Bereft of Beauty

We are all beside ourselves these days.  Political partisanship and cultural polarization are normative in our times.  So many are outraged, soaked through and through with self-righteousness and indignation, yet we are all so selective. 


What concerns me is that we appear to be oblivious to one of the most sickening morsels of depravity, which is the growing absence of beauty in our world.  What happened to it?  Where did it go?  Why have we been so blasé in response to its lack?


There is little, if any, beautiful music being written today.  Artistic expression is raw and ugly; offensive even, but definitely not beautiful.  There is a kind of elegance to the face-page of our cell-phones, but I don’t think that this quite counts.  And new architecture is either of the cookie-cutting, utterly unoriginal sort, or it is massive and soul-less – and don’t even cast your eyes upon the hideous stuff that the British erected all around London in the 60s and 70s, as you will be led down the road to irrevocable disgust!


Manner and civility, all expressions of relational beauty, have been flushed down the toilet, which brings to the forefront of my mind the question as to just how effective today’s drive towards so-called “social justice” can actually prosper, given the lack of social beauty that characterizes a societal landscape replete with the odor of self-righteousness, poor manner and lack of civility and personal ill-regard.


The beauty of childhood has been lost.  I recently attended an 8th-grade graduation and, to speak bluntly, this was not your father’s 8th-grade!   I bore witness, not to pubescent children receiving recognition, but to young men and women who struck me as more like high school graduates, at least in terms of their physicality and their dealings with one another.  I was still a kid when I left 8th-grade!  What has happened?


There is no recourse but to look to God.  I don’t know to whom else or to where else I may find beauty.  And my God is beautiful; truly and splendidly.


King David, a man with an eye and an ear and a spirit for beauty, was absolutely besotted with the beauty of God:  “One thing that I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek:  That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek Him in His temple” (Psalm 27.4).


David said that it was the “one thing” for which he asked of God.  It is evident from the psalms that are attributed to him that there were other things for which he asked, but this was the “one thing” in the sense of the primary thing, or the most important thing.  All else was dross without it.  He asked for it and he sought after it.


He wanted to gaze upon God’s beauty but, in order to so gaze, he had to immerse himself in the things of God.  He had to live within the orbit and under the bough and in the shadow of God Himself. 


It must be understood that God is not an abstraction.  You can’t study about Him surrounded by open textbooks at a library table, nor can you pull up files and downloads about Him at a computer console.  He defies and transcends mere knowledge about Him.


And it isn’t a degree that one is pursuing, something that has a start and an end date, with matriculation following a course of study.  David wanted to live in God’s house all the days of his life.  His desire for God was life-long; his appreciation for God’s splendor was insatiable and inexhaustible – well; given the Subject, there is much to be said for a life-time membership in the Club of Divine Aesthetics!


It required some very serious gazing!  God was never background to King David.  There was to be sure; the occasional distraction, each one proving to be quite costly.  But he always allowed for the magnetic draw of the Majestic to restore him to his senses and sanity – and to his devotion to the Beatific Vision, as the medieval philosophers would later describe it.


The neo-Puritan pastor, theologian, philosopher and naturalist Jonathan Edwards of 18th Century New England was comparably enamored of our beautiful Savior, as this extract so “beautifully” illustrates:


“Jesus Christ has true excellence, and so great excellence that when they come to see it, they look no further.  The mind rests there.  It sees a transcendent glory and an ineffable sweetness in him.  It sees that until now, it has been pursuing shadows, but that now it has found then substance.  Before it had been seeking happiness in the stream, but now it has found the ocean.  The excellence of Christ is an object adequate to the natural cravings of the soul and is sufficient to fill the capacity.  It is an infinite excellence – such a one as the mind desires – in which it can find no bounds.  The more the mind is to it, the more excellent it appears.  Every new discovery makes the beauty appear more ravishing, and the mind sees no end.  Here is room enough for the mid to go deeper and deeper and never come to the bottom.  The soul is exceedingly ravished when it first looks on this beauty, and it is never weary of it.  The mind never has any satiety, but Christ’s excellence is always fresh and new and tends as much to delight after it has been seen a thousand or ten thousand years, as when it was seen the first moment.  The excellence of Christ is an object suited to the superior faculties of man:  It is suited to entertain the faculty of reason and understanding, and there is nothing so worthy about which the understanding can be employed as this excellence.  No other object is so great, noble, and exalted!”


(Like David said:  One thing that I ask, this is what I seek … that I may gaze upon the beauty of the Lord …!)


