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.

The Destructive Desire to Make Everything Better

Empathy. Compassion. Mercy. Servanthood. 

These are the sorts of traits that Jesus perfectly embodied. They’re the qualities that Scripture calls Christians to exhibit as they walk in the character of Christ and his kingdom. They’re the attributes that God promises to progressively work in his people as he cultivates their hearts by his Holy Spirit. Indeed, the church is to be the community where such impulses are normal as brothers and sisters in the Lord lay down their lives to care for each other and to love their neighbors.

It’s a cause for celebration, an evidence of God’s grace, when our heart reaction to a request for counsel, service, or help of some sort is to selflessly say, “Because of the love Christ has shown me, I am joyfully willing and ready to love this person by meeting their needs.” Whether it’s helping another person fight a particular temptation, mortify a specific sin, navigate the dynamics of a tricky relationship, apply the gospel to a dimension of life, or exercise wisdom in an approach to a problem, the opportunities for us to serve one another in the give and take of everyday life are manifold. And it’s a sweet blessing when we can gladly participate in bringing resolution and put someone else’s concerns above our own. 

But just because we embrace a readiness to serve others, that doesn’t mean that we’re suddenly free from the dangers of selfishness. Even our best desires, our best intentions, our external obedience to God’s commands, can become masks for idolatry. Even love of neighbor can become a pursuit motivated by love of self. That happens when we cross the line from saying, “I’m willing to help this person,” to saying, “I need to fix this person.” Our empathetic, compassionate, merciful servanthood morphs into a destructive desire to make everything perfect.

What does this destructive desire look like? It looks like a husband whose entire identity is wrapped up in his ability to solve his wife’s problems, a wife who can’t admit she doesn’t have all the answers to her husband’s questions or pain or conflict, a friend who feels the urge to micromanage all the details of another person’s life in an effort to eliminate all of their issues.

The effects of this destructive desire aren’t pretty. When our whole self-understanding depends on our capacity to fix people, then when our counsel doesn’t work, we’ll either get violently angry at the very people we’re trying to help and blame them for being so difficult to work with, or we’ll despair at our failure because we can’t handle the possibility that we aren’t Messiahs. We suffocate people with suggestions, manipulate them in order to see tangible results, and turn them into puppets and projects rather than recognizing their humanity, seeking change according to the gospel, and patiently bearing with them as we wait on the Lord to do his sanctifying work on the heart. We become graceless, intolerant of the fact that people are still sinners who continue to deal with all kinds of problems. We become proud, blind to our own consistent battles against sin and to our need for counsel in various circumstances. We become the kind of people that can’t be approached for help, and we may even begin to hate the whole idea of serving others because investing in people feels like a miserable bondage.

There are a whole host of idols that can drive us to help in such harmful ways. And we have to be ready to preach the truth of God to our hearts when these idols begin to emerge.

Our need to fix people can be rooted in the idol of control. Our satisfaction and security get tied to our ability to completely manage another person’s heart and situation. The only times we feel safe or productive are when we’re exercising unchallenged authority over our lives and the lives of others. But God is the sovereign king who’s in control of all things. He promises to work by his Spirit to conform his children to the image of Christ, and we know that he’ll only do what is good for his people because he gave his Son to make us his. So we can trust the Lord and give up control.

Our need to fix people can be rooted in the fear of man. It’s not so much about serving others with knowledge as it is about being recognized as knowledgable. It’s not so much about loving others for their good as it is about being seen as a loving person for our own good. We live for the approval of others, and in order to attain that approval, we’ll do whatever it takes even if that means smothering people in our efforts to develop a reputation. But the approval of God is worth far more than the approval of man, and God has graciously granted his approval to everyone who trusts the gospel of Christ. He’s declared his favor over all who are united to Jesus, so we can trust the Lord and give up the fight for the praise of people.

Our need to fix people can be rooted in self-justification. We have to make everything better because that’s how we prove to ourselves that we’re a good spouse, a capable counselor, a wise pastor, an able friend. In order to validate ourselves, in order to live up to our own expectations, we have to bring this other person to a place of complete perfection where they no longer experience the slightest symptom of their former problems. Our actions aren’t actually about helping a loved one; they’re about establishing our identity and justifying ourselves. But “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6) so that we who deserve condemnation could be justified—declared spotlessly righteous—by God himself, the only judge that matters. God is the justifier of his people, so we can trust the Lord and stop trying to prove ourselves through other people.

Whenever these (and other) idols are dominating our hearts, we try to live as functional saviors for other people, replacing the only Savior who can truly bring change, healing, and hope. But when we’re resting in the promises of God to us and to all of his children, we can bear one another’s burdens and offer assistance with gladness while still ultimately depending on God to take care of everyone involved.

Selfish service says, “I can’t rest until I’ve solved all of your problems.” Selfless service—the kind that the gospel empowers—says, “I’ll do everything I can to help while recognizing my limitations and leaving space for the Holy Spirit to do his sovereign work.” Only when our hope for ourselves and our hope for other people are firmly grounded in the cross and resurrection of Jesus will we be free to lay down our lives in selflessness and truly walk with others down the long, taxing, and often bumpy road of sanctification.

Sermon Discussion: 1 Corinthians 12-14 - Spiritual Gifts, Continuationism, and the Gospel

When we gather together in home groups this week, these questions can help provoke thought and guide discussion about the sermon.

1) What was the main point of the sermon? How was it outlined?

2) Was there anything in particular that you found intriguing? Did you have any insights or questions as you listened to the sermon?

3) What is your initial reaction to the topic of prophecy and tongues? How have your past experiences and previous teaching shaped your perspective on these gifts?

4) How have you defined spiritual gifts? What definition of spiritual gifts was proposed in the sermon? How does the proposed understanding of gifts change the way we talk about and practice spiritual gifts?

5) Are you tempted to elevate one specific gift above all the others? Which one and why? How does Paul’s teaching challenge that response?

6) What is the purpose of spiritual gifts? How does Paul say spiritual gifts are to be used? How does the gospel empower that kind of service?

7) Did any of the objections to continuationism (biblical, theological, historical, or experiential) reflect your own concerns? What response was offered in defense of the belief that gifts like prophecy and tongues continue today? Was this response helpful?

8) How is the gift of prophecy in the local church different from the authoritative prophecy given in the Old Testament?

9) What are some of the reasons Paul encourages believers to seek the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues?

10) How can the gifts of tongues and prophecy be used in an orderly way in corporate worship? What might that look like at Trinity Church?

11) What are your reactions to the view of spiritual gifts put forth in the sermon?