Beauty Is Not in the Eye of the Beholder

I just finished a class on the theology of Augustine, so if my posts become Augustine-infested for a while, consider this your fair warning.

Studying Augustine’s work, specifically Confessions, renewed my desire to learn and shocked my brain into working harder than ever. His understanding and application of order and beauty is part of why I chose "beauty" as my word of the year (though I feel cheesy saying it). 

I always valued things according to their truth or usefulness—nothing else. Is it utilitarian? That’s all I wanted. But now, having seen through the eyes of Augustine, I realize the inadequacy of the label “useful.” Augustine writes a lot about beauty in Confessions, but the structure upon which his doctrine of beauty is built exists in everything else we read for this class.

Augustine’s theory of beauty is what brings order and elegance to his understanding of the Trinity and what helps him to clearly describe the City of God in comparison to the city of man. Augustine wants his readers—long-time believers and brand new ones—to see that God’s designed order is beautiful and bestows beauty on all that submits to God’s order out of love and humility.

When our lives are rightly ordered in relation to God, they are beautiful. When creation works like it should, it is beautiful. "Consider the lilies of the field... they neither toil nor spin," Jesus says in Matthew 6:28. God made flowers beautiful, and when they are planted and cultivated correctly, when the rain is just right, those flowers are exactly what they should be. 

Beauty is not an object—it is a value. Augustine sees distinct similarities between goodness and beauty. God pronounced all things good at creation, and sin marred the goodness and beauty God designed. According to Augustine, evil is not an actual substance, but creation disordered (or anti-beauty). Sin is envy and lust for what we do not have; it's using people to get what we want; it's loving ourselves more than God. This is the root of evil—that we cannot achieve God's good design because we cannot submit to him as we ought, unless Beauty himself opens our eyes and hearts to greater realities which don't revolve around us.

So now, having been convinced of the necessity of beauty as a reflection of God, I’m now asking myself these questions: how do I observe and experience beauty each day? How is that beauty a reflection of God's beauty? How can I learn to value beauty the way God does?

My Word for 2017

I’ve never picked a theme word for the year. I don’t have a problem with it; it’s just never been my thing. Nor do I typically make resolutions. Only in the last few years have I begun working through a list of questions to help me pray and plan for the coming year.

When I sat down to work through my yearly questions, I discovered that I’m all dreamed out. I have great goals and ambitions on which I am praying and trusting God, but I can’t dream any further without taking action. I decided to move on, knowing that I can come back to the list later.

But it turns out that I have a word for this year. It came seemingly out of nowhere (but really we know that things that come out of nowhere often are a result of the Spirit’s leading).

Beauty.

For the last month or two, I’ve been really considering beauty—where it comes from, what its purpose is, and what we should do with it. I’m not sure what brought the idea of “beauty” to my mind (I’m sure it was some book I read), but I haven’t been able to shake the idea.

Until now, I valued things for their reality (or truth or tangibility, just not fake) and usefulness. Reality and usefulness were requirements for everything: for my time, work, books, music, even for hobbies. Beauty was not only optional, but was untrustworthy. The well-known verse from Proverbs 31 comes to mind: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…” Beauty was a veneer that either blurred the truth or hid its own deficit.

But I’m beginning to see what I’ve been missing. Our expressions of beauty are a reflection of the source of beauty. Beauty is a person, just as truth is a person. Beauty has a purpose, just like light has a purpose. Beauty is meant to be seen, acknowledged, experienced, and enjoyed in its fullness.

But as it turns out, I don’t care about beauty like I should. Things that are beautiful don’t give me pleasure and cause me to delight in God, the source of all beauty. I don’t experience the beauty of things, at least not in the way God intends for us to enjoy him. I don’t often glimpse the beauty in the stories he writes. Beauty is not an end in itself, but a lens through which we see the world as it should be.

Looking through beauty-correcting lenses means asking, “Is this beautiful? What about it is beautiful? How is this beauty a reflection of God’s beauty? How can I experience and enjoy this beauty as a foretaste of what I will experience fully with God?”

May we be captivated by God’s beauty as we notice his fingerprints over all of creation!

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

How often, when you’re singing a hymn, does the weight and beauty of a song land on you? How often do you realize what you’re singing is a testimony of the Lord’s work in your life and in the lives of those around you?

I remember one Sunday when we sang this line at church: “Morning by morning new mercies I see.” How often do we notice God’s mercy in our lives? When we sing, “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided,” do we acknowledge and thank God for that truth?

