Physical Beauty and the Bible

Beauty is something you don’t often hear Christians talking about – at least, not the beauty of the human body. We often talk about the beauty of nature in creation, such as beautiful scenery or the beauty of the universe. But we rarely describe someone as beautiful. Why is that? And what does the Bible have to say about physical beauty?

I think we Christians have, without knowing it, become too influenced by the world around us: have you noticed that our culture rarely describes someone as beautiful these days? In our society – in 21st Century Britain at least – it’s more common to describe someone as ‘attractive’ or the like. Part of the reason for this is, I think, the association between attractiveness and sexuality: the media is saturated with sexualised images. ‘Sex sells’, as they say. (Netflix has just got into hot water for a film about young, pre-pubescent girls twerking!). Perhaps we’ve become suspicious of beauty as the body has become so sexualised – we just try to avoid that kind of talk.

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I can’t speak for other men, but personally I would never call a woman apart from my wife ‘beautiful’! Saying someone is beautiful has become tied up with calling them sexually attractive.

At the same time, it seems like people have never been more keen to be beautiful (or attractive, at least). The cosmetics industry is huge. Gyms are popular at the moment. Hardly a week goes by without a new diet plan or book being released. People are looking for something physically.

So what does the Bible say about beauty and the body? Can the Bible shed any light for us?

Beauty in the Bible

Let’s go back to basics and look at beauty in the Bible. The Hebrew word for ‘beautiful’ occurs several times in the Old Testament. In fact, one of the most important women in the Old Testament, Esther (who has a whole book named after her!), is notable precisely because of her beauty. She basically won a nationwide beauty contest in order to become the new queen (now there’s a reality TV show idea…)

Many women are described as beautiful – Sarai (Gen 12:11, 14); Rachel (Gen 29:17), Abigail (1 Sam 25:3). Men, too, are described with the same Hebrew word (ya.pheh), often translated ‘handsome’ e.g. Joseph (Gen 39:6); David (1 Sam 16:12); and Absalom (2 Sam 14:25). The word is used most in Song of Songs (11 times), as the two lovers describe and delight in each other’s beauty.

The New Testament doesn’t say much about beauty, but it does contain one of the most well-known passages about beauty. Peter here addresses Christian wives:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:3-4

All this should be of no surprise to anyone who has read Genesis 1, where God creates mankind as the climax of creation and declares it: “very good” (Genesis 1:31 – the only time when “very good” is used instead of simply good). I talked about this in my post about sex. The physical world is good, the human body is good – godliness actually means being more physical (in the right ways).

So, physical beauty is a good thing. It’s often used within the context of marriage, as you’d expect, but it’s not just that – it is a good thing in its own right. However, in this lifetime it’s not perfect.

Tainted Love Beauty

Sin affects everything in creation (e.g. Rom 8:22). In fact, you can see this in the curses God pronounces in Genesis 3 – e.g. the natural world is cursed (3:17), and childbirth becomes painful (3:16). So sin isn’t simply a “spiritual” thing but it has real, physical effects. It affects our bodies as well as our minds.

Stop for a moment to think about the implications of that: we often think about sin as being on a purely spiritual plane, or at least, something which exists in our minds. Do we ever think about the effects of sin in a physical way? Think about all the negative things that can affect the body. Illnesses, scars, broken limbs, disfigurement – it’s a long list! All of those things, too, are a result of sin.

They won’t be there in the new creation, the perfect world which is coming. Philippians 3:21 says that God “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his [Jesus’] glorious body.” One day our bodies will be redeemed. We will be given new bodies, immortal, perfect, free from the ravages of sin.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But – here’s the thing. The new creation does, in some sense, start now.

Sanctifying the body

‘Sanctification’ is a long word which basically means, growing into the people God created us to be: loving God more, and loving others more. It’s what the Christian life is fundamentally all about.

It’s important for Christians to understand that sanctification isn’t something that we accomplish – it is something that the Holy Spirit accomplishes working within us. As we walk with God, as we read the Bible and pray, as we seek him day by day, the Spirit works in us to change us. In a lovely passage in Galatians 5, Paul talks about “the fruit of the Spirit” – the good qualities the Spirit works in us as we “walk in step with the Spirit”.

But there’s more to it than simply our inner life. One of the interesting things about the New Testament is that it talks about sanctifying us body and soul. Let’s take a couple of examples:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

Romans 6:12-13

Here, Paul talks about sin in explicitly bodily terms. It’s not just a mental “thought-life” kind of thing but it’s actually how we control ourselves. Our whole selves, our whole bodies, should be offered to God to be used for what is right.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

The implication here is that it’s not just our spiritual or psychological side which needs to be sanctified, but our bodies too.

