“The Call of Beauty: How Beauty Encourages Us Towards Humble Living"
written by Taryn Lengacher, class of 2023
I remember, too, loving the pre-bed family ritual my dad instituted of picking out and singing a number of hymns. And when I was introduced to the music app Spotify, my love and knowledge of music only increased as I discovered more genres and songs. Don’t get me wrong; though I have a basic understanding of piano and guitar and sheet music, I am by no means a musician. I simply love song. I love the humility and honesty, the emotion behind the melody, the joyful and consistent encouragement I receive every time I stop to listen to music. I love the beauty found within.
I wonder, when was the last time you stopped to truly listen to the beauty within a song? Or maybe you’ve found yourself drawn to beauty elsewhere. Perhaps it was a sunset on a cool September evening, or perhaps this past winter’s first snow. Maybe you were stopped in your tracks as you passed the flowerbed by the driveway and noticed your favorite yellow flowers have already begun to bloom, evoking hints that winter is gone and spring has arrived. Or perhaps the last time you were stopped in your tracks, in a moment of grace and joy, you were suddenly overcome by affection for another individual, or even God, as you perceived or served them in some new way. In other words, when is the last time you paused and beheld beauty?
Upon observation, it becomes apparent that beautiful things seem to speak to us. Beauty has a voice. Yet often, unexpectedly, the voice comes from an obscure, least expected corner of our lives. We suddenly see the beauty within the sing-songs of a second grader wiping the dishes dry. We suddenly see the beauty within the green hues of the bulbs forcing their faces out of the dirt to remind us that spring is coming. We suddenly see the beauty within the smile of a father’s face as he tells yet another corny dad joke. Yet the voice of this beauty fades as it fails to endure the currents of time. The second grader grows up to be a firefighter, no longer singing children’s songs in his parents’ kitchen. The yellow hues of the flower proceeding from the green bulb burst forth in bloom during the spring but quickly fade as spring becomes summer. The smile on a father’s face may continue for a time, yet as we all know, death will eventually come to wipe the beauty of his smile away.
What is this concept, beauty? Beauty is an abstract, hard-to-define term, after all. What other word can fully satisfy the description of the way we as humans perceive an aesthetically, artistically pleasing depiction of reality and emotion? There is a purity hinted in the use of the word beauty. Something intrinsic to the word and its meaning somehow reminds us of goodness and joy. It reminds us of all our sweet memories with our favorite people and favorite activities. It reminds us, when we stop and gaze upon something glorious, of a depth of truth we feel we cannot quite comprehend for more than a moment. It reminds us we are chasing after joy, and it momentarily offers a glimpse of this joy.
For instance, the glory of the beautifully painted sky with streaks of purple and gold clouds each evening offers this glimpse of joy, evoking a sense of wonder into our hearts. Who painted such a moody scene? Surely no human. Beauty reminds us we are made to worship someone greater than us. It reminds us we are limited and human.
Beauty, ultimately, reminds us of our Creator God, and that we were made to worship Him. It reminds us that we and all created order are indeed created and carefully crafted by a Sovereign Hand. Beautiful things have a voice, a voice calling us to worship and adore something – Someone – greater than ourselves. In calling us to worship, this voice calls us to submit to the One we are to worship. In fact, the voice of beauty tells us of its own submission to the One it summons us to worship and in doing so tells us how we ought to live. Ultimately, because all true, lasting beauty stems from a humble submission to God, beauty summons us to live as we were created to live, to worship God.
In a book titled True Beauty, authors Caroline Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre seek to provide a definition for such an abstract term, pointing to God’s supremacy in their definition. “True beauty,” they claim, is to be a reflection of God’s own beauty as we behold Him and His character (28). Beauty beholds and reflects. Beauty must first receive inspiration before it reflects a greater beauty. Mahaney and Whitacre make the point that this greater beauty is God Himself. They choose to qualify their definition of beauty as “true” because they seek to emphasize that there is a supreme definition of beauty, greater than what cultures tell us. Throughout their book, they continually point to what Scripture itself says about both physical and spiritual beauty. In fact, one of the key passages of Scripture they point to is 1 Peter 3:4, where Peter speaks of “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” This imperishable beauty, which Peter calls women to adorn themselves with, is true beauty. It is a beauty which beholds God and reflects God. And because it reflects God, this imperishable beauty summons us to worship God.
