The Reason Why God Is the Beauty We All Seek

 Photo by  Matthew Henry  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Humans gravitate toward the beautiful, and they find all kinds of ways to enjoy, create, and even market beauty. Take a look at magazine covers, popular Instagram accounts, travel blogs, art exhibits and performances, craft websites, or famous tourist spots around the world, and you are likely to find one thing in common: beauty. The fashion and beauty industries generate billions of dollars of revenue each year for a very good reason: we not only want beauty in our lives, but we also want to be beautiful.

God loves beauty. As Thomas Aquinas asserts, God “is beauty itself”![1] St. Anselm argues that “God must be the supreme beauty for the same reasons that He must be justice and other such qualities.”[2] As the contemporary theologian Michael Horton so aptly states in his book The Christian Faith, “God would not be God if he did not possess all his attributes in the simplicity and perfection of his essence.”[3] The reason why we gravitate toward beauty is because God created us in his image.

God Created Humans to Enjoy Beauty

It’s not only okay to enjoy beauty and seek it for ourselves, but it’s also what God created us to do. God has given us beauty throughout nature with majestic mountains, enchanting valleys, vast oceans, white sandy beaches that seem to stretch forever, quiet estuaries, and mighty rivers that carry themselves for thousands of miles. We also find tremendous beauty in the great variety of creatures God made to inhabit the earth, but the most magnificent creatures of all are humans.

On the entire earth, you will find no two people who are exactly alike—even identical twins. The breadth of God’s creation is overwhelming when we pause to consider the many kinds of matter we find in the universe. This is one reason we are so enthralled with viewing creation and photographing it: we want to hold on to this tremendous beauty, at least for a moment in time, and archive it so we can remember it in the future.

We also find beauty in this world beyond the visually aesthetic. If you have ever observed someone reaching out to help a person in distress due to illness, calamity, or violence, you are witnessing beauty. I recently heard about a man who took in his 90-year-old neighbor with cancer. She had no one to care for her and needed round-the-clock care, so this kind man stepped up to the plate. He could have looked the other way and expected someone else to care for the woman. After all, she wasn’t this man’s responsibility—or was she?

While driving home one day, I was waiting at a stop sign and saw a woman pushing a disabled young man in a wheel chair. It was raining, and the woman had to push the wheel chair while holding an umbrella over the young man’s head. I felt both sadness and a sense of awe as I watched the pair cross the street. There is something about these selfless acts of kindness that touches our souls deeply. This is beauty in action—when we observe it, we sense that we are viewing something greater than ourselves. It is almost as though we are standing near holy ground.

Yet, even though we recognize beauty when we see or experience it, what exactly is beauty and why do we yearn for it so much? Why does beauty seem so elusive? We desperately try to hold on to the beauty we find in our relationships—but they often become marred over time. The beauty of our youth slips away from us—no matter how hard we try to hold on to it with exercise, healthy eating, good habits, or even buying it with plastic surgery or the latest fashions. What exactly are we desiring when we seek after beauty?

Defining Beauty

In the Bible, two Greek words are translated as meaning “good” in English versions, one being agathos, and the other being kalos. We find the word kalos in 1 Peter 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable (kalos), so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good (kalos) deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literaturedefines kalos (καλός) as follows: “to meet high standards or expectations of appearance, kind, or quality.”[4] Kalos can pertain “to being attractive in outward appearance” (Luke 21:5), or it can pertain to something or someone that is either physically “free from defects, fine, precious,” or of moral quality, being “good, noble, praiseworthy, contributing to salvation, etc.”[5]

In his commentary on 1 Peter, biblical scholar Daniel M. Doriani makes three key observations about 1 Peter 2:12, particularly in regard to the word kalos: the apostle expects Christians to live among non-Christians; Christians would be persecuted and falsely accused of wrongdoing; and the response to this slander is to live in such a way that any accusations would be heartily disproven.[6] Regarding the last point, Doriani states,

Third, however, the believer must live so well that the pagan can make no valid accusations. An excellent life shines as an alternative to pagan ways. The antidote is (literally) a beautifulway of life. The Greek behind the phrase “live such good lives” in 1 Peter 2:12 [NIV] is literally “having a beautiful lifestyle.” Peter’s term for good (kalos) typically means “beautiful” or “attractive,” rather than “morally good” (for moral goodness, the New Testament typically uses agathos). And his word for lifeis not the common biosor zōebut anastrophē, which denotes a way of life. The Christian life entails more than law-keeping. It is a way of life, a style that slowly attracts people to its beauty.[7]

