Outside a US congressman’s office, Christians holding homemade protest signs and clergy dressed in their robes and collars attend a march to challenge the separation of families seeking asylum at the US–Mexico border. They join in impassioned chants of “Keep the kids, deport the racists!” and “Lock them up!” referring to those who work for the US Border Patrol. In protesting the dehumanizing ugliness of children being separated from their parents they dehumanize others in return, calling for their rights to be taken away and their freedoms restricted.
Inside the offices of a Christian nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants, volunteers from a local church assist young immigrants with their DACA applications. These young men and women came to the US with their families when they were children and now find themselves undocumented, unable to live, work, or attend college in the US without the threat of deportation. The volunteers chat with the eager immigrants over donuts and coffee as they navigate the complex paperwork that will allow them to legally remain in their communities.
While the Christians in both these scenarios may believe very similar things about immigration, they have chosen to live out their convictions in dramatically different ways. But what makes us immediately recognize them as distinct from one another? I would suggest that the Christians in the second example are reflecting God’s beauty in the way they live out their beliefs about immigration. I believe that while God expects the content of our beliefs to be righteous, he also wants the form of our faith to be beautiful. Today, I’m using immigration as an example of how we can critically assess our beliefs and ask ourselves if they are displaying God’s beauty in the world, but the framework I propose could apply to any number of convictions held by Christians, even beliefs on which we might disagree.
The Beauty of the Lord
Before we can ask if our beliefs are reflecting God’s beauty, we have to understand what God’s beauty is, and why we as Christians should make it our goal to reflect it in our convictions at all. Jonathan King, a professor of theology and the author of The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics, explains that “beauty is inherent to God, and it’s reflected in everything that he does.” The psalmists write songs of praise about God’s beauty. David’s only request in Psalm 27:4 is to “gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” Isaiah says that the reward for the righteous will be to see God in his beauty (33:17). Pastor and author John Piper understands God’s beauty as “the peculiar proportionality and interplay and harmony of all God’s attributes.” In other words, beauty encompasses the perfect way in which God’s attributes work together, even when they seem paradoxical. Attributes like God’s justice and mercy, goodness and truth, holiness and compassion exhibit a symmetry and perfection that sets him apart from us.
Biblically and historically, God’s beauty has also been closely tied to God’s glory. Hundreds of times in Scripture, the biblical authors use the word “glory” to refer to God’s overwhelming worthiness and beauty and to communicate that God is set apart from every other being in the universe. God’s aim from Genesis to Revelation is to make his unique glory and beauty known throughout the entire world. Psalm 96:3 instructs those who follow God to “declare his glory among the nations,” and John makes the foundational claim of Christianity that in Jesus God “became flesh” and revealed his glory to us (John 1:14). King calls God’s beauty the “outward expression of his glory” that is “expressed and perceivable as an aesthetic quality of his glory in his work of creation, redemption, and consummation.” God’s salvific action in the world is not just effective; it is also beautiful.
Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century American preacher, wrote extensively about God’s beauty. He believed that when Christians are saved, God opens our eyes to see his beauty in a way we could not before and causes our hearts “to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the Divine nature.” King builds on this understanding by suggesting that reflecting God’s beauty in the world is an essential part of what it means for Christians to imitate Jesus and follow his example. When we consider all this together, God’s beauty can be defined as the unique relationship between his attributes by which he accomplishes his work in the world and reveals his glory. But why does it matter that our beliefs and the actions they inspire reflect God’s beauty?
Beautiful Belief in Practice
By measuring our beliefs and convictions by the standard of God’s beauty, we can ensure that our actions reflect God’s true character instead of just one aspect of it. While the Christians chanting “Keep the kids, deport the racists!” may be wanting to communicate God’s grief and anger over the separation of immigrant families, they are failing to reflect his love for all people. Even if they are successful in shedding light on the horrors of taking immigrant children away from their parents, they are doing so in a way that blinds the world to God’s attributes of grace, mercy, and compassion.
In contrast, the church members who are serving young immigrants through legal assistance are able to reflect the symmetry and perfection of God’s character as they demonstrate God’s love for immigrants while also embodying respect for the laws of government. As they make it their goal to live out their convictions about immigration under the sheen of Christ’s beauty, the Holy Spirit empowers them to express their love from the place of tension that exists between God’s abiding holiness and endless grace.