Do the qualities of beauty support such a conclusion, though? Elaine Scarry, American essayist and professor of English at Harvard, wrote on such observational qualities of beauty in her book On Beauty and Being Just. Though she does not appear to be making an argument for God, Scarry’s arguments in her book actually give great evidence for God as the original Author of beauty, since He Himself is more marvelous and beautiful than any other beauty. In the first few pages of the book, she introduces beauty as a thing which recreates or recopies itself continually. For example, a beautiful sunrise may inspire a poet to his next work of art. Upon reading this poem, and knowing the nature of a sunrise already, a painter may be inspired to create a physical image on a canvas, replicating this beauty. Yet another individual may hear the poem, and upon reading it become inspired to add music to the poet’s words (Scarry 5). Given Scarry’s point, the very fact that beauty recreates must mean there was at some point an original beauty that all other beauty seeks to recreate: an original beauty upon which all beauty is based and all beauty is recreated. There must be a God whom all beauty reflects.
How does the beauty in our everyday lives and in wonderful works of art invite us to worship God, then? There are many ways that beauty is able to summon us to worship. Ultimately, beauty is grounded in humility and submission to God because all beauty comes from God. In other words, something that bears beauty submits to God, in some way, because God is the source of all beauty. Five observations and conclusions about beauty may help explain how beauty summons us to worship our Creator. Beauty reminds us of eternity; beauty teaches our hearts more than simply our minds; beauty invokes wonder in us and even silences us; in contrast, beauty requires that we silence and humble ourselves to receive its voice; and, finally, beauty must be given by God Himself, the very author of beauty.
First, beauty reminds us we were made for eternity. Beauty fades, as we already considered. The second grader no longer sings children’s songs in his parents’ kitchen when he has grown up to be a firefighter. The yellow hues of the spring flower quickly fade in the heat of summer. In a fallen world, negatively affected by sin, the taste of beauty in the flower and in the child’s singing cannot remain. Death will come to the lilies of the field and to the sparrows in the sky. Death will come to all of us, no matter how beautiful we are now, “[f]or the wages of sin is death” (English Standard Version, Romans 6:23). It is only a matter of time before all that is living at this moment will at some point die.
Yet, we know this is not right. We know that death is not what we were made for. We can sense it every time we must say goodbye to a loved one or to a beautiful experience, such as watching the sun set. Yet, the beauty that God gives each object and person for as long as He chooses is a blessing and gift. Tim Challies, a Christian blogger, wrote in reflection upon watching a sunrise quickly fade into day, “We are never without beauty because God’s divine fingerprints are impressed on all he has made” (Challies). As Challies reflected on the sunrise, he came to the realization that, though the sunrise’s beauty quickly fades, God’s beauty does not. The sunrise was a mere reflection of God’s majesty and splendor. The sunrise was a mere taste of what eternity with God will be like. The sunrise wasn’t meant to be kept and locked away to gaze upon forever. It was a gift given by the Creator to remind us and summon us to give thanks to Him and worship Him and His beauty, which is eternal life with and through Him. It was meant to remind us we are made for eternity.
Laura Wifler, author of a Christian children’s book on friendship with those with disabilities, recently reflected through poetry on the frailty of this life’s beauty in her Instagram post titled, “Touch Your Face Lightly.” She refers to the wise words of an older woman in her life, who seems to have meaningfully encouraged her on the topic of our physical beauty. Wifler writes of her friend, “Her frail hand waves in the air, the red nail polish glowing in the moonlight, [and she says] ‘Oh honey, looks fade. We were not made for eternal youth, we were made for eternity’” (2). Our physical beauty is meant to remind us we are made for eternity. Because of the Fall, the beauty given to us today was not meant to last in this life but rather to point us to our eternal state and ultimately to our eternal God. For those who have repented of their sin and believed in Christ, eternity means worshiping God without the presence of sin and its consequence of death. What greater beauty could there be but to behold God, the author and very essence of Beauty?
Wifler is touching on a similar point found at the heart of Isaiah 40:6 and 8, where Isaiah boldly declares “All flesh is grass, / and all its beauty is like the flower of the field... The grass withers, / the flower fades, / but the word of our God will stand forever.” God is the eternal being, and His Word is equally eternal. He has no beginning and no end. He is “the Alpha and the Omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet symbolizing his existence outside of time (Rev 22:13). While His people are given eternal life, they do in fact have a beginning, unlike Him. We were created, and we were created beautifully in reflection of His beauty as image bearers.