The very fact that Peter finds it necessary to remind Christians that they need to conduct themselves in a manner that displays their “kalon” deeds is evidence that Christians can certainly be remiss in their duties as adopted heirs in Christ. While this beautiful life comes through union with Christ, believers need to strive to grow in holiness:

Jesus points out that this lifestyle is the result of our union with him. The life he gives becomes “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14; cf. John 15). Paul says that these changes are also the fruit of the Spirit. According to Peter, a beautiful life is also the result of our battle against sin (1 Pet. 2:11).[8]

It has been argued that the Greek word kalonwas employed instead of the word agathos (a high standard of quality, worth, merit [9]) to specifically reference physical or sensual beauty rather than inherent goodness. Yet, the Greek philosophers didn’t see kalonin that way. In his essay “Beauty and Good: Situating the Kalon,” Aryeh Kosmen writes:

Try now to imagine, if you can, Plato or Aristotle saying that one shouldn’t choose managers, or senators, or vice presidents on the grounds of their being kaloi. Why in the world not?[10]

Kosmen explains that the word kalonactually represents the relationship between beauty and goodness: 

Understood properly, the relationship of the beauty represented by the kalonto the good thus reveals the relationship of appearance to being. A thing’s being kalonis not a cosmetic supplement, a surface that is painted on; it is the shining forth of the thing’s nature. The kalonis, then, not something in addition to the good that shows forth; it is the splendor of the appearance of the good.[11]

Thus, we don’t have to decide whether something is beautiful, good, or both, since “beauty is a mode of the good, as the kalonis of the agathon.”[12]

Looking for Beauty in All the Wrong Places

Finding—and holding onto—beauty and contentment is not easy. Sometimes it seems that we have a better chance of discovering a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow than fulfilling our hopes and dreams in this world. Throughout history, people have tried various methods to achieve bliss in this world and the afterlife—if it exists.

Perhaps we should grab ahold of as much money and power as possible. Rich and influential people seem to live life to the fullest with all the world’s luxuries at their fingertips and friends galore. In reality, the wealthy deal with the same relationship conflicts and self-worth struggles that others face, along with the negative effects that lots of money can produce.

Author and psychotherapist Thayer Willis, an heiress from the family that founded Georgia-Pacific Corporation, describes the attitude of entitlement that pervaded her young adult years:

When I was in my 20s, ingratitude ruled my life. Due to my lack of experience working with others, I thought everything had to be exactly the way I wanted it. Planning for my first wedding, at age 29, I threw a fit that there were no gardenias available in January. I was inconsolable. The florist provided some kind of white flowers, as close as they could come to the gardenias I coveted, and I was furious.[13]

Thayer, who now helps families struggling to deal with the pitfalls of vast wealth, lists a few of the fruits of having everything handed to her on a silver plate, including, “low self-esteem, insecurity and the self-doubt that comes from never having become good at anything.”[14]

If wealth isn’t the answer to a happy life, perhaps the solution lies in casting off our worldly possessions as famous figures such as Buddha and Gandhi have done. If, as Gandhi teaches, “we live simply so that others can simply live,” denying and eradicating our desires, then perhaps we will find the elusive happiness that material possessions promise to give but never do. Yet, this repudiation of “stuff” seems a bit juxtaposed with the universe God created: why did God give us all this material if he didn’t want us to use and enjoy it?

Furthermore, if material things are so bad for us, why do we like them so much? Did God plop us down in a world with lots of wonderful things to enjoy merely to teach us the importance of self-denial as some higher good? That seems strange at best—and cruel at worst. If desires are bad, why did God give them to us in the first place?

The wild success of online dating seems to point to the solution: happiness lies in finding one’s soul mate, and technology has enabled people like never before to access a plethora of options in the potential long-term partner/spouse department.

Are you commitment-shy? There are dating sites for “hooking up” to test the waters and avoid getting into a bad long-term relationship. Maybe you want to marry and are looking for a spouse who enjoys the same activities you do, shares the same political and religious views, and has a similar educational background. Just click on your preferences in the dating app, and see what candidates the software program determines are good prospects for you.

