The Element of Physical Attraction in Romantic Relationships
Male handsomeness and female beauty are good gifts from God. Scripture is unashamed to speak of men who had attractive physical appearances (Gen. 39:6; 1 Sam. 9:2; 16:12; 17:42; 2 Sam. 14:25; 21:21; 1 Kings 1:6; Ps. 45:2; Songs 5:10-16) and of women who had beautiful faces and—get this—beautiful bodies (Gen. 12:11; 14; 26:7; 29:17; 1 Sam. 25:3; 2 Sam. 11:2; 13:1; 14:27; 1 Kings 1:4; Job 42:15; Songs 4:1-5).
Yet, I am regularly asked if it is important for a Christian man or woman to be physically attracted to the person they are dating. As I’ve asked this question in the past, I’ve found that counsel usually comes in one of two basic answers. One answer is that no, physical attraction isn’t important and shouldn’t be part of one’s initial consideration; rather, a person’s godly character should be the paramount factor. Another answer suggests that while godly character should be the primary factor, physical attraction is important and should also be part of the equation.
Unfortunately, while I agree more with the second of the two, neither of the typical answers to this question go deep enough to provide sufficiently biblical counsel. In order to fully answer this question, we must consider physical attraction from both a male and female perspective, while also considering why physical attraction may be lacking in either case.
Men and Physical Attraction
It seems to go without saying that men, generally speaking, are initially drawn to a woman based on whether or not he finds her physically attractive. A Christian man will be looking for far more than physical beauty (Prov. 11:22; 31:30), but that doesn’t negate the fact that physical attraction may be, and often is, the initial cause of interest. And, let’s be clear: there’s nothing necessarily unspiritual about that.
I’ve observed situations, however, where godly, well-intentioned, and otherwise wise men have counseled single brothers to not let the lack of physical attraction keep them from pursuing a godly woman. While I respect the effort of these men to uphold a woman’s character as the supreme consideration, I believe their counsel—to the degree that they merely instructed the young men to trudge ahead with the relationship without sensing any physical attraction—was superficial and ultimately unhelpful.
Rarely does anyone ask the question of why physical attraction is not present in such cases. Yet, it is this question that, if asked carefully and compassionately, has the power to unearth sin and wrong thinking and actually serve to nurture physical attraction in the heart. When a young man asks me, “Do you believe I should be physically attracted to my girlfriend?” I answer, “Yes!” In fact, I think there should be more men in the church who are attracted to more women than is presently the case! But I believe there are numerous reasons for why it is often lacking in men.
Men can be prideful regarding the kind of woman they think they deserve.
If we think highly of ourselves and the kind of woman we deserve, then we will be disabled from beholding and appreciating the beauty of the women around us. Pride blinds the eyes and skews the judgment (Ps. 25:9; James 4:6), even in the area of romance. When it comes to relationships, proud men will pass by many worthy women because they have become convinced they deserve a certain kind of woman: a particular body shape, hair color, background, or ethnicity. But when we have a clear view of what we truly deserve—an eternity enduring God’s righteous judgment against our sin—that simple, godly girl we’ve known for the past couple years begins to appear very attractive, almost irresistible. A man should be attracted to the woman he is pursuing, but pride will often keep many a man from appreciating the beauty of the women already in his midst.
Not enough attention is given to a woman’s character.
To the godly man, the beauty of a woman’s holiness will actually enhance her physical beauty in his eyes (Prov. 30:10; Rom. 10:15; 1 Peter 3:4). Those who say that physical attraction isn’t important are at least right to emphasize the woman’s character as a vital consideration. The most physically beautiful of women will appear unattractive to a Christian man if her beauty is coupled with immoral character (see Prov. 11:22). Nevertheless, attraction is holistic, and it is possible that physical attraction is lacking in a man if he is not placing enough emphasis on a woman’s character which will, over time, serve to adorn her physical beauty in his eyes. This is usually the underlying assumption of those who suggest that physical attraction is unimportant, but the men they counsel would be better served if they were told that physical attraction can and should grow when proper weight is given to a woman’s inner beauty.
Men are taught a wrong understanding of “attraction.”
Contrary to popular Hollywood portrayals of romance and relationships, genuine attraction does not necessarily consist in an experience of “love at first sight” or unearthly feelings of romantic transport. I’ve counseled men who’ve been concerned about whether or not they are truly attracted to their girlfriend because their initial meeting didn’t result in intense feelings of desire and visions of destiny. There’s nothing wrong if romantic relationships begin this way, but we must be careful that we don’t bypass a potential relationship because it didn’t begin like the latest box office blockbuster.
Men are influenced by the culture’s standard of beauty.
Our culture has also imprinted a certain ideal of beauty onto our minds. Specifically, we are told (and shown) over and over that true physical beauty is found primarily in a particular body shape or hair color or facial structure. We are also taught to value physical beauty supremely and treat a woman’s inner beauty as secondary. This mindset is devastating to our relationships and our hope for marriage because physical beauty must diminish over time. Those who attempt to preserve their physical beauty into old age risk destroying their physical appearance altogether, as we’ve witnessed in some horrendous celebrity plastic surgery mishaps. When we are walking in humility and pursuing the right things, it is possible to be physically attracted to many different kinds of women, not merely those who appear on the magazine covers.
Pornography decimates a man’s ability to appreciate beauty.
