Celebrate True Beauty

Hannah Anderson
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Once we are convinced that lovely things are worth pursuing, we still face the challenge of knowing what is truly lovely. Simply because we are drawn to something does not mean that it is worth pursuing. After all, doesn’t the search for purity teach us that our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked? How can we trust our own desires?

In the fourth century, Augustine, a bishop in North Africa, pondered these same questions and suggested that the problem isn’t that we love things that we shouldn’t, but that we love what we should in the wrong way. Our sense of beauty isn’t wrong, but we’re not allowing beauty to do what it’s supposed to do: draw us to love God more fully and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The fact that we can respond wrongly to beauty helps us understand the tension between attraction and lust.

One of the difficulties of pursuing whatever is lovely is that the people around us are very lovely beings, and we don’t always know how to relate to their loveliness in discerning ways. Because beauty draws us to itself, we can quickly confuse natural beauty or attraction for permission to indulge in inappropriate thoughts and relationships. As if hearing the call of the Sirens of ancient mythology, we feel powerless to resist another person’s wit, charm, physicality, or even kindness. We rightly see them as beautiful (because what image bearer isn’t?), and we succumb. And when we do, we can begin to blame the beautiful object instead of our disordered desire.

“Beauty calls us to turn our values upside down.”

There was something so lovely, so attractive, so compelling about her body that I was powerless. He saw me and knew me and took interest in me—what else could I do?

But once we realize how easily our desires escape us, there is also the real risk that we would dismiss and ignore the loveliness of another person. Because we don’t trust ourselves to respond to them appropriately, we hold them at arm’s length, effectively resisting and denying their loveliness. But in denying the things that make them lovely—their wit, kindness, experience, strength, or intelligence—we find that we are unable to love them for who they are, for who God has made them to be. And being unable to love them rightly, we also find that we can’t love God rightly either.

But here’s where a proper understanding of beauty helps us: beauty calls us to goodness beyond itself. Beauty calls us to sacrifice for that good. Beauty calls us to turn our values upside down.

A woman or man can be an object of our admiration. We can feel drawn to them. We can recognize and identify their wit or beauty or desirability and still relate to them in ways that are holy and good. The word “lovely” in Philippians 4 is based on the Greek root for the love between brothers and sisters: phileō. And this is exactly how we must engage the loveliness that rests on each other. We must engage each other as brothers and sisters who are seeking each other’s good (1 Tim. 5:1-2). We must let each other’s beauty draw us heavenward.

So when we truly see the loveliness of our brothers and sisters, our hearts will respond as it does to any other form of loveliness: in celebration of their Creator—a Creator so wise, so imaginative, so kind as to create each one of us. And when we celebrate their Creator, we will guard the loveliness He has made. We will sacrifice for it, even if it means sacrificing our own desire for it. This is something of what we mean when we talk about not objectifying other people. Their beauty is not ours to possess; it is not ours to consume. It is ours to protect.

Today, there are only about two thousand ama left in Japan. Despite age and dwindling numbers, they continue their traditional work of foraging the sea’s bounty, still diving without a breathing apparatus, often well into their 70s. In a 2017 interview, lifelong fisherman Masumi Nakamura of the Ise-Shima region speaks with pride of his sixty-four-year-old wife: “Sayuri is the best and fastest ama out there.” He adds, “My number one condition when marrying was that the woman be an ama diver. This way we could spend our days together.”

Of the challenges facing the ama, the greatest comes from deciding whether and how far to adapt their traditional profession to the modern world. After all, if they used oxygen tanks, they could stay under water much longer than the one, possibly two, minutes they do now. For that matter, why even dive? Surely there are technologies that can cull the seabed without risking life and limb. But being an ama is more than a profession; it is a way of life. A way of life that is integral to both family and community. And so for the time being, the ama continue to dive, carrying on the traditions of their mothers and grandmothers before them.

The idea that we should pursue what is lovely and train ourselves to respond rightly to it may seem as old-fashioned as the ways of the ama. But when I look at the superficiality and general ugliness of the world around me, I wonder why we’ve waited so long and whether we can wait any longer.

For when we seek whatever is lovely, we are lifted above the paltry urgencies of this life and given a vision of the next. When we seek whatever is lovely, we are drawn to the One who is altogether lovely and begin to understand why the Father calls Him “Beloved.” We begin to long for Him the way lovers long for each other:

So long have I not seen you
Whom I long to see like the white pearls: I scarcely feel alive,
Remaining in this distant land.[1]

Then like the ama, we find ourselves diving deeper and deeper in search of Him, leaving behind lesser things. We find His goodness binding our hearts to Him, drawing us on, ever pursuing, ever seeking, ever searching until the beauty of the Lord finally rests upon us.

[1] Evan Bates, Japanese Love Poems: Selections from the Manyōshū (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 57.

For Further Reading:

All That’s Good

by Hannah Anderson

Winner of the 2018 TGC Book Award for Christian Living “And God saw that it was good…” Look out over the world today, it seems a far cry...

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