Part two of two parts; (click here to readpart 1)
Parity & God's handiwork
As I could have argued ten years ago, the apostles and prophets come down hard on using appearance to feed pride and seek status at others' expense. Isaiah condemned rich, proud women who flaunted their high-status appearance:
The Lord says,
"The women of Zion are haughty,
walking along with outstretched necks,
flirting with their eyes,
tripping along with mincing steps,
with ornaments jingling on their ankles.
Therefore the Lord will bring sores on
the heads of the women of Zion;
the Lord will make their scalps
bald." (Isa. 3:16-17, NIV)
Here we see beauty abused by proud women, ornamentation collected by rich women who care more for exalting themselves than for helping their poorer neighbors. The prideful lust for one's own power and glory takes on social and political dimensions. Eventually, though, God promises that the proud will be shamed and the power-hungry enslaved.
Clothes and jewelry were means by which wealthy women flaunted their superiority over the poor in Isaiah's day. Not much has changed in 26 centuries. Today, one can often tell a woman's income by how much she is able to spend on clothes, hair, nails, facials, jewelry, and exercise. Cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinsteinsaid, "There are no ugly women, only lazy ones." It might be more accurate to say there are no ugly women, only women with limited budgets.
Pride and money lie behind Peter's admonition about women's dress: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:3-4, NIV).
The vast majority of first-century women were servants, slaves, or manual workers, along with being mothers and wives. They could afford very little by way of clothing or decoration. They might own two or three plain outfits and a few pieces of cheap jewelry. Their standard of living was roughly equivalent to that of most people in preindustrial societies today. Outward adornment was definitely not one of their temptations.
Two percent of the population was far wealthier than the average woman ever dreamed of being. In the church, which was not yet fashionable, there were probably just a few well-to-do women. These wives and daughters of aristocrats and rich businessmen would have covered themselves in public (so as not tobe judged as prostitutes by society), but they were expected to be walking advertisements of their men's wealth and status. Carefully coifed hair peeked from under demure veils, fabrics were the very best, and jewelry glittered everywhere.
The purpose of all this finery was less to allure men than to compete withthe other rich women in flaunting one's wealth. The radiant ones' appearance could only intimidate the low-class women. Silks and pearls set the standard for who was important and who was not.
But in the church, these distinctions undermined the goal of bonding women as sisters in Christ. Peter had no patience with rich men who wanted to use their wives as status emblems, nor with rich women who wanted to lord itover the poor. He urged women to lay aside their trappings of wealth as a spiritual discipline to train themselves in humility. Their appearance would be an outward sign that they considered the other women their full equals. Such a radical rejection of their society's expectations about appearance would be a potent witness if their husbands were unbelievers.
If we view life as a system of limited resources, then status (access to more resources) and pride (the belief that one deserves those resources)make sense. However, where there is high status and power over others, there must also be low status and powerlessness; where there is pride there must be shame; where there are winners there must be losers.
The Scriptures envision a different system, one that is cooperative rather than competitive at its core. In this system, people are so bonded that theywant everyone to win, for "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (1 Cor. 12:26,NIV). A woman in such a system refuses to see all others as enemies in a battle for the best men or the better job. While she strives for her own excellence, she strives just as hard to build up her neighbors. A man in this system refuses to let status concerns determine the way hespends his money or treats his wife.
When I survey myself in the mirror after dressing for church, I try to remember to ask myself not, "Do I look good enough?" or even "Do I look too seductive?"but rather, "Do I look too proud?"
Beauty's two sins
People often think of pride and humility as simple opposites; if you haveless pride, you have more humility. Hence, humility and shame (humiliation) get muddled together. However, I think pride and shame are really two sides of the same coin, or two ends of a see-saw. Most of us spend much of ourtime see-sawing between pride and shame. Today I'm lording it over the other women; tomorrow I hate my body. Either way, I'm gripped by an obsession with self-esteem. Genuine humility, by contrast, comes when I step off that see-saw altogether.
Because of the confusion, some Christians think we should eschew beauty and adornment as temptations to pride and division. I am sure many of the people I know who are doing that are motivated by humility.
I, however, have found that rejecting beauty can be as serious a sin as worshiping it. I was stunned a few years ago to realize that my self-control around food was anorexia, a fruit not of the Spirit but of a compulsion to control something in my chaotic world. My alleged humility turned out to be merely spiritualized shame and cloaked pride. Beneath my drab clothes and cerebral expression lived a woman who hated her body and who hated and feared beauty as the cause of evil. Like many children who are victims of incest, I had believed that my feminine attractiveness had invited the abuse. Paradoxically, I also believed myself invisible and ugly because my parents were too busy to notice me (children don't reason these things out). I carried into adulthood a deep conviction that attractiveness was both dangerous and out of my reach. Looking like a boy felt safe and achievable. I papered over this conviction with a hypocritical justification that seemed biblical. Hadn't Peter said that my beauty should have nothing to do with external appearance?