It is no exaggeration to say that soft and hardcore pornography has decimated many a man’s ability to appreciate the physical beauty of the women around him. The ease of access to pornography has allowed men to store up naked or scantily dressed—often air-brushed and utterly unrealistic—images of what he perceives to be the perfect woman. But the more a man immerses himself in fantasy, the less able he will be to appreciate reality, to the peril of his hopes for marriage. Why are men, more and more, losing their taste for real physical beauty? Because they are, more and more, drinking from the poisoned well of pornography.
Some men struggle with same-sex attraction.
It is also possible that a man finds that he is not physically attracted to his girlfriend because he is, generally speaking, attracted to other men. Should we counsel a Christian man in such a scenario to plod ahead in his relationship and ignore his desires? No, I don’t think so. Again, we should recognize that physical attraction is important and that it is possible for a man wrestling with same-sex attraction to grow in his attraction for the woman he is dating. He should be encouraged by stories of men for whom this has been the case.
Women and Physical Attraction
It seems that, by and large, physical attraction is the initial movement of the man’s soul, and as he pursues a woman, she may become more physically attracted to him. We would be wrong to conclude, however, that physical attraction does not matter to women. It does.
The reasons it may be lacking in some women can be similar to the reasons it is lacking in men: pride, not enough attention given to man’s godliness, concern about the lack of euphoric romantic feelings, a wrong standard of male handsomeness, same-sex attraction, and now more than ever, pornography.
Women face similar struggles as men do in the area of physical attractiveness.
But women must also be aware of their design in relation to men. God has created the man to be the pursuer and the one who woos and wins his wife. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing” (Prov. 18:22), the Proverbs tell us, which implies that the man is seeking after his wife. As a man pursues a woman, she often naturally grows more and more physically attracted to him as she is able to perceive his godly character and intentional leadership.
Practically, ladies, this means that you should be willing to give a worthy guy a chance to win your affection. If, after a reasonable amount of time you are still bereft of any desire or attraction, you can end the relationship. That’s why Paul says that an unmarried woman can marry “whoever she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). You are not obligated by the mere pursuit to marry any particular man.
But this question of physical attraction also naturally leads to the question of how a Christian should care for his or her physical appearance.
Christians should be intentional in how they dress in general, not drawing attention for opulence or neglect.
It seems reasonable to say that a Christian should neither neglect his or her physical appearance nor worship it. It is not a mark of holiness to allow your physical appearance to deteriorate, nor is it ultra-spiritual to purposefully neglect your clothing or hygiene. When Proverbs 31:30 says that “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,” it means these features are deceitful and vain when they exist apart from the kind of godly character described in the previous verses of Proverbs 31 (see Prov. 31:10-31).
What, then, should mark our physical appearance? This is not an easy question to answer, for Scripture doesn’t say too much on the subject. But I will attempt an answer that, I trust, makes reasonable use of what Scripture does say.
A Christian’s life should be lived intentionally, not haphazardly (Prov. 4:26; 21:5; Eph. 5:15-17). This intentionality will be naturally expressed in how we dress. A lack of intentionality in life is a mark of youth and immaturity, and a lack of intentionality in how we adorn ourselves may be an overflow of our life as a whole. Intentionality does not imply that we must wear expensive clothing or latest fashions, but only that we give some thought and attention to what we are wearing so as not to be a distraction to others.
Wearing what is appropriate for a given occasion is an expression of intentionality, and it shows respect for others (Matt. 22:39; 1 Peter 2:13-14). If you wear pajamas to a formal gala, you will not only embarrass yourself, you will embarrass the host, the person who invited you, and make all the attendees feel awkward. This kind of neglect is a refusal to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
We should avoid distracting others with our wealth or drawing attention to ourselves by neglecting our physical appearance (1 Peter 3:1ff; Matt. 6:16-18). In both cases—opulence and neglect—we are focused on ourselves rather than on Christ and others. If we are most concerned with drawing people’s attention to Christ through our word, conduct, and character, then we will not be likely to dress in a such a way that draws undue attention to ourselves through our overly fancy clothing or poor hygiene.
Christians should take reasonable care of their physical bodies.
Our physical health is a stewardship (Prov. 20:29; 31:17; 1 Tim. 4:8; 5:23). We should desire to remain useful to our King and to his people for as long as possible. Eating well (with self-control and a reasonable attention to healthy food), getting adequate sleep and exercise are ways we can steward our health. None of these guarantee that we will remain healthy, and some of us may suffer illnesses that hinder our ability to exercise and make it difficult to maintain our weight. But for our part, we should desire to maintain our health so we can labor diligently for the Lord and for others as long as possible. Personal hygiene is a matter of loving one’s neighbor (Song 7:8; Matt. 22:39). Brush your teeth. Take a shower. Comb your hair. Wear deodorant. Chew gum when necessary. Personal hygiene is not primarily about you; it’s about respect for others.
God has made us embodied creatures, now and for all eternity. Our bodies are important. How we clothe them and think about physical attraction in our romantic relationships are significant issues, because they relate to God’s good creation and the stewardship of it.
Derek J. Brown currently serves as professor of theology at Cornerstone Seminary in Vallejo, California, and associate pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship of Silicon Valley where he oversees the college and young adult ministry, online presence, and publishing ministry, GBF Press. Derek blogs at fromthestudy.com.
This article is adapted from "Christian Dating and Courtship, Part 3: The Question of Physical Attraction" at fromthestudy.com.
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