A Reflection on the Christian Understanding of Human Beauty

By Pastor Derek Radney

Recently, I preached from 1 Peter 5:14 and 3:3-4. The sermon was a reflection on what it means to live faithfully in our bodies regarding physical affection and modesty. I spent a good bit of time talking about the connection between the heart and the body (both the body itself and the way we adorn it with clothes, make-up, tattoos, etc.) and sought to apply the gospel to the struggles we have with pride and self-absorption. I had planned to spend time talking about beauty, but I did not have enough time. So this post is an attempt to fill in what I think was missing from the sermon. Hopefully it can be beneficial on its own as well.

I do need to give a little context in order to make any sense of the topic. In the sermon, I argued that Peter gives us three important principles regarding the connection between the heart and the body. First, the heart flows outward to the body. What we love and worship will shape our bodies, what we do with our bodies, and how we adorn our bodies. The whole of our person is determined by our character. Second, the flip side of the first principle holds true as well. Our bodies, what we do with them, and how we adorn them (normally) give a window into our heart and character. Obviously, there are exceptions to this because of accidents and illness. But on the whole and under normal circumstances, our bodies say a lot about what we love, our pride or humility, our sense of importance, who we identify with, how disciplined we are, and so forth. Third, beauty matters to God, and we should pursue it holistically. In 1 Peter 3:3-4, Peter calls women to pursue a beauty that never fades by adorning their character with godliness. This suggests we should pursue being beautiful, but only if we do it in a way that begins with our hearts. And we can only address our hearts if we are first humbled by the gospel. The Son of God humbled himself and took on human flesh in order to exchange his beauty for our ugliness so that we could share in his glory and beauty. The gospel of grace embraced in the heart will humble us and begin to shape our character such that our bodies, our actions through our bodies, and how we adorn our bodies will become increasingly beautiful until the day that we will receive glorified bodies.

That is the backdrop of my comments today on beauty. In particular, I want to expand upon the third principle that we should pursue beauty. To do that, we need to understand where beauty comes from and how men and women embody beauty differently.

All Beauty Comes from and Is Grounded in God’s Glory

Christians often talk about the glory of God, about how God made all things for his glory, and how we are to live for his glory. But when you start asking Christians what God’s glory actually means, you might get some confused looks. I prefer to talk about the beauty of God because I think it helps clarify what we mean when we talk about the glory of God. God has made all things to enjoy his own beauty and excellence and to demonstrate his beauty for the enjoyment of his creatures. Mankind was made to image or reflect that beauty in our lives so as to make known God’s beauty. In order to explain how we glorify God, John Piper once contrasted the difference between a telescope and a magnifying glass as an illustration. A magnifying glass makes large something that is small. But a telescope makes something distant more clear to those who are far away. In other words, a telescope doesn’t make the planet or star bigger. It just makes it easier to see. In the same way, we are to glorify God not by adding to God’s glory or beauty (as if we could) but to make it known, to make it more clear so it can be enjoyed more fully.

So back to our topic of beauty. The Psalmist tells us, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1). This opening line is followed with example after example of how God’s creation demonstrates and proclaims the beauty of God. But humans in particular image God and demonstrate his beauty as persons created to rule under God as his representatives. We were created as the pinnacle of God’s creation, the most obvious demonstration of God’s beauty in all creation.

The bottom line for our purposes is that all beauty is grounded in God’s beauty. Despite what we often hear today, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Just as morality is grounded in God’s character and truth is grounded in God’s word, beauty is grounded in God’s glorious perfection.

So if we are going to pursue beauty, it makes sense that we are to do this in a way that starts with adorning our character with godliness. It is a mistake (as I argued in my sermon) to ignore our bodies or our hearts when it comes to beautiful adornment. Our bodies matter and we should seek to live beautifully in them. But that begins with our hearts and adorning them with beautiful, loving, and godly character.

But here is the twist: the way we pursue beauty must differ from the way God pursues the display of his beauty. We are to pursue beauty in order to display the beauty of God and not to draw others to worship and adore us. When we seek beauty in our character, in our bodies, and in our adornment, we should be seeking to draw others into the enjoyment of God’s world and the enjoyment of his beauty.

So rather than pursuing prideful vanity, Christians are to pursue humble reflection of God’s beauty. Jesus himself exemplifies this pattern. He used his body to serve and to save so that others could enjoy and share in the beauty of God. He pursued a beautiful life to bless others and not to exalt himself. 

We must pursue beauty by humbly setting our hearts on Christ and walking in the Spirit such that our character grows in Christ-likeness. As we attend to our hearts, we should pursue beauty in our bodies, both in how we use them in loving service and in how we adorn them in ways that serve the contexts we inhabit.

What is human beauty?

But when it comes to pursuing beauty in our bodies, we still need more direction. You’ve probably noticed that I have mentioned pursuing bodily beauty in three respects: the body itself, the way we use the body, and how we adorn the body. If we have begun with the heart, bodily beauty requires consideration in all three respects.