Yet, apparently, soul mates aren’t all they are made out to be when the bloom of romance has faded. While divorce appears to be in decline in the United States, the trends of waiting longer to marry, being more selective in marriage, and choosing cohabitation in lieu of marriage altogether combine to make the declining divorce rate look better than it actually is.[15] 

Due to increased longevity and more employment options for women than ever before, Baby Boomers are considering—and pursuing—divorce more than ever. According to a 2016 article by Ben Stevermen for Bloomberg:

From 1990 to 2012, the divorce rate for 55 to 64-year-olds more than doubled, according to the Bowling Green's National Center for Family & Marriage Research. The rate for people 65 and older tripled.[16]

As Stevermen points out, since the average length of first marriages is around twelve years, it will take a while to see if the current trend of young people divorcing less holds. In any case, the present divorce rate (over 52 percent) is dreary proof that marriage is no guarantee of long-term happiness.

Many people think the approval of others is a key source of happiness. Success in sports, academics, careers, relationships, and social media feedback are all ways to build self-esteem in society today. Of all these paths to achieve an increased sense of self-worth, social media provides the quickest results. Yet, the adrenaline rush of a popular post fades quickly, with the ever-growing addiction for affirmation becoming increasingly debilitating over time.

Did the fifty “likes” on your last Instagram or Facebook post make you feel better about yourself? Maybe for a while, but that easy approval fades rapidly when you see that your friend’s post just got a hundred affirming clicks. No problem—you can always delete that photo or not-so-clever meme and hope no one notices that it’s not on your feed anymore.

After all, it’s not reality that matters, just the image you carefully craft of yourself so that people won’t find out what a boring life you lead and what a failure you feel like most of the time. According to recent studies, participation in social media sites has actually led not to the acceptance and belonging people are hoping to find but instead to increased depression, anxiety, low self-worth, and isolation in many people’s lives.[17]

Can Examples Show Us the Way?

Perhaps the answer to a beautiful life lies in finding people who live well and imitating them. Religious figures such as Buddha, the Dali Lama, Confucius, and Jesus are all considered to be good examples to follow. The Internet, talk shows, television, and news programs are filled with people giving advice on how to live life better.

Have relationship issues? Get some helpful tips from Oprah, Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, and John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus). Want more money? Self-help gurus such as Tony Robbins, Steven Covey, and John Maxwell have lots of financial, career, and personal advice to give in their books, seminars, and online resources.

Lifestyle websites and social media accounts have soared in popularity as people follow celebrities and bloggers who seem to have it all together by eating well, wearing stylish clothes, enjoying fantastic travel adventures, cultivating meaningful relationships, and volunteering with organizations that aid millions of oppressed and suffering humans and animals in the world and protect the environment from destruction.

Most people will readily acknowledge how much the world needs good people. It takes courage—or a morbid curiosity—to read or watch the news with all the violence, terrorism, murder, physical and emotional abuse, hate, greed, selfishness, and arrogance we find on the earth today.

History is filled with atrocities—the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Killing Fields, Stalin’s Purges, and the Armenian and Rwandan genocides are just some of the horrible crimes committed against humanity in the last one hundred years alone. How can a world that admires beauty and goodness be filled with so many bad people who commit such terrible acts?

With all the advice available today at the click or swipe of a finger, why doesn’t it seem to be working? The world is filled with more evil than we can thwart and more problems than we can solve. We witness and experience broken relationships every day, and no one has figured out a way to get people to be kind, compassionate, forgiving, and respectful—even some of the time.

The Bible tells us why the world is filled with so much suffering and pain. Namely, it is because of the sin that lies within all of us. This sin not only makes us dougly things; it also makes usugly.

Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

How does beauty relate to truth and goodness? How are all the aesthetics found in their perfections in God alone?

I don’t think I have ever met anyone who didn’t want a beautiful life. We want somebody—anybody—to show us how to make the most of this life for however long we have to live it. I was sitting in church with some friends on Christmas Eve a few years ago and heard the pastor proclaim, “And that’s why Jesus came: to be an example of how we should live.” This is the same message many people hear when they attend church today. Everyone wants to know how to live life better, and who better to teach us than Jesus? 

Jesus had a lot to say about the misery of this world, and he certainly was a great example to follow. Jesus loved people, healed them of their infirmities, lived simply, and always put others before himself. Millions of non-Christians over thousands of years agree that Jesus was a great teacher with high morals. There was never a more unselfish person who ever lived. Yet, even Jesus’ great example doesn’t fix the problems of the world, and that’s the point: being a good example is not the reason Jesus came to us.