In fact, part of being made in the image of God rests in the key word made. Hannah Anderson, Christian author and speaker from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, writes about this concept in the introduction to her book Humble Roots. She comments, “[W]e must never forget that looking like God does not mean that we are God. We are made in His image, but we are made nonetheless” (11). Being made in the image of God ought to draw us into a humble gratitude and responsibility to realize that being image bearers means we are not The Original. We bear God’s image, and thus reflect Him, as we behold Him in all His beauty. This breath of fresh air helps us realize the beauty we bear does not rest on our own efforts and abilities ultimately. We are not the source of our worth. God is, and we have been invited as image bearers to worship the God of all beauty.
Anderson’s book makes a compelling, yet whimsically inviting, case for why “we just need to learn to be human again” (10). In light of the Westminster Catechism’s definition of the chief end of man, learning “to be human again” means learning how to interact with our Creator. After all, “the chief end of man,” the Catechism declares, “is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Anderson shows that learning to be human again means humbling ourselves and remembering that we are made from dust. She further spells out the interesting etymology of the word “human”: the Latin word humus, meaning ground, is the root of both English words “humility” and “human.” Similarly, she notes that the Hebrew word behind the word adam in Genesis means “ground” (66). To be human, then, is to have humble origins and, by nature, limitations. To be human is to be humble, though majestically created in the image of the very definition of Beauty.
The beauty of God Himself is written all over Scripture. Perhaps one of the most well known passages pointing to God’s beauty is Psalm 50:2, where Asaph the Psalmist declares, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” Zion refers to God’s dwelling place with His people, as it is the city of God. At the return of Christ, God will unite all His people to Himself. We will more fully behold and reflect God, as we will no longer be burdened with the presence of our sin and a fallen world. This is what the psalmist calls the perfection of beauty: God and His people dwelling together again. This is not to declare that God needs humanity to be beautiful; rather, in His mysterious and beautiful plan, He has chosen to make us beautiful through Himself.
Yet, we have a taste of this perfection of beauty on earth even now. When God changes our hearts to behold Him and reflect Him by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, He turns our eyes off our own selfish ambitions and frees us from that bondage to sin. He gives us the freedom to submit to Him by taking our trust off ourselves and trusting Him for eternal life instead. And by this freedom, we are invited to direct our gaze on the beauty all around us as a foretaste of what beholding God face-to-face will be like.
The second observation that can be made about beauty is that beauty summons us to worship God because of the way it teaches us. Beauty teaches our hearts, not merely our minds. One way beauty teaches our hearts is that it invites us to create our own beauty, as Elaine Scarry points out. When we hear a beautiful melody, some of us find the beat in our heads and try to put lyrics to the melody. Some of us find the beat in our feet and try to put dance to the melody. This compulsion to create is certainly an implication of being made in the image of God. For instance, when I write, I typically play instrumental music in the background. The beauty of the music encourages me to reflect this same beauty in the form of writing.
When Laura Wifler writes poetry, she too is reflecting the beauty around her, putting words to the truth she is learning in her life experiences. The truth her friend taught her of eternity inspired her to create a beautiful piece of poetry in reflection. Wifler’s poems carry a uniquely heart-moving power, which can be explained by the way Eugene Peterson, author of Answering God, explains poetry. Rather than describing poetry as a heavenly language, he declares, “Poetry is language used with personal intensity. It’s not, as many suppose, decorative speech... Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal. It’s root language” (11-12). Poetry is not fancy all on its own. It is fancy because of what it is reflecting. It is decorative and cosmetic language to us only because it puts into beautiful words what we are feeling. The language of poetry speaks from one heart to another what it has learned.
Consider, too, the way the beauty of a well-written allegory teaches our hearts truths that we already know in our mind. The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan are two such allegorical works of literature. The beauty written throughout these books has a way of bringing to life many realities of the Christian life and faith. A Christian reading Pilgrim’s Progress gets to live the life of the character “Christian” vicariously and inconsequentially while deeply relating to his many temptations, trials, and joys. Similarly, the Narnia series also further convinces, encourages, and warns a Christian in his faith as he follows Edmund’s redemption by Aslan’s sacrifice, Eustace’s conversion experience, Jill and Puddleglum’s sanctifying journey, and even the mischievous Ape’s deceitful actions from The Last Battle.
