by Tanner Swanson
Tanner Swanson teaches third and fourth grade and writes regularly at her website. She and her husband, T.J., live in Denver, Colorado.
Nine-year-olds tell it straight. A boy in my morning class once asked me, “Miss, why do you look like you just woke up?” Another day he walked in sighing and clutching his chest. “I’m just so glad you aren’t wearing a wig again today!” The wig? My new bangs, hidden behind a headband.
Unlike adults, most kids don’t have a category for off-limit topics regarding appearance. While most adults would cry conversational foul play, bad haircuts, weight gain, and receding hairlines are all fair game for fourth graders. Why do kids feel free to describe beauty in both its presence and its absence?
At least in part, kids talk about appearance because, in their eyes, it’s just that. When students tell me how I look, that’s exactly what they’re doing — telling me how I look. They make no claims about who I am. If my ponytail looks “super weird today,” they say so — because my hairstyle does not undermine my identity as their beloved teacher.
Too often, however, we invest physical beauty with far more significance. We treat beauty as a means to self-worth: how we look is who we are. But if we would only gaze upon God’s word with the eyes of a child, we might unlatch beauty from its worldly contortions and fasten it instead to the God who is Beauty himself.
Beauty by the WorldLeft to our own devices, we define beauty a lot like the Evil Queen. We stand enraptured before the mirror, waiting for it to tell us how our appearance measures up to others across the land. In sin-twisted kingdoms, to be beautiful is to be attractive to as many human eyes as possible.
“We age, and lose it. Generations pass, and alter it. Staying beautiful is flat-out exhausting (and expensive).”
But beneath those eyes lie hearts whose visual appetite is insatiable. They flit from post to post, screen to screen, trend to trend — idol to idol — waiting to be satisfied. Nothing will do. That’s why an attractive-and-therefore-beautiful appearance, both as a personal possession and cultural definition, expires. We age, and lose it. Generations pass, and alter it. Staying beautiful is flat-out exhausting (and expensive).
While describing my teenage years to a group of girls, I mentioned how “thin and lanky” I was. They looked at me in horror. Cutting me off, one student exclaimed, “Miss, you are not thin! You’re perfect.” The other girls agreed. “Yeah, miss! Don’t say that. You are notthin. You’re beautiful.” Their words struck me silent. The teenage me had lived in a world where beauty required thinness; in their world, beauty required notthinness. I heard in their words not a compliment, but a truth claim: worldly beauty is fickle.
God warned us. Thousands of years ago, he said, “Beauty is vain” (Proverbs 31:30) — or according to some translations, “fleeting” (NIV). The adjective’s literal meaning packs the greatest punch, as the Hebrew word heḇel denotes “breath.” From the perspective of an eternal God, beauty vanishes with the rise and fall of a chest. If we put our hope in beauty, it will betray us — and quickly.
Does that mean God wants Christian women to toss out the mascara and throw in the washcloth? No makeup, no dyed hair, no new clothes, no gym membership — nothing? Shall we consign ourselves to a life of bedhead, wigs, and super weird ponytails? These aren’t bad questions, but they are the wrong ones. Instead we should ask, How does God’s definition of beauty change our pursuit of beauty?
Beauty from GodIn God’s economy, beauty does not fret over itself, or talk about itself, or make purchases for itself, or dawdle over pictures of itself. For God-defined beauty cannot be seen in a mirror. Rather, it pulses: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Beauty flows from a heart that beats with moral goodness — love for, delight in, and submission to God (Acts 13:22).
Unlike our pursuit of physical beauty, we cannot fret, talk, purchase, or edit our way to heart-level beauty. The Beauty — with a capital B — for which we ought to exert the most energy, the Beauty on which we ought to spend the most time and resources, is one we cannot powder onto our faces. It is a Person we must pursue.
This Person is Jesus, the only man whose heart sought God perfectly for a lifetime. In him we find, and from him we receive, true Beauty. And it is not the beauty of appearance:
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:2–3)
Rather, it is the Beauty that loves and sacrifices itself for others, in which God delights:
He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
This is the Beauty that does not perish upon makeup removal or spoil from one trend to the next. It is the Beauty that endures with laughter the aging process and the innocent comments of children (Proverbs 31:25). For regardless of appearance, its identity is secure: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Beauty as Possession and PursuitDear women: If we call the beloved Son “Savior” and “Lord” (Romans 10:9), we possess this Beauty forevermore. For in God’s sight we have been clothed for all time with Christ’s sacrificial love (Galatians 2:20). There is no need to fuss over becoming and staying beautiful on this earth. Christ is eternal Beauty Himself — and our lives are hidden in him (Colossians 3:3).
We still labor for beauty — but not now for the beauty of appearance. If we possess Beauty in Christ, we will pursue the Beauty of Christ. We will strive, as those who are free from the world’s fickle fashions, to emulate an everlasting Beauty — to live as if God’s glory is real, precious, and worth pursuing, now and always.
Becoming more like-hearted to God’s beloved Son will never go out of vogue. We can exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of Christ’s Beauty, sure that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). When the day ends, we will not crawl into bed with less money and more products. We will drift off radiating God’s Beauty in Christ, satisfied.
Beauty as a MeansAs Beauty becomes ours ever more in Christ, beauty — with a lowercase b — will take its rightful place as a God-given, God-exalting gift. God cares about visual beauty because, well, he makes and sustains its every expression. He made us in his image, to image him. For our part, we humbly, happily use what he has made to exalt him who made it (Colossians 1:16).
“If we don’t watch ourselves, we will end up only watching ourselves.”
As with any morally neutral hobby, we seek to use earthly beauty to illumine heavenly realities. As we dab at our faces in the morning hours, we can wonder at the way God paints the sky (Psalm 19:1). We can adopt new styles with hearts enthralled by the God who has provided us with an imperishable garment — the righteousness of Christ (Isaiah 61:10). We can enjoy beauty without self-obsession when we seek to enjoy its Fount.
I’m not saying we have to pair Scripture and meditation to all our beautifying. Many activities whirl past us unexamined. But we all can agree that beauty — like many other endeavors, such as athletics or a career — has great capacity to be self-centered. If we don’t watch ourselves, we will end up only watching ourselves.
As my students discover lip gloss and T-shirt dresses, I pray they learn to use beauty as a means to enjoy and exalt God rather than self. I hope they know the beauty with which God already has created them and the Beauty to which he beckons them. Even so, they cannot learn what Christian women neither understand for themselves nor model for others. Let’s see beauty for what it is, as we lay hold of Beauty for who he is.