One of the blogs I read, girltalk, recently asked, “How has the gospel transformed your perspective and pursuit of beauty?” I’ve been reflecting on that question and wanted to share some of my thoughts here.
I would say that God’s work in my heart and my life related to this idea of beauty has been one of the longest-running and most consistent threads throughout my walk with Him. Growing up, I worshiped the ideal of perfection – I wanted desperately to be perfect. I strived for academic success and generally accomplished much of what I set out to do in that arena. I also craved beauty and popularity, though, and I never felt like I even came close to measuring up there. In high school, I definitely engaged in some unhealthy patterns of eating (or rather, avoiding food), and when I went away to college some of that continued, but my focus turned more toward a ridiculous exercise regime – at one point, I was doing over 2,000 crunches a day.
During my sophomore year of college, I became a Christian, but it hadn’t really crossed my mind yet that God might have something to say about my eating and exercising habits. My junior year was occupied with academics, of course, but also the excitement of planning my wedding, so while I continued to be concerned with what I ate and exercised occasionally, I lacked the time and energy to focus on those areas to a high degree, and that largely continued to be the case through my first year of marriage. I was much more focused on finishing school and figuring out this wife thing than on the idea of beauty or my appearance.
That began to change again as Matt was finishing graduate school. I had these ideas in my mind about how my life was going to go, all revolving around Matt getting a tenure-track job right out of grad school and earning enough money for us to quickly pay off all of our student loans, and I could then quit my job, and we could have kids, and our life would be perfect…very much the American dream idea of a perfect family in a house with a white picket fence. God had rather different plans, and when Matt wasn’t immediately offered a perfect job, I was crushed. I didn’t know what to think about who God was or who I was then. I didn’t know whether God was trustworthy. I certainly felt like I was inadequate, but I wasn’t even sure what to focus on. Out of school now, I couldn’t devote myself to academics, so I threw myself headlong into pursuing our culture’s ideal of beauty – namely, thinness. I started ruthlessly cutting calories and was quickly dropping about a pound a week…and for a person who was not particularly large to begin with, it wasn’t long before that became a problem.
God blessed me with some wonderful mentors and friends in our church body who were willing to, first, call me out on the reality that this was a problem, and second, walk with me through the process of repentance and faith and healing and growth. One friend set up a meeting with a doctor, who issued a stern wake-up call that I really needed to turn things around as soon as possible. Several friends offered daily accountability for me in terms of my eating over a period of years. They would help me make healthier choices about eating and exercising, and they would invite me to share meals with them and their families when my husband was out of town, so that I wasn’t eating alone. They spent hours talking and praying with me.
Beyond those practical considerations, those friends and my husband and a counselor began to help me to understand more of who God was and who I really was. The biblical promise that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) did not mean that God was always going to give me exactly what I wanted. That wasn’t because He was incapable or untrustworthy – it was because He had a better plan in mind. That same passage continues on, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). God working for my good meant that He wanted to grow me to be more and more like Christ, to give me His heart and His desires, not just satisfy my every fleeting wish. I started to see myself as loved and blessed and accepted by God – not because of anything I had done or could do but because of His grace. I read through Ephesians over and over again, immersing myself in the truth that God had blessed me “with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3), that I was “holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4), that He had adopted me as His child in love (Ephesians 1:5), that I “have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7). I saw that God was working to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10), and that this was the beautiful ideal toward which God was working, transforming His people into more of His image and uniting us together under Christ.
It was within that context that I began to see more of what God’s perspective on beauty. Where I had seen physical beauty as just one area in which I felt compelled to seek out achievement, acceptance, and control, God proclaimed the blessing of beauty (Song of Solomon is full of examples of the lovers delighting in one another’s beauty) while also recognizing that it could be used for evil (Proverbs 6:25 says, “Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes”) and acknowledging that there are greater values (Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” and 1 Peter 3:4 defines “a gentle and quiet spirit” as imperishable beauty).
Ultimately, my security is based in what God has done, not in anything I have done or ever could do. Out of love, He has adopted me as His daughter, and that’s where I need to rest – not in anything I might be able to earn or achieve, whether in the realm of academics or a career or physical beauty. And my devotion to Him, my character, and my spirit matter so much more than my appearance – those things represent imperishable beauty. But within that framework, I am free to – and it is good to – enjoy the blessing of physical beauty. I can and should seek to take care of the body God has given me, recognizing that it is a temple of the Holy Spirit and can be used to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). I do try to eat healthily and exercise – I’m so much looking forward to the warmer weather so that Miranda and I can get out and walk more regularly! I want to be attractive to my husband and wear cute clothes, etc. Physical beauty is a good thing and a blessing – but it is not the ultimate thing, and I don’t want to treat it as if it is.