I have found that
rejecting beauty can
be as serious a sin
as worshipping it.
Not quite. Some dualists claim that while our souls may be created in the image of God, our bodies are irrelevant distractions. Incarnational theology will have none of that. Human persons, not merely spirits, reflect God's image. It is conceivable that before disease, aging, and death ravaged humangenes, the first man and woman possessed the kind of unspoiled bodies we seem instinctively drawn to. We know we were intended to be healthy, glowing with life, unmarred by stress, so we chafe against the physical signs of our fallenness.
The Song of Songs affirms that longing to be beautiful. With a lover's eye for every feature, the poet describes the bride's hair, teeth, temples, eyes, cheeks, neck, lips, and breasts. "Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely . …" The bridegroom's ruddy strength receives similar praise. We may allegorize the Song, but why would God describe his bride in such blatantly physical and erotic terms if he did not rejoice in the physical beauty of his handiwork? God intended us to be as beautiful as this bride, and at the consummation of all things he will restore to us a beauty beyond what even poetry can hint at.
The Song wakened in me a longing I had tried to kill: the longing to be seen and enjoyed as beautiful without being used. I believe this is a God-given longing that all humans are born with, akin to the longing for love. People also woke that longing in me, for while I longed to be beautiful to God, I also wanted that kind of love incarnated in people. I didn't learn to believe in my beauty and feel safe with it just by closeting myself with a Bible; I got there as a handful of people listened to me, grieved with me, shared life with me, and celebrated each time I dared to be beautiful as a woman.
When a coworker whispered, "You look gorgeous!" before we entered a meeting full of strangers, it meant, "I'm on your side. I love you." Her words fed humility and gratitude in me, not pride. She had obeyed the command to "honor one another above yourselves" (Rom. 12:10, NIV), and in doing so, she edified both of us. I learned to take similar compliments from men who had proven themselves faithful friends. I can usually sense when a man's comment reflects a desire to have power over my beauty and when it reflects shared power and shared respect.
I believe we err when we distinguish too sharply between inner and outer beauty. The outer is part of what makes the inner available to others, andthe way we respond to someone's outer person affects that person inside. Parents carry photos of their children because they love the faces as well as the souls. Being loved, and learning to love in return, changed my face and body as it changed my heart. I gained the weight I needed; I learned that clothes, hair, and makeup could be an asset without becoming an addiction; I smiled more. I still have only two colors of lipstick, and I will never, ever learn to use a brush and a blow dryer at the same time— but it doesn't matter. The lipstick and the hairdo are only tools for saying to the world,"Look at me; I'm alive!"
I still have days when I feel ugly, and other days when I leaf lustfully through a fashion catalog. But I keep an eye on my budget, and I happen to spend enough time around people for whom designer fashions are not an option that my pride is kept in check. I am also fortunate to have friends who reinforce humility and generosity.
It is only when we hold physical beauty in high esteem as the handiwork of God that we can fully grieve when people debase it with pride; only when we understand how much our brothers and sisters need to believe in their beauty can we grasp what a crime it is to make them feel ashamed of their inability to pay for the right clothes, or ashamed that God gave them a body shape, bone structure, or skin color that isn't quite good enough; only when we confess that we were never meant to suffer aging and death can we honor youth's glory cleanly and let it go.
Beauty matters. A 1995 study found that 48 percent of American women felt "wholesale displeasure" about their bodies. That is, about half utterly detested their looks, while many more merely disliked their busts or thighs. This self-hatred has spiraled up from 23 percent in 1972 and 38 percent in 1985. Men still lag behind women in self-contempt, but discontent is growing both among middle-aged boomers and young men. These people do not need to be told they are vain. They need to be loved, body and soul, until they can look in the mirror and see the image of God.
God didn't tell Leah to stop whining about losing the man's heart to pretty Rachel. In compassion, "When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren" (Gen. 29:31, NIV). The world is full of people who are undervalued because of the way they look, and when we treat them as though that pain matters, we affirm their value.
I don't have a husband who can get up in front of a roomful of people and say, "She's my glory!" But I am grateful to have a God who says that regularly, often through the words of a friend. I never get tired of hearing it.
Karen Lee-Thorp is a senior editor at NavPress and the author of several books, including Why Beauty Matters (due out this month from NavPress).
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