At the same time, in contrast, the unbeliever reading The Chronicles of Narnia may even become convinced of the gospel through the new eyes and ears to the Biblical story given them in the world of Narnia by the brilliant C.S. Lewis. As they read an exciting allegory of the Christian stories of Creation, the Fall, Redemption, Sanctification, and Eternity, their hearts may become entranced with the beauty of the Biblical story underneath Lewis’s clever hand. It is through the beauty of words and story, then, that Bunyan and Lewis are able teach our hearts what we already know in our minds to be true from Scripture.
Yet, this is not to discredit the power and beauty of Scripture itself. Quite the opposite, Scripture itself holds rich beauty in all its literary, historical, theological, and musical writings. The beauty found in the various forms of Scripture teaches our hearts. For instance, as Leland Ryken speaks about in Words of Delight, symbols and metaphors in Scripture give us pictures to imagine to help teach us what God teaches us in Scripture. The tree and the vine are both used as metaphors throughout Scripture to help us understand the Christian’s life. In John 15:5, Jesus declares, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The beautiful image of the vine and branches and fruit paints a picture in our mind to better understand who we are and who Jesus is as our Lord.
When we abide in Christ, we surrender and submit ourselves entirely to Christ Jesus as Lord of our lives. Jesus here declares our abiding in Him is like branches abiding in a vine, using the vivid image of a common, earthy beauty to teach our hearts what is meant by “apart from me you can do nothing.” Just as a branch apart from the vine is dead and cannot produce any fruit without nourishment from its vine, so we are spiritually dead and cannot produce any good in our lives without submitting to the life-giving lordship of our gentle King Jesus.
The tree also is used throughout Scripture as a metaphor, often describing the righteous man. The Psalms open with such imagery, describing the one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2). Verse 3 declares “He is like a tree / planted by streams of water / that yields its fruit in its season, / and its leaf does not wither.” Through beauty, the imagery teaches us yet again that the Christian’s life must be rooted in God and His Word. Isaiah uses the tree metaphor as well, specifically drawing an oak tree to the reader’s mind. In chapter 61, verse 3, he declares that “those who mourn in Zion... [will] be called oaks of righteousness, / the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.”
The oak is a sturdy, ancient tree, taking years of great patience and endurance to reach the lofty title of a great oak. The imagery Isaiah uses shows rather than tells what it is to live at the mercy of God. It is to be made beautiful, rather than making our own lives beautiful apart from God. It is to trust God to make us beautiful. And for the great and wonderful purpose “that he may be glorified.” The beauty of our lives is to be a reflection of God’s own beauty and glory.
Yet, through sanctification, God often makes us beautiful through the hardships in our lives, drawing us to worship Him in everything as we learn to depend on Him. He makes us beautiful through the story He tells throughout our lives. Consider the life of Horatio Spafford, composer of the Christian hymn, “It Is Well.” Spafford wrote the well-known hymn upon hearing of his daughters’ deaths caused by a catastrophic shipwreck. Scott Sauls, author of Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen, comments on how Spafford found that he was able to cope with his grief by making song to express his hope in God (65). Spafford created a beautiful piece of music as a result of the pain he faced. In God’s kindness, this piece of music has touched thousands of lives in their own hardships as they learn to submit to God in everything, even the excruciating pain of sudden loss.
Not only can the beauty of song teach us submission to God in the pain of loss, but song can also teach us submission to God in the pain of guilt and sin, as in John Newton’s life. Before conversion, Newton was a slave trader; yet upon coming to Christ and repenting of his involvement in the slave trade, he wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” As he struggled with guilt over his own wretchedness, he composed the beautiful hymn that today, according to Scott Sauls, “has been performed an estimated ten million times,” teaching and reminding thousands of hearts of God’s grace to a sinful mankind (64).
One reason that The Chronicles of Narnia, Pilgrim’s Progress, “It Is Well,” and “Amazing Grace” are able to teach our hearts truths that we forget or don’t see for ourselves in Scripture is that sometimes we unfortunately let Scripture become mundane. This is no fault of Scripture. Rather, this is our own fault for not having the right desires toward seeking Scripture. Yet, because the Christian on this side of eternity still lives with constant distractions away from God, by both his own sin and the world’s, such pieces of literature and art have a way of drawing our hearts back to the truths of God. This is because beauty’s voice speaks to the heart. Beauty indeed has a voice, summoning our hearts to worship God.