The Source of All True Beauty

In the book of Psalms in the Bible, we learn how to find—and hold onto—true beauty. The psalmist declares:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: 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 inquire in his temple. (Ps. 27:4)

The Hebrew word for beauty in this verse is נֹ֫עַם, (noam), and it refers specifically to God’s kindness, which includes God’s goodness, purity, and truthfulness.[18] In a chapel sermon titled, “Can Beauty Save the World,” Albert Mohler explains,

The Christian worldview posits that anything pure and good finds its ultimate source in the self-existent, omnipotent God who is infinite in all his perfections. Thus the Christian worldview reminds us that the “transcendentals”—the good, the true, and the beautiful—are inseparable. Thus when Psalm 27 speaks of the beauty of the Lord, the Psalmist is also making a claim about the goodness of the Lord and the truthfulness of the Lord. While we distinguish God’s attributes from one another in order to understand them better, we must also recognize that these attributes are inseparable from one another.[19]

Mohler goes on to state, “Our job as Christians is to remember the difference between the beautiful and the pretty,” because pure beauty is found in goodness and truth.[20]When we gaze upon ascetically pleasing objects or witness kind deeds in this world, we are at best seeing imperfect versions of the pure beauty that can only be found in God.

Yet, what is considered to be beautiful is highly debated today. In Tabletalk Magazine, Harry Reeder points to the relativism and self-centeredness pervading our society that diminish any objective approach to beauty—as well as truth and goodness:

We are preoccupied with ourselves. Self-actualization and self-esteem have become the highest goods of life, where we give all of our affection and adoration. Each of us is an abettor in the relativization of goodness, beauty, and truth, claiming that there is no true truth, only “my truth,” which may or may not be “your truth.” “True truth” is not to be expected. There is no objective beauty; all is simply a matter of personal taste. Certainly nothing is intrinsically good—though it may be permissible to assign goodness out of personal preferences—but unless something is politically incorrect, it cannot be identified as good or bad. It can only be declared as preferred.[21]

As much as we want to close our eyes to the existence of objective truth, goodness, and even beauty (and the accountability that goes with them), we can’t make it all go away by simply wishing it to be so—or seemingly winning our point. The refracted beauty we find in this world never satisfies us fully, and we are always hungry and thirsty for something we can’t attain, even with all our efforts to rationalize the meaning behind the reality all around us. 

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asserts that “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence,” and “that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek.”[22] And the only desired object that can stop our seeking is nothing less than the beatific vision of God.

Examples Aren’t Enough to Give Us the Beauty We Seek

The Bible explains the real problem: we can’t be good—at least not good enough to make this world beautiful or earn our way into entering the presence of God, the source of all beauty. Jesus came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves—so that we could not only become beautiful but also live in a beautiful world, at peace with God and our neighbor for eternity.

When Christians focus on Jesus as an example for how to live, they are not focusing on the purpose for which Jesus was born in the flesh: to save us from ourselves so that we couldlive the best possible life—for now and forever!

The story of Mary and Martha in the Bible reminds us of the priority of knowing and trusting Jesus over doing good deeds. Jesus was visiting the home of two sisters. Martha was busy preparing a meal for everyone in her home:

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42)

It is easy to think that Jesus wasn’t very considerate of Martha’s feelings. After all, Martha was the one rolling up her sleeves and making sure everyone had a good meal. Serving people is important work, but there was something more important taking place at Mary and Martha’s home, and Mary had figured this out. She was sitting at the feet of Jesus, getting to know him and learning from him.

Mary realized that Jesus had something of the greatest importance to teach her, and she was going to learn what that was first and foremost. In doing this, Mary could trust in Jesus and then live in light of what Jesus was teaching her. And this is true for everyone who follows Jesus: we have to learn about Jesus in order to follow him.

What Does Jesus’ Life Have to Do with Yours?

One could easily argue that no one who has ever lived was more influential than Jesus, but why does this matter to you? How does the truth that a man born over two thousand years ago who lived a perfect life, died on a cross, and rose from the dead have any meaning for you personally? What do Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have to do with your life, death, and eternal existence?