It’s important to clarify that the shortcoming of the immigration protest is not that it is impersonal while the second example is individualized and particular. There are many beautiful things that are impersonal. Nature cannot audibly and individually speak to us, and yet we recognize it as a declaration of God’s glory and a reflection of his beauty.
The choice between our two examples is also not about pragmatism. Though the second example may seem likely to accomplish more good than the first, seeking to reflect God’s beauty as we live out our beliefs is not primarily about utility. We are each created in God’s glorious and beautiful image, so of course people will be drawn to those who mirror their Creator’s beauty in the world, but we should not pursue beautiful beliefs because they are pragmatic. What makes beautiful beliefs so valuable is the fact that they reflect God’s perfect character and its juxtaposition to everything that is not beautiful, regardless of whether they are always effective in attracting others to follow him. Seeking to manifest God’s beauty in our convictions is faithful, even if it is not always fruitful.
Jesus as Our Example
In Jesus, we encounter a perfect model for living out our convictions from within the brilliance of God’s beauty. Just after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus again predicts his imminent death to his disciples. He explains that a grain of wheat has to be buried in the ground and die so that it can reproduce. Then he offers up a spontaneous and urgent plea: “Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:28). Pastor and author Eugene Peterson, in an assessment of Jesus’s prayer, recognizes that the “roots of glory are in death and burial.”
If we want our beliefs to display God’s beauty and bring him glory, death is necessary. We have to die to our preconceived notions and assumptions about how we should live out our convictions in the world. We have to die to our fear of judgment from other Christians for being “too soft.” We have to die to our need to be right and show how everyone else is wrong. We have to die to our desire to be recognized for what we believe (whether we want to be recognized as separate from the world and “radical” or in touch with modern-day moral standards). For our convictions to reveal the unparalleled beauty and glory of God, we must follow the example of Jesus, who in his life and death perfectly modeled beautiful belief.
Month after month, volunteers from the local church in our opening example faithfully offer their time to walk young undocumented immigrants through the labyrinth of complicated paperwork necessary to secure legal work permits and driver’s licenses so that they can pursue their American dreams. In another mid-size American town, a local pastor is convicted that he needs to teach his congregation what the Bible says about immigrants and disciple them to love them well. When their state’s governor announces that they are refusing to resettle Syrian refugees in their state, dozens of church congregants attend a protest with Bible verses about loving and welcoming immigrants handwritten on their signs. Members of the congregation also call the governor’s office to explain why they believe their faith compels them to welcome the stranger, and their pastor joins a group of other faith leaders to meet with the governor in person. Instead of giving into the temptation to dehumanize those who are opposed to welcoming refugees they develop practices of protest and advocacy that reflect God’s beauty.
Christians from both communities join God in his grief over the marginalization of immigrants in their country and the unjust laws and policies that cater to fear instead of encouraging faith. Christians from both towns rejoice when their advocacy and service can help vulnerable immigrants find belonging and safety in their communities. Their actions sometimes fail to bring about the effect they hope and pray for, but because they have committed to faithfully mirroring God’s beauty as they live out their convictions, they know that regardless of the individual results, their actions will continue to live on as worship.
God cares both about what we believe and how we live out our beliefs in the world. I believe he wants our convictions to be shaped by creativity and our deepest-held beliefs to be dumbfoundingly beautiful. A good way for us to begin thinking about how to reflect God’s beauty in our beliefs is to examine our convictions, especially those about controversial issues, and ask ourselves if the way we talk about them and act on them primarily emphasizes a single aspect of God’s character. Has our passion for God’s truth blinded us to his goodness? Has our zeal for God’s justice caused us to lose sight of his grace and mercy? Has our focus on God’s compassion led us to downplay his holiness? Once we have identified any deficiencies, we can work to reintroduce those missing features of God’s character into our speech and our actions as we cultivate beautiful belief.
We all hold different convictions, so my goal is not to tell you what to believe. My prayer is simply that no matter what our moral, political or theological views, we would undertake with our whole hearts and with Christ’s help to reflect God’s beauty in the way we live them out. Is there a conviction you have that needs to be fired in the kiln of God’s beautiful character? I can’t promise you it will be painless, but I can assure you it will be worth it. Becoming more like Jesus always is.
Tabitha McDuffee is a writer and student living in Southern California. She blogs at TabithaMcDuffee.com and is completing her master’s degree in refugee protection and forced migration studies from the University of London.