A sense and an appreciation of beauty starts right here, which is why we have become so desensitized to its lack, as we are now living in a world in which God has been systematically removed from the equation of civil and social life.  He is debunked in the classroom, outlawed in the legislative chambers, ruled unconstitutional in the courts – Is it any wonder that our offspring of recent generations are now living in a world of diminishing returns and increased depravity?  They have been raised up in a world that is bereft of God and, therefore, of beauty; as the scripture so bone-chillingly puts it, “they are without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2.12).


God calls us back to Him.  The prodigal son found himself living in the mire with pigs.  The pleasures that were so attractive to him proved baseless and exhaustive, of his resources and of his dignity.  He thought to return to his father who, when he saw his son at a distance, went running to receive and to embrace him, even hosting a huge banquet in honor of his return.  What a truly beautiful moment that must have been!


God calls to us; also:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.28-30).


Rest is refreshing.  It is rejuvenating.  It helps you to see things differently.  It gives you a fresh perspective and an extra spring in your step.  You want to smell afresh the roses rather than the manure.  It is beautiful.


And it will make you a beautiful sight in the eyes of others who are comparably weary and oppressed; too.  English pundit and intellect Malcolm Muggeridge described Mother Theresa as “something beautiful for God,” which was the title of his book about her.  Every Christian is called to be something – better; someone – beautiful for God.


The Apostle Paul wrote that “we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.5, 6).    That same light – “the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ” – is desirous of shining through us.


The world around us needs this light.  Light brings forth beauty.  And beauty comes from God Himself.  Anglican ecclesiastic and scholar N.T. Wright contends that beauty is integral to our witness for Christ and the defense of the Gospel, given that the desire for beauty is integral; primal, even, to human need, especially given its elusive quality:   


“Beauty, like justice, slips through our fingers.  We photograph the sunset, but all we get is the memory of the moment, not the moment itself.  We buy the recording, but the symphony says something different when we listen to it at home.  We climb the mountain, and though the view from the summit is indeed magnificent, it leaves us wanting more; even if we could build a house there and gaze all day at the scene, the itch wouldn’t go away.  Indeed, the beauty sometimes seems to be in the itching itself, the sense of longing, the kind of pleasure which is exquisite and yet leaves us unsatisfied” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, pp 40, 41).


In short:  The longing for beauty abides unabatedly.  Beauty provokes.  Beauty taunts and haunts.  Beauty soothes and refreshes.  Beauty stimulates.  Beauty beckons.  We long for it and are impoverished for want of it.  The Bible says that only God is good; any-and-all goodness finds its source or origin in God:  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1.17).


It can also be said that only God is beautiful.  All beauty comes from Him.  It is why we care called to “Worship God in the splendor of his holiness” (Psalm 96.9).  Worship Him from whom every expression of beauty in this world, even within and expressive of human nature, takes its cue.  Again; Wright:  “Beauty is both something that calls us out of ourselves and something which appeals to feelings deep within us” (p. 44).


Beauty calls us to God, and wishes to be brought forth from within and through us.  Christians:  You are called to be something beautiful for God!  You and I may be the only expression of Christ that others may ever encounter. 


Missionary Lesslie Newbigin articulates that God intended the local assembly of believers to be the Gospel’s ultimate hermeneutic; that is, the local church is likened to a key by which her neighbors may unlock the mystery of, and enter into an understanding of, Jesus Christ and Him crucified – If you will;  we must be an embodied apologetic.


I remember a delightful moment with my lovely grand-daughter, Amber, when she was five-years-of-age.  She went with us to a very lovely in for lunch with a dear friend of Peggy and me.  Amber hadn’t the foggiest clue concerning the charms of country inns but, when we entered and sat down, she declared, “Gee; Pop-Pop, this is a nice place!”


It wasn’t; mind you, the kind of place that would naturally attract a child, but by its nature it elicited her admiration.  God had given Amber an in-bred sense of beauty.


Christianity is not of this world.  No one would have ever come up with it at the human conceptual or creative level.   It bucks against our natural instincts and proclivities.  But someone who is sensitive to his or her condition and need, a person who is “poor in spirit,” and crying out from deep within his or her heart, may happen upon us and instinctively recognize the beauty of God at work in our lives – “Gee; this must be what God is about!”  All things; dear friends, are possible with God!


Give them reason to think.  Let them see the beauty of God’s mercy and grace, of His love and truth, of the splendor of His majesty.  Allow the beauty of Jesus at work in and through you to compel others to come to Christ.  We are encouraged to think upon that which is lovely (Philippians 4.8) – Embody such encouragement!


The world need never be bereft of beauty so long as Christians are gratefully earnest to adorn themselves in the loveliness of Christ – Reflect Him, to the praise of His glory!


Bradley E Lacey

Pastor, First Baptist Church at Conshohocken

President, Philadelphia Bible Society

Host, The Great Message (1210 WPHT Talk Radio)