It is easy to find some inspirational quotes from Jesus, pass them around on social media, and think we have a pretty good idea of who he was. Yet, Jesus had a lot more than encouraging memes to share. He had some very difficult things to teach and do, and all he said and did was because of his love for the world. Jesus had the answers that we desperately want to know about the meaning of the universe and what is going to happen when we leave this earth.

The Bible clearly states that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). If the Bible is true, we all need to learn about the salvation Christ has earned for all who trust in him alone. Jesus not only has something important to tell you. He also has everything to do with your life—right now and for eternity!

The Bible Is Specifically about What Jesus Did

We will never find fulfillment outside of Jesus, because making ourselves the objects of ultimate worship instead of the one true God causes ultimate destruction—the opposite of beauty—in the end. As Albert Mohler concludes, “The atoning work of the Lord Jesus is the epicenter of all that is true, good, and beautiful. The cross of Christ may not be pretty, but it certainly is beautiful.”[23] It was fitting that such a good, loving, holy, just, and merciful God would find a way to save us, but to do so required the sacrifice of his only begotten Son:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16–17)

We want beauty because God set it in our hearts to find our contentment and happiness only in him, the source of all goodness and love. Thankfully, God did not leave us to perish without hope: Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, came to free us from ourselves so that we could fully live unto God.

So how does Jesus teach us today about who he is and what he has done to save us? The Second Helvetic Confession, a statement of faith written in the 1560s, reminds us that we hear the very Word of God whenever it is faithfully preached:

Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.[24]

The apostle Paul was filled with gratitude for this beautiful truth:

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess. 2:13)

While we can’t sit at Jesus’ physical feet as Mary did, God gave us the Bible to enable us to sit at the feet of Jesus through his Word and learn the important truths about God, our world, and ourselves that we must know in order to live as God meant us to live. There is nothing more important for us to do—and we will never find the beauty that will fully satisfy our longings any other way.

Bringing beauty to our churches, homes, and communities is what God created us to do—and it is a witness to the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives as Christians, as well as a witness to the faith we seek to share with others. 

And as we seek to dwell faithfully in a world where it’s an ever-growing struggle to persuade people that objective truth and morality actually exist anymore, perhaps, as a friend of mine, pastor Rob Novak, remarked, “If we can show people first that Christianity is beautiful, then they may be willing to consider if it is true and good.”

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[1] Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 70; see also Thomas Aquinas 1a.iv.2; xiv.6.

[2] Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, 70.

[3] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 229.

[4] W. Arndt, F. W. Danker, W. Bauer, and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature(3rd ed., p.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 504

[5] BDAG, 504.

[6] Peter Doriani, 1 Peter: Reformed Expository Commentary(Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2014), 82.

[7] Doriani, 1 Peter, 82-83.

[8] Doriani, 1 Peter, 84.

[9] BDAG, 504.

[10] Aryeh Kosmen, “Beauty and the Good: Situating the Kalon,” Classical Philology105, no. 4 (October 2010): 355.

[11] Kosmen, “Beauty,” 355.

[12] Kosmen, “Beauty,” 355.

[13] Thayer Willis, “Why Family Wealth Is a Curse,” Forbes, March 1, 2013, accessed on March 23, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/deborahljacobs/2013/03/01/why-family-wealth-is-a-curse/.

[14] Willis, “Family Wealth.”

[15] Ben Stevermen, “Boomers Are Making Sure the Divorces Keep Coming,” Bloomberg, June 6, 2016, accessed March 8, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-17/boomers-are-making-sure-the-divorces-keep-coming

[16] Stevermen, “Boomers.”

[17] See Graham C. L. Davey, “Social Media, Loneliness, and Anxiety in Young People,” Psychology Today, Dec. 15, 2016, accessed on 3-16-17, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-we-worry/201612/social-media-loneliness-and-anxiety-in-young-people.

[18] Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament(electronic ed., p. 706). Leiden: E.J. Brill.

[19] Albert Mohler, “Can Beauty Save the World?” Chapel Sermon, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, September 1, 2016. In his sermon, Mohler interacts with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work The Idiot, in particular the quote regarding how “beauty would save the world” (Stilwell: Digireads.com, 2008), 238.

[20] Mohler, “Can Beauty Save the World?”

[21] Harry Reeder, “The Triune God: Good, Beautiful, and True,”Table Talk Magazine(September 1, 2010).

[22] Summa Theologica, 1-2.3.8.

[23] Mohler, “Can Beauty Save the World?”

[24] The Second Helvetic Confession, Ch. 1. 

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