First, we should pursue bodily beauty itself. Human bodies are beautiful when they conform to God’s purposes for mankind. In other words, men and women both radiate beauty when their bodies reflect vibrancy and life. God made us to live forever in his presence to cultivate the earth under his rule. Mankind in general was created to work and to bear children. Death is our unnatural enemy. Beauty is connected to God’s intention for us to live.

Now when you think carefully about the particular features of a body that we find beautiful or repulsive, you will notice that we find beautiful characteristics that communicate health and ugly characteristics that suggest a lack of health. In other words, when you consider the human body in general, it is beautiful in so far as it conforms to the bodies we are designed to have and to the degree that the body is healthy. This is why young adults, those in the prime of their lives, are generally considered the epitome of human beauty.  When you consider the abundance of food in our culture and the danger of heart disease and other illnesses caused by obesity, it makes sense why we would find thinner bodies more beautiful today than in times when food was scarce and the danger to life was starvation. In short, in every time and place, the standards of beauty that emerge tend to conform to notions of health, youth, and the ability to produce life.

Second, beauty in the body involves how we use our bodies. This has two dimensions: the skill by which we use our bodies in various functions and the aim or effect of the way we use our bodies. Pursuing beauty involves learning how to move and speak in the world with excellence in accomplishing our culture making mandate. Artists, athletes, artists, dancers, musicians, artisans, and so forth all exude beauty in the way they use their bodies. However, the beauty of skillfulness is often lost if the person’s aim is to glorify him or herself rather than serve others. The most beautiful among us are those who serve sacrificially as Jesus did.

Third, beauty in the body involves adornment. My sermon discusses modesty, and so I will simply repeat here a few of the principles I preached from 1 Peter 3:3-4. Modesty is humility in bodily form. Modesty adorns the body in ways that do not draw inappropriate attention to ourselves. This means we must consider our intentions in our dress, the context we are dressing for, and the actual way our attire fits on our bodies.  The point about the context we are dressing for is perhaps the most relevant to what we are discussing here. Pursuing beauty in our adornment involves rightly discerning the context and what is fitting for that context. There are times when it is right to dress up, to dress lavishly, and to highlight our bodily beauty (think of a bride at wedding or of a party). But most of the time, our rhythms of work, rest, and worship call for less extravagance.

A Gentle and Quiet Spirit

Now everything I have said thus far regarding beauty applies to men and women both. But Peter gives wives specific instruction to adorn their character (the hidden person of the heart) with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4). In these verses, we can begin to see what is distinctive about womanly beauty; that is, womanly beauty is connected to motherhood. This shouldn’t surprise us at all since women’s bodies are built by design with the potential for motherhood.

Now please let me be clear. I am not saying women can only be beautiful if they become mothers. I am saying that the qualities fitting for motherhood (gentleness and a quiet spirit) that are embodied by any woman make her beautiful. Peter encourages women to pursue the beauty that is fitting to motherhood, not because all women are or will be mothers, but because women are made to inhabit the world in a feminine way. Consider the beauty of an older woman like Mother Teresa who never bore children but was characterized by motherhood. Or consider the beauty of a single woman in the prime of her youth that cares for others with tenderness and compassion, putting others at ease with her grace. Womanly beauty is connected to the characteristics of motherhood.

Peter isn’t saying women should always be quiet and gentle. He is describing a character marked by tenderness and kindness. He is describing a person who is meek and oriented toward serving others. Consider a mother caring for young children. She must be tender and gentle. She must be soft and warm. She must be someone who nurtures life in others.

So with respect to the appearance of her body alone, a woman is beautiful when she is characterized by health and by features we associate with fertility and nurture. Regarding her character and way of using her body, a woman is beautiful when we she is marked by a temperament—a way of being—that we recognize is fitting for bringing forth, caring, sustaining, and nurturing others, especially (but not limited to) children.

Even though Peter doesn’t talk about manly beauty, we know that God made men with the potential and design to be fathers. Fatherhood is characterized by strength that sacrifices and gives. So male beauty tends to be related to strength in character and body.

Pursue Beauty

My sermon this past Sunday and this blog both intend to reflect on the importance of our bodies in pursuing faithfulness to God as Christians. Evangelicals have typically been guilty of a dualism that denigrates the importance of the body. By relegating the importance of the body to a lesser position, Evangelicals have often been guilty of ignoring the importance of caring for our bodies or of excusing bodily indulgence in ways that mirror the sinful desires of the flesh and the world.

At Trinity Church, we want to grow in our reflection of the beauty of God. This means we must be on guard of both vain self-glory and the failure to appreciate God’s gifts. We must be a people humbly grounded in the gospel such that we increasingly reflect God’s beauty in our lives in distinctively male and female ways. We must be a people who can appreciate the beauty of others and thus enjoy the beauty of God and his world. I hope these reflections have furthered this pursuit in our community, and hope that it will generate much discussion along these lines.