A third observation supporting the theme of humility and submission to God as the foundation of beauty is that beauty also instills a sense of wonder and mystery into our hearts. It leaves us asking questions. Why is the sky such a neon blue in Utah, but a muted blue in Indiana? How does DNA replicate? When was “Fur Elise” written, and what was the context of Beethoven’s life to have composed that piece of music? Where did your friend get those deep blue eyes? In asking these questions and in seeking answers, we are invited to delight in the glory of God and His creation by the answers we may receive or by remaining in mystery and wonder at how marvelous a world God has created. How much more marvelous must the Creator be! The sheer vastness and incomprehensible nature of God is reflected in the many mysterious and complex beauties of this world.
An example of such wonderful beauty is the ocean. It leaves us with many questions as we approach its never-ending, glittering, crashing waters. In the presence of such glorious beauty, we are robbed of our breath. Yet we may be struck by the possible danger of such strength as the current and tide pull tons of water to the ocean floor, easily sweeping away some comparatively insignificant beach ball accidentally landing in the waters’ roaring, cyclical path. Both beautiful and dangerous, the ocean is truly wild and out of our control. But perhaps it was meant to display how out of control we truly are in this world.
In a blog post, author Madelyn Canada writes about the beauty of the ocean. Between its danger and beauty, she calls the ocean a dichotomy, declaring “[T]hat wild incomprehensibility [of the ocean] is also what grabs hold of my attention and keeps me turning to look back at it... There is so much beauty we will simply never be able to wrap our minds around. So much beauty. So much uncertainty. So much I cannot understand” (Canada). Yet, to her and her reader’s relief, she draws the conclusion that our lack of understanding of the ocean in all its majesty ought not leave us in bewilderment and fear. Instead, it ought to draw us to the One who does understand, to the One who does hold control.
The wonder such beauty instills in us ought to give us a picture of God’s beauty. Just as the ocean is vast and beyond comprehension with teeming creatures and mountainous sand landscapes that have never been gazed upon, so God is vast and beyond fully comprehending. Just as the ocean is gloriously beautiful with its foaming white and deep blue waves kissing the shore, so God is even more glorious and beautiful. Psalm 139:18 declares God’s thoughts “are more than the sand... if I could count them.” Just as the ocean is wild, dangerous, and beautiful, so God is outside our own control, doing all that he pleases.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis gives us an excellent picture of God’s “wild” character. Mr. Beaver describes Aslan when the character Lucy asks whether Aslan is safe. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you’” (75-76). In a similar way, Aslan is described in The Last Battle, the final book of the series, as “not a tame lion” (16). Just the same, God is not safe, and God is not tame. But He’s good. He does not answer to us or to anyone, as He reveals in the final chapters of Job. God asks Job, “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings towards the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?” (Job 39:26-27). God is wild, the only truly free Being in the universe.
The only adequate response to such a wild, free God is Job’s humble response: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). Such wonder that beauty instills in us pushes us to realize our own humanness, and it pushes us outside of ourselves. It summons us to lift our heads above our own circumstances and to listen. When we’ve truly stopped to listen and take in the beauty of something, we are left forgetting about our personal concerns. Instead of worrying about our life circumstances, we find ourselves wondering and fixating on the beauty and what it seeks to teach us. And since beauty teaches the heart rather than simply the mind, the whole self is engaged as it beholds beauty. The mind asks questions which the heart and the soul seek of the beautiful thing.
In fact, a fourth observation is that beauty demands us to listen. As considered already, it silences our own mouths and commands us to gaze and behold in wonder. Yet we are also responsible to silence and humble ourselves to receive beauty. Consider again when you last stopped and gazed at something. Was it a glorious sunset? Or was it your son’s blond, curly hair? Perhaps it was a magnificent concert. The glorious sunset is quick to elicit gasps of awe, but the beauty of your son’s blonde curls perhaps is not as striking and breathtaking. The golden curls require an eye that listens well, an eye that is willing to take the time to stop and gaze. Yet both the golden-red sunset and the pure gold curls command us to humble and ready ourselves to participate in the story they tell of beauty. Both require us to stop and focus to find their beauty. In a similar way, a magnificent concert requires the listener to have planned, traveled, and seated themselves purposefully in order to quietly absorb the melody in the concert hall.