Thanksgiving is a day set aside for us to think and talk about what we’re thankful for. We tend to list things like health, family, friends, needs that have been met, jobs, and so on. But do we recognize God’s providing hand in those things? And even more, do we thank him, not only for the gifts he gives us, but for simply who he is?

If we depend on God’s faithfulness to us (and we do), let's thank him for it. If we depend on his provision or salvation, thank him! If we need the grace he gives, thank him for being the God who freely gives grace to his children. If we need something to hold on to in the midst of a rapidly changing, tumultuous world, thank him for being the rock on which we stand.

As I sang this song that Sunday morning, I recalled a thought I’d had the day before: there are a million ways and a million times my life could have gone differently, and I’m thankful for the life I have right now. Even as I write this, I’m shocked that it’s true: God has so richly blessed me that I wouldn’t change a thing. God’s mercy has placed me where I am, and I see that mercy freshly today.

As we near Thanksgiving, we often talk and think about what we’re thankful for. We are thankful for things like health, family, friends, needs that have been met, and so on. I find that I often take God’s faithfulness for granted. But what if, instead of thanking God for what he has done, we first thank him for who he is?

Great Is Thy Faithfulness

(Lyrics by Thomas Chisholm, music by William Runyan)

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not,
As Thou has been, Thou forever will be.

Chorus:
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided –
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

(Chorus)

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

(Chorus)

We're Citizens of a Better Country

Political unrest somehow fuels a kind of fear unlike any other. Every four years (sometimes more or less), our country faces a struggle within itself as different political factions vie for the privilege of serving as president of the United States. Our collective unrest is growing toward a crescendo on November 8, when we will learn who will lead our country for the next four years.

Everyone has an opinion on what’s going to happen, and whether our lives will be better or worse because of it. Depending on who you talk to, the end is nigh—stock up on bottled water and spam while you can. Politics is important, but it is a small thing to a Creator who can turn a king’s heart as easily as he can turn a stream (Proverbs 21:1).

God is still reigning

But here’s the truth: no matter who our president is, he or she cannot sustain our country, not even for a second. God establishes and removes leaders (Colossians 1:16-17, Daniel 2:37). He tosses his head back to laugh at anyone who thinks they have power that he doesn’t (Psalm 2). Moment by moment he upholds the entire universe (Hebrews 1:3). The God who created the world and everything in it doesn’t depend on us to vote in the “right” leader (Acts 17:24-25). We are citizens of the United States, yes, and as such, we have the right and privilege of voting, but even more than that, we are citizens of a better kingdom, in which God rules as a good, perfect king (Hebrews 11:13-16, Philippians 3:20, Ephesians 2:19-20). 

Our current political climate exposes political idolatry in which we’re prouder to be Americans than we are to be called children of God. When our primary allegiance is to a nation—which, remember, has only existed for 240 years—we misplace our hope, thereby missing out on a better kingdom in which God reigns forever in perfect love and perfect justice (Revelation 1:4-6).

God is not surprised

God knows each day of our lives–not one escapes his notice and involvement. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t hear the praises and cries of his children. Never once in all of history has God been surprised at anything that has occurred. 

But every day is a brand new day to us. We wake up without knowing what a day holds. Sure, we keep calendars and planners, but the God who numbers the hairs on our heads ordains everything (Matthew 10:26-31). 

The God who knows what has been, what is, and what will come is the God that we trust (Revelation 1:8). “In God we trust” is printed on our currency, and it’s our only hope for Election Day and Inauguration Day and every other day. God’s plan for the world cannot be thwarted by such a small thing as an election (Isaiah 46:8-10).

While we’re surprised and often fearful, we can find peace in the midst of turmoil knowing that God will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5-6). Thanks to the Holy Spirit, we can live without fear of tomorrow (John 14:16-17, 26-27). 

Our mission doesn’t change

For thousands of years, the people of God have had one mission: to proclaim the excellencies of God to those who do not know him (1 Peter 2:9-10). We are called to make disciples in all the world (Matthew 28:28-30), regardless of who takes the presidential oath in January. 

The mission of God transcends political agendas and party platforms. Politicians change. Public opinions change. God remains the same (Hebrews 13:8), and he calls his people to live with a heart on mission in a world that’s lost in the darkness of sin. The same God who cares for us is rescuing a people for himself, from every nation, tribe, and tongue throughout the world.

