whether innate or superficial, beauty is a powerful force that affects most of us. “There are only two things that pierce the human heart,” wrote Simon Weil. “One is affliction. The other is beauty.” In our sophisticated world, the two are indelibly linked.

Botox. Liposuction. Body contouring. Humans are the only species that self-inflicts bodily injury for the sake of beauty. If you think you’re too smart to be duped by the magazine covers you see at the checkout stand, take a look in your grocery cart. I like to think that beauty comes from within, but I readily part with money to buy anti-aging syrums, teeth whiteners, and even drinks that will help me maintain a smaller waistline.

Bob Groves profiled a woman through her facelift (The Record, The Cutting Edge of Youth, 01/25/91). “When she was young, the woman from Newark had the striking features of an aspiring model or movie actress,” he wrote. “Now, at age 49, she still is quite attractive. But lately she’s been worried enough about her fading good looks to seek out a plastic surgeon.” The desperate woman had been waking up at 3:00 in the morning to ask her husband if her face looked shrunken. “I just want to feel better about myself,” she agonized. “You have to maintain your image.”

While this woman took the pursuit of glamour to an extreme, her story sheds light on the hazards of a distorted self-image—something Christians suffer from as much as the rest of the world does. What is it that drives us to seek beauty so gluttonously?

God has set eternity in every human heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11), yet as we live and breathe in our finite world, we experience a dissonance between what we have and what we want. We grope unceasingly for the Eden lost so many generations ago. In our brokenness, we often seek the good things God has given us, but in such unhealthy ways that our quest for them actually oppresses us. Without God’s Word to speak truth into our lives, we would become slaves of our own desires, and the emptiness of our synthetic paradise would leave us vacant and weary.

Unfortunately, the culture in which we live may have more to do with our conception of beauty than we readily admit. Volcanic ash baths, cucumber facials, ginseng protein smoothies that burn fat and increase brain power—we know these gimmicks don’t work, yet we consume them faster than Madison Avenue advertising gurus can invent them. The pull of societal pressures to conform to a “universal” standard of beauty is so powerful it can seem impossible to resist. We live in a world that increasingly judges people by their outward appearance and we must contend with that. The question is, How?

I’m convinced that love alone is the antidote to a bettered view of self. And the message we find in scripture offers us a way back to the paradise we lost. But the road to healing is sometimes painful and unfamiliar: to find our identity in Christ, we must forfeit the identity we currently possess—to save our life, we must lose it.

The admonition of Proverbs 6:25 (NIV), “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes,” can apply to women as well as men. When we allow ourselves to be enthralled by the pursuit of beauty, we become equally imprisoned. The desire for human acceptance so closely mimics our hunger for God that we can scarcely tell the difference.
I vividly remember my own struggle in this area. After graduating from college, I went to live with a community of puritans who taught me how to live a quiet life. When I met the woman in charge of my dormitory, I was stunned to learn that she had young children. Her hair was naturally gray and had been pulled into a bun at the back of her neck. Her pale face bore no makeup or earrings. Because of her humble dress and demeanor, I took her for a much older woman. But as time passed, I grew fond of her. Her optimistic spirit was invincible and her enthusiasm boundless. As the frantic world I had come from faded and my senses sharpened, I began to detect earnestness in her smile, expectancy in her voice, mercy in her prayers. I began to think of her as one of the most beautiful women I had ever known. And I gradually began to see myself that way, too.

I wore cosmetics less and less, put away most of my jewelry, and entertained fewer thoughts about my appearance. One evening before going to dinner, I paused to look in the mirror. My face had become plain and simple. Without the distraction of an overdone hairdo, I could see the expression in my eyes. I lingered there for a few extra moments, letting the reality of God’s interminable love permeate my soul. For the very first time in my life, I liked the face that looked back at me. For the first time, I thanked God for it.

When we allow the Lord to cut away our carnal flesh so that we can see with His eyes, the world looks quite different. Seeing beauty from an eternal vantage point liberates us from the unrealistic expectations and dissatisfaction we inherit from our culture. From the other side, God, who placed the stars in Orion’s belt and makes wildflowers grow in the desert, is quite taken with us.

Understanding the profound truth that God is always with us and that He always loves us will do more to transform a person than any elixir we can buy. The prophet Isaiah understood how God’s love can elevate an earthly soul: “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in my god; For He has clothes me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,” (Isaiah 61:10)

I recently asked a friend at my office what beauty is. She said, “My mother always used to say that love can make you beautiful.”
That principle is at work in my life. I experience it every day. The love I receive from my husband and my children has changed me. Phone calls of encouragement, sticky little fingers in my hair, kisses on my cheek—these are the things that determine my countenance. And I thank God for them. Every time we turn our faces toward heaven and receive God’s endless blessing of love, His love shines in our lives. If that isn’t beauty, what is?

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