One very good way to seem holier-than-thou is to be unattractive.
You may be one of the few individuals who have had the misfortune of being born beautiful, and have to take deliberate steps to be homely. I recommend wearing thick, heavy glasses, tangling up your hair, eating poorly, adopting a sedentary lifestyle, and replacing your wardrobe with frumpy, out-dated and mismatched apparel. Combined with a strict code of morals and a Bible college degree, these simple steps can make the most naturally attractive person seem quite holy.
OK, enough of that.
The truth is that I believe every person is beautiful. Not just on the inside, either. Granted, this belief is buried deep in my soul, and my eyes and mind will spend my entire life trying to live up to it. I have no doubt that God has a sense of physical, visual beauty, and that he literally “sees” every individual as beautiful, despite any asymmetry, malformation, handicap, skin disease or cultural disadvantage. It is not creation, but culture that causes some to rise above the rest, and to be crowned sexy.
Religion has responded to this cultural tendency in very severe ways at times. Both Peter (in I Peter) and Paul (in I Timothy) give warnings to the women of the Church not to decorate themselves, and to dress with modesty. And then there’s the verse in Proverbs that says how “beauty is vain”. This is all the fuel that the legalistic set needs to develop a counter-culture with attitudes like the one I expressed in the first paragraph. “The world has sinfully exalted attractiveness, so we will exalt homeliness! The less you do to develop your physical appearance, the better!”
So here we are… caught between two mistakes: pride in beauty, and pride in rejecting beauty.
It’s obvious that physical beauty has a role to play in God’s plan… At least 10 major Old Testament figures are identified for their beauty, and not just women. Sarah is so beautiful that her husband Abraham tries to pass her off as his sister so he won’t be killed. Rebecca draws the immediate attention of Isaac’s wife-searching servant. Rachel’s beauty instantly inspires 7 years of hard labor from Jacob. Bathsheba pulls the “man after God’s own heart” way off course. Esther wins an empire-wide beauty pageant to become Queen of Susa and save her entire race. As for the men… Saul’s beauty is defined by his extraordinary height. David, although considerably shorter, is described as handsome. And his wicked son Absalom was the Fabio of his day… with long, luxurious locks and “not a blemish on him”. It is a poetic justice that he dies by hanging… his hair caught in a tree. And who can forget Solomon and the Shulammite Woman, his first wife, who praise each other’s beauty over and over in the Song of Solomon?
Beauty is a powerful thing in scripture. Sometimes it leads to disaster (as with Bathsheba) and other times to salvation (as with Esther.) Is it possible that physical, cultural beauty is a gift with a purpose, just like so many other things? Perhaps God knows the power of attraction and desires to use it to his advantage.
The Art of Fashion is not highly respected in Christian circles, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. It smacks as narcissistic on the one side, and voyeuristic on the other. And in many, many cases I believe this is probably true… not only do its excesses and misuses lead to selfishness, they lead to lust, rape, adultery and even idolatry. So it can be hard for devoted Christians to justify the mountains of money spent on textiles and cosmetics. But maybe, just maybe, there is a baby somewhere in this bathwater. I’ve had to think about this a lot lately, with our Benefit Fashion Show (called “Hit the Lights“) coming up on December 8.
We have no doubt that God gives certain people a beautiful voice. Would you rebuke a talented young woman for spending lots of time and money on voice lessons, or even a voice degree, and dedicating her life to singing and teaching others to do the same? What about those who seem born to paint, or calculate, or invent, or build, or advise?
I’m going to use a word that I don’t think I’ve ever heard applied to beauty or fashion… STEWARDSHIP. Is it possible that those born with pleasant features might actually be held accountable to God for their stewardship of this gift?
Yes, it’s extremely easy for an attractive person to become arrogant, like The Fonz with his comb, or Marsha Brady with her hairbrush. But isn’t that the case with every gift? God has given us all the freedom to ignore his call, and assume that we are gifted simply because we deserve it… we’re better than others.
In our approach to every gift of God, we should seek him desperately to know his purpose in all of it. Why am I such a great quarterback? Why do I love drawing so much? Why do people always come to me with their problems? Why have you made me so attractive to others? How do you want to use me?
I’ll finish with a story. When I was in high school, I belonged to a youth group with a few stereotypical “valley girls” who cared deeply about their clothes, their hair, their tans, etc. One of them always had extremely fancy nails, painted with different designs and patterns. Most of us assumed these girls were pretty shallow and didn’t have much interest in the things of God. And in all reality, they probably did go overboard with their appearance, and were likely guilty of some degree of vanity.
To everyone’s surprise, three of these girls decided to go on a mission trip to Lithuania, I think. I wasn’t there, but I heard afterwards about how the little girls they met there reacted to the American girl with the extreme fingernails. They absolutely flocked around her, and flooded her with questions. And when they had learned all they could about her nails, they wanted to know everything else about her as well… including her faith. Because of her fingernails, she had instant respect, and dozens of little listening ears.
Not only did this have a spiritual impact on the Lithuanians, but the three American girls were never the same. Because others had labeled them as shallow, they had come to believe it themselves. But to see what kind of influence they can have on others, they started to understand that God really did intend to use them, just like those who had other, more “spiritual” gifts.
And that’s a beautiful thing.