Personal Spirituality

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).


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)

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.”

Courage, Dear Heart

In one of The Chronicles of Narnia (I think it’s in Prince Caspian), the allegorical God-figure Aslan tells Lucy, “Courage, dear heart.” His words pierce her soul and introduce some sense of bravery to steady her fearful heart.

Those words have been ringing in my heart too. For the past few weeks, my question to God has been (a less eloquent version of), “How?” How can I follow God’s calling for me without being ruled by fear?

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor, based solely on how much fun it was to play “doctor” and to “experiment” on my younger brothers and sister. But when I was in fifth grade, I realized that being a doctor meant giving shots and scalpel-ing people, and all of a sudden I didn’t want to be a doctor. But I loved reading and writing, and my next big idea was to become a journalist. 

Since then, the urge to write has never let go of me. I don’t write because I love it (though most of the time I really enjoy it); I write because I have to. I have ideas deep in my gut (is “heart” the more Christian-y word?) that I can’t wrestle with or let out until I start writing.

I’ve never stopped writing. I’ve started and stopped blogging countless times. But the Lord is graciously blessing my writing in a way that I wonder if maybe he’s leading me to start writing more frequently. 

Saying that, I struggle with the desire to succeed. I want to win, and I tend to define a win with lots of glorious ideas and grandeur. But God isn’t calling me to success–he’s calling me to try. God is not Yoda: trying is not failure in his eyes. Fear of failure and foolishness mark a lot of places in my life, and these twin fears impact my writing (or lack of writing). I’m afraid that I’ll write something dumb and be unhelpful to people. I’m afraid that I’ll write for an audience that doesn’t exist. And I’m afraid that even a year or two from now I’ll be embarrassed about what I write today. I tend to think in the binary of success and failure, when life isn’t limited to those two choices. What could be both excites and frightens me, but I’m comforted to know that God knows both what could be and what actually will be.

A few hours passed between writing the preceding paragraphs and what I write now. In the time that elapsed, I had a long conversation with my best friend. She told me what I needed to hear: that when we follow God’s calling, we cannot fail. I don’t write to satisfy my own desires, but to glorify God by using the gifts he has given me. I have to let go of my understanding of failure in order to believe that whatever God asks of me will succeed on his terms, not mine.

So if I knew that God would not allow me to fail, what would I do? I would write.

My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;
    I address my verses to the king;
    my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
— Psalm 45:1