Monday, July 15, 2013

Toppling the idol of beauty

Posted simultaneously at Sturdy Answers.

This morning I looked in the mirror, and instead of criticizing the bags under my eyes, or fixating on the imperfections in my body, I noticed how my eyes were full of light and my body was healthy and strong. The realization made me smile.
Mornings in front of the mirror have not always been this way for me.
When I was in college, I learned to criticize and condemn my body with the best of them.
There were days when I’d anxiously stand in front of the mirror and notice how I didn’t look like the girls in the magazines — how I didn’t have the bust of a Barbie doll or the hips of an adolescent boy.
And so I’d pull out my imaginary plastic surgery pen and mentally mark my unsatisfactory appearance black and blue.
Then perhaps I’d try a new, ineffective diet. Or maybe I’d wear baggy clothes that covered the parts of my body that brought me shame.
But none of these things made me feel beautiful.
So I turned my attention from the cultural standard of airbrushed external beauty, and looked instead to the Proverbs 31 woman in all her enduring, internal beauty.
And holy cow, I sure didn’t match up to her either.
Where she was generous, I was apathetic and ornery. Where she was clothed in strength and dignity, I was wearing old yoga pants and a wrinkled T-shirt.
The awareness of my inadequacy made me feel heavy with guilt. And so I carried with me a secret burden of shame: I was not the woman I should be. Not only was my body not enough, my soul was not beautiful.
adam and eveAnd like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I tried to cover the things in my soul that brought me shame.
Sometimes I tried to be generous in order to cover my ugliness. Sometimes I tried to be disciplined to make myself valuable and appealing.
And then, after years of struggling to make myself beautiful, I got sick, and was bedridden for the better part of two years.
And it was during those years of helpless stillness that the Holy Spirit began to change the thoughts I had when I looked in the mirror.
First, he revealed to me that the anxiety and insecurity I felt about my body were signs of idolatry.
I had valued culture’s definition of beauty more than I had valued God’s definition of beauty.
Sure, my head knew that the cultural definitions of beauty are always changing, whereas the definition of true beauty flows from God’s unchanging character.
But we don’t live from our heads; we live from our hearts. 
And the anxiety that poured out of my heart indicated I had often given our cultural definition of beauty of the utmost importance.
This kind of idolatry can send us frantically trying to make ourselves valuable by conforming to a standard of beauty other than God’s.
It can prompt us to treat our bodies like they’re our own — like they’re plastic to be cut, shoved, and shaped into our own image.
It can make us treat our bodies like they’re a dispensable means to our self gratification, to which we ascribe goodness based on whether or not they will live up to our impossible cultural standards of beauty. Idolatry leads us to objectify our bodies.
During my time of illness, the Holy Spirit also revealed to me the problem with my attempts to make my soul beautiful.
My desire to cultivate inner beauty was rooted in a genuine desire to be like Jesus. The problem was, I was trying to become like Jesus through my own power, on my own terms.
I often used obedience, spiritual disciplines, and service to try to lessen my burden, my sense of spiritual failure. I tried to make myself the kind of woman God would love. I tried to relieve the burden of shame that Christ alone can relieve.*
My heart had not understood the bottomless depth of his love, and the sufficiency of his grace to make my soul beautiful.
Over the course of my illness I spent a lot of time in the Gospels. As I read, I was especially drawn to Jesus’ talk of the kingdom of heaven.
“The kingdom of heaven is here!” he told his followers. “It’s invading your lives and making them new.”
I was reminded that the kingdom of heaven is where God is re-making our souls good and beautiful.
In the kingdom of heaven there’s more to beauty than skin-deep beauty that fades, or even inner soul-beauty that bears God’s image. There’s a third layer of beauty: the Spirit of God who activates our inner person and recreates an enduring, inner beauty described by God.
And oh! how I wanted to more readily and regularly open myself up to the Spirit of God who is making all things new and beautiful.
Then I read Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3-4:
“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
The doorway to the kingdom of heaven is humility, or a right understanding of who we are in relation to God.
It’s in humility that we first realize our need for God, and are then welcomed into the kingdom.
And it’s in humility that we daily learn to more fully open ourselves to the invasion of the kingdom of heaven in which we’re being re-created.
When we’re humble, we see how small and weak we are next to the God who sculpted the mountains, breathed stars into the sky, and kissed life into Adam’s dusty body.
And God’s bigness and goodness should engender our trust. If we’re humble, then we’ll believe the things God tells us about our beauty.
If I’m having trouble believing God, then there’s pride in my heart.
Pride convinces me that my attempts at making myself beautiful are helpful and healthy — that somehow I know better than God.
Humility teaches me that my body and soul uniquely reflect God, and opens me up to the Spirit of God who is activating an inner beauty in me that looks and smells like him.  
So I am learning to listen, in humility, to what God says in his Word about the beauty of my body and soul.
My attempts to make myself like the Proverbs 31 woman taught me I can’t force humility. It’s something only the Spirit of God can cultivate in me as I obey him, so I’ve been learning to open my heart to the work of His Spirit.
And the more I do, the more I see my beauty clearly: through the eye of the only Beholder who matters.
Next month I’ll write (over at Sturdy Answers) about some of the ways I’m learning to open myself up to the Spirit of God to make me humble, so that I can rightly understand and grow in beauty.

* I’m thankful for the role Dr. John Coe’s lectures on moralism played in helping me to understand the attempts of the hidden heart to assuage its shame and guilt.
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© by scj

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