The point is that the Christian life is about offering everything to God – body and soul. I think we often focus on the ‘soul’ part, but I think we sometimes neglect the ‘body’ part.

Get to the point! – what practical difference does it make?

I think we often thing about our bodies in an entirely ‘earthly’ way – i.e. that there is no spiritual significance to them. We see our bodies as tools: something we need to be in good working order to accomplish more important things. What we don’t do is think about our bodies in a spiritual way. Not all the time, anyway.

We’re inconsistent: in health, for example, we appreciate that we don’t simply go to the doctor and expect to get better. We pray about it as well: health is not seen simply as a physical thing but a spiritual thing too. God gives good health to our bodies, and if we want good health we need to seek him and not just see a doctor. (I’m not advocating some kind of prayer-only strategy, by the way! – it’s both / and, not either / or).

But do we apply that logic in other ways?

Losing weight

There are literally thousands of books, courses, fitness instructors, and the like who all claim to help you lose weight. These things are incredibly popular at the moment. In fact, just recently the government unveiled a new strategy to help combat obesity to help with covid-19.

There haven’t been many Christian approaches to losing weight that I’ve seen, apart from the Daniel Fast. But, given what we’ve seen about the body, is obesity and losing weight something we should actually see as a spiritual issue as much as it is physical?

Should Christians see losing weight as a matter of sanctification, something which they should seek to walk in step with the Spirit about, rather than something on a purely earthly / physical level?

This might mean, for example, as well as diet and exercise, praying that God would give us a right appetite and desire for a healthy lifestyle. Asking God to transform us to be people who are healthy inside and out.

Dieting is a lot about our desires, our appetites – in fact I’m often struck by how like legalism it is. (Legalism = thinking we can please God through our obedience to rules). There are many parallels. I think Christians should be doing things differently.

The perfect body

Poster: Are you beach body ready?
“Are you beach body ready?” – a poster from 2015

A few years ago, there was a poster with the message “Are you beach body ready?” It came in for a lot of criticism at the time! But I think the reason it did was because it tapped into something: there is a huge pressure at the moment for people, especially younger women, to look a certain way.

There’s a gym almost next to one of our church buildings here in Clacton. When I park to go to our 9am service, it’s usually busy with people going to and from the gym. Many people put an unbelievable amount of effort into their bodies. They are desperate to look a certain way.

But, here’s the thing: those people are seeking something good. Being strong, fit and healthy is a good thing, right?

However – Christians have a different angle on it. We Christians should be aware it’s not simply about lifting weights or running on a machine, but rather it is God who gives us health. If being fit and healthy is a good thing, should we not also see that as a spiritual thing? As above with losing weight, should we not also seek the Lord in our efforts to grow in fitness and strength?

Beauty

I’ll finish up where we started. Beauty is something else which is pretty huge at the moment. I remember back to when I was a teenager – back then, before the internet became really popular, people were worried about teenage girls seeing airbrushed photos in magazines. Models looked unrealistically perfect. If that was the case then, thing what it’s like now – models have Instagram accounts, the internet is awash with people looking perfect! Beauty is a big industry now – apparently the cosmetics industry worth over $500 billion.

As we saw at the beginning, in the Bible beauty is a good thing! God made us, and he made us good. Beauty is a good thing to desire. However, we need to seek it in the right ways. If we go back to the quote I mentioned above from 1 Peter:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

1 Peter 3:3-4

I don’t think these verses should be read to say that outward beauty is wrong or undesirable to God! But rather, beauty comes not from lots of cosmetic products or expensive clothes and the like, but from God. Beauty is linked with godliness.

In other words, true beauty (or handsomeness) does not come from the amount of time we spend in the gym, or the amount of time we spend doing make-up. Those things may be of some value – but, ultimately, true beauty comes from God as a gift. He is the one who is the God not just of our souls but our bodies as well. He is the one who made us to be more than what we are right now. And he is the one who can accomplish in us what no gym or cosmetics ever could.

Conclusion

We live in a society which is obsessed with the body. People are desperately searching for fulfilment. Social media is full of people who look the way that we might want to look – so we dutifully go to the gym, or buy that new diet book or those new cosmetics, or whatever – to try and look that way.

I think Christians should have a different outlook: God is the God of our bodies. The Bible has a lot to say about beauty. Our bodies are part of the fallen world which are in need of redemption – and God has the power to redeem us. I think Christians need to show the world what God can accomplish when we seek him – to show that what the world is seeking can ultimately only be found in God.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way that we think about beauty and the body?

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