Beauty has increasingly become a stranger to many of us.
As urgent matters consume our time and attention, we begin regarding beauty as the spice of life and not so much as the substance of it. But when we lose beauty in our daily experience, we lose much more than a little spice. We lose the quality of relationship we are meant to have with our Creator and with each other.
Indeed, it is through the appreciation of beauty that we come to know God better, and it is through the expression of beauty that we embrace (and can better witness to) others.
What Is It?
“You know it when you see it!” That’s often the response I get when I ask someone to define beauty. Beauty can be so many things: physical, emotional, conceptual. It can be found in a sunset or a mathematical equation. It can express symmetry and harmony or contrast and randomness. It can calm a person’s spirit as well as energize creative response. Almost anything, it seems, can be considered “beautiful.”
Interestingly, this all-inclusive potential in beauty echoes Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Beauty encompasses the whole of what God is creating, both around and within each one of us. Beauty is not just something we see, but something we are.
In fact, what is beautiful in every individual (or potentially can be) is the Spirit of God. God reveals aspects of himself through individuals and each of us uniquely manifests an aspect of God to others. That brings unity to and draws effective witness from the body of Christ (John 17).
The very diversity we see in the world around us—but particularly throughout humankind—is something we can and should treasure. People who are different from me help to expand and complete my appreciation of the fullness of God.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is the other common response someone will give when asked to define beauty. True, beauty is somewhat a subjective matter. My taste and your taste for what resonates with us individually are uniquely different. For example, there are many pieces in the Art Institute of Chicago that I simply do not appreciate—though many people do. I experience beauty more readily in large vistas, while others are thrilled by the detail of leaf structures.
Beyond art and nature, we experience beauty in literature, events, relationships, and even outcomes of projects. It seems, then, that we can define beauty by the effect it has on a viewer: a sense that “something worked” to stimulate the person’s mind and/or emotions with feelings of success or gratification.
The difficulty in defining beauty leads us to appreciate how an artist’s work can give life and authenticity to the longing that many of us feel but have difficulty expressing. Something we discover to be beautiful completes and complements the spirit within us. What we view as beautiful, then, can also be evidence of the nature of our character, spirit, and heart.
A Christian Practice
So is it possible to define beauty? Technically, yes—a dictionary certainly does so. But a dictionary definition does not necessarily include all that beauty encompasses.
Beauty, as we noted above, is revealed and understood by both what it is and by what it does—not unlike God. Beauty does not have to be known (totally defined) before it can be appreciated. Beauty creates a deep resonance within each of us that lifts us to a fuller experience of the world around us and the world within us.
As a Christian, I wonder if my definition of beauty should be “that which draws me closer to God and to others.” If that definition is accurate, then beauty is something we should actively pursue; we would be wrong to ignore it.
You may sense a certain utilitarian twist on this perspective of beauty. I do not mean to say that something beautiful cannot be appreciated for its own sake. If something beautiful does nothing more than make me feel good inside, I see nothing wrong with that—dark chocolate makes for a beautiful eating experience.
But that perspective opens the door to regarding beauty as optional or as an ancillary experience in life. We can easily discount the value of beauty when we conceive of it only as a personal experience.
The pursuit of beauty should be, needs to be, seen as a relational experience. To be touched by beauty is to be drawn into a relationship. I believe this experience of beauty is essential in coming to know and love God on a deeper level. We need to experience the beauty of the relationship between Christ and his church that we see expressed in the Song of Songs. We need to discover the intimate, meaningful relationship God wants to have with us.
Beauty is also what builds relationship with others and, we pray, brings them further into relationship with Christ. For example, I find extraordinary beauty in the relationship between faith and science. It’s a joy to share a perspective with others that expands their appreciation of the Creator when they see the extraordinary detail, harmony, and grandeur of God’s creation.
I also enjoy creating spiritually interpretive wood carvings that some find beautiful and meaningful enough to sense something of a spiritual resonance. I’m sure you bring beauty into the lives of others in different ways. In your carpentry, gardening, hospitality, service, creativity, generosity, or discoveries in nature, you can enhance appreciation for the Ultimate Carpenter, Gardener, Host, Server, Creator, Giver, and Revealer.
For Christians, especially those of us of the Reformed persuasion, this pursuit is not optional—it is the very essence of reclaiming “every square inch” of God’s creation for the sake of Christ.
This calling envelops creation itself, systems of government and justice, being a neighbor to those in need, and, most certainly, matters of repentance and salvation. Because we are God’s chosen in Christ, we are this beauty in the world! We are the aroma (what beautiful fragrance!). We are the light (what beautiful illumination!). We are the salt (what beautiful flavor!). We are the neighbor (what beautiful friendship!).
We need to embrace the beauty we are to the perishing, to the needy, to those without hope. Isaiah 52:7 states, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”
Beauty calls us out of our own world into a more altruistic one. It kindles our awareness or affirmation that there can be harmony, glory, beneficent inspiration, deeper truth, and a more powerful and purposeful meaning to life.
Beauty connects us with something deeper and more personal. Through it we experience a more profound sense of connection in this world, especially with God. For if we acknowledge God as the Creator, we see the beauty of God through what God creates.
Just think: God gives us the experience of his beauty now so that we might have a taste of what it will be like then. God also gives us the gift of bringing beauty back into his world now to soften it, to witness to him, to bring respite from evil, and to inspire hope.