We are united by something stronger than a candidate

The biggest loss for the church in our political climate is if we try to figure out whether people are with us or against us based on how they voted. What’s beginning to look like frayed friendships and disunity now could grow into division unless we remember our unity in Christ. A year from now, when the election and inauguration have come and gone, when the dust has settled on the most contentious and ridiculous election of our lifetimes, will you still be friends with people who voted differently from you? 

Voting is good. Taking a stand against abortion, misogyny, racism, and abuse is good. But we must do so knowing that the kingdom of God isn’t pro-Trump or pro-Clinton. It’s pro-Jesus, whose work in the world is accomplished by his Spirit using his people, regardless of who serves as president.

As such, we must work to maintain love and unity in the church and in our friendships (Romans 12:16-18, Romans 15:5-6). God is writing each of our stories differently. The things that are most important to me may not be most important to you, and that’s fine. But no matter what happens on November 8, we must remember that because of Jesus, we have more in common than we have differences (Ephesians 4:1-7). Because of Jesus, we can truly love one another (Ephesians 5:2, 1 Timothy 1:5), we can think of each other more highly than ourselves (Romans 12:3), and we can seek the good of one another rather than seeking the pride of being right.

So on November 8, vote (or don’t—whatever gives you a clean conscience) and trust God, knowing that he won’t be surprised by the outcome, and his plans cannot be thwarted by a politician. Regardless of who serves as our 45th President, we have God, we have each other, and we have a job to do. 

The Best Way Out Is Always Through

Robert Frost wrote in his poem “A Servant to Servants” in 1915:

He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through…

The life of faith is one plodding footstep after another. John Piper writes often of the winding road of faith in Christ, plodding along. “Plodding” is a good word for it — the mundane one step after another, the frustrating feeling of another winding curve, the marathon rather than the sprint.

However, we often pray as if we’re asking God to airlift us out of our circumstances and gently stork-drop us in a perfect, beautiful place where we feel like all our hardship and suffering is part of a bigger story. We pray like this because we feel useless or directionless or like our everyday living and working and existing is all we have. How many boring Mondays can we take when we’re supposed to be living on God’s grand mission?

Consider a few of the great epic stories of the last hundred years: The Chronicles of NarniaThe Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. Each of these series required a thousand small steps before the next big thing, and a million more steps before the final battle. How many steps did Frodo take on the way to destroy the Ring? (If only FitBits existed in Middle-Earth… though I’m sure Tolkien would have hated it.) How many classes with Snape did Harry have to sit through? How many normal days passed in Narnia?

The epic journey is accomplished in a million regular steps. Sore feet, sore legs, and weary hearts pursuing a goal ultimately reach their destination.

We, too, plod along. We go to work, school, church. We frequent the same places, eat the same food, read the same Bible. We want quick solutions and fear monotony, so a long journey gets old quickly.

As Christians, we long to be in a perfect place in the presence of our perfect God in heaven, but to get there, we take one step at a time. How do we make sense of our big hope which seems to conflict with the nothing-special days between now and the day we’re with God?

Think of all the times that God calls his people “through” instead of “to.” Isaiah 43, for example: “…when you pass through the waters… and through the rivers… when you walk through fire.” Or Psalm 77:19, “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”

Consider Jesus: he came into the world and lived like us for around 33 years. Jesus’ life is evidence of living through. Thirty-three years of life is not a quick in-and-out trip to atone for sin.Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus “endured the cross, despising its shame” because of “the joy set before him.” Jesus lived knowing that he would face the cross, but that the cross would result in the Father’s glory, restored relationship with beloved sinners, and the day when we will be with him.

We too have a joy set before us. God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and he’s told us a little bit about what will happen when he restores all things. But what he’s given us in Scripture is encouragement for our plodding steps, not a quick one-way ticket out of a sin-stained world. Knowing that God will win and restore our brokenness gives us hope for the journey through the tempestuous waters and the raging fires that we face. Knowing that God “will never leave us or forsake us” (Hebrews 11:5) gives us courage through a lifetime of Mondays.

To me, this means that when I feel like I’m going nowhere, that I’ve wasted days because I haven’t done enough, I’m actually doing the faithful work of plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other as I follow Jesus. God has called me to a lifetime of days and weeks and months, not just the big, important things. I walk by faith through mundane days and weeks and months because the destination is worth it.

The joy of being with God is before us, and while it feels like we’re stuck in a broken world, “The best way out is always through.”