C.S. Lewis speaks of this clear need to silence ourselves in An Experiment in Criticism. Specifically referring to art, Lewis makes a distinction between the literary and unliterary reader. To be a literary reader, we must “begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own perceptions, interests, and associations... [T]he first demand any work of art makes of us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way” (18-19).We must humble ourselves, forget about our own preferences and prejudices. If we desire to learn, we must remember we are not the expert. We must look, listen, receive, and surrender. The unliterary reader fails to get himself out of the way. He puts his own priorities, pride, and prejudices above learning. And he fails to grow in wisdom from an encounter with beauty.
Can beauty truly grow us in wisdom, though, even if we do humble ourselves to be a “literary” reader and humble listener? In his book The Wisdom Pyramid, author Brett McCracken creates a case for why and how we can gain wisdom from various kinds and types of sources, including both nature and beauty. An important aspect he highlights is that we indeed must listen carefully to the wisdom being proclaimed in nature and beauty around us. We must silence ourselves to become wise as we take in the beauty. Not only does “beauty render us mute,” McCracken states, but we also “need silence to fully experience beauty” (139).
Imagine trying to listen to that magnificent concert in a subway station. The heavy bustle of the crowd would drown out the melody, and it would become virtually impossible to truly enjoy the efforts of the musicians. The subway station does not provide the proper environment for listening and beholding beauty as a concert hall does. It does not provide the silence necessary to experience the beauty. This is not to say there is not beauty in the drum beats of the street bands found in downtown tunnels; rather, in both the concert hall and the downtown tunnels, we must engage with each performance of music uniquely, opening our eyes and ears to truly experience and behold the beauty.
Beauty truly is all around us in the apparent mundane things of life as well, like the wavy tresses of gold on your son’s head. If we fail to notice and behold the beauty in our family, close community, and backyard, we will likely fail to notice the beauty in other aspects of our lives. Dr. Gordon Wilson, creation biologist, makes this point clear in his biology documentary titled The Riot and the Dance: Earth. While he promises to take the viewer to the other side of the world in search of many wondrous creatures, he first focuses on the squirrel, perhaps the most common creature you could imagine. But what if the most common creature actually builds entire forests? “When you’ve been amazed by the mundane, then you are ready to wander and explore,” says Dr. Wilson. The humble squirrel abiding in your backyard indeed builds forests as he unintentionally drops his precious nuts here, there, and everywhere while seeking to store them for winter.
Imagine a world without squirrels and other small creatures such as rabbits, chipmunks, butterflies, bees, and flies. Imagine a world without the chirping of birds in the spring or the crowing of roosters in the morning. There would be no forests, no wildflowers, no eager voices to wake us. Imagine a world without the common blades of grass in your front yard or the common oak in your backyard. Even the seemingly mundane is declaring God’s praise. Indeed, in Romans 1:20, Paul is bold enough to declare that all mankind is without excuse before God in their sin because of creation’s very voice of worship: “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Every day we walk past the beauty of creation, perhaps without stopping to listen to its voice. We miss out on creation’s beauty, and we therefore miss its call to worship God.
Yet God exalts the humble, seemingly mundane squirrel. He makes it beautiful, though we fail to stop and consider its beauty. In fact, a fifth observation to be made about beauty is that God, the author of beauty, must Himself make something beautiful for it to be truly beautiful. Consider the popular Christian folktale of The Tale of the Three Trees, in which God exalts the typical and humble. The folktale begins with three ordinary trees dreaming of what they will be when they’ve matured, and the third declares she wishes to stand taller than any tree in the world so all will look at her great beauty and think of the heavens.
Many years later, in a seemingly sad turn of events, three lumberjacks come along and chop down all three matured trees. The tale follows all three as their dreams appear to be shattered; yet, as the story unfolds, each personified tree realizes its dream through its interaction with the life of Jesus. The first, made into a manger, holds the greatest treasure in all the world. The second, made into a simple boat, carries the greatest king in all the world during a storm on the Sea of Galilee. The third, left in a lumber yard in the form of wooden beams, serves as the cross upon which Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of mankind, “and every time people thought of the third tree, they would think of God. That was better than being the tallest tree in the world” (Hunt 24-25).
Even such humbly beautiful trees as those used throughout Jesus’ life encourage us to worship God. The folktale, though not meant to serve as factual in itself, beautifully pictures a Scriptural truth for us. God will exalt those who humbly submit to Him. The third tree had desired to glorify God with her life by pointing to the heavens and reminding people of God. When it seemed those apparent godly desires were not being met, she is seen questioning why she wasn’t being used to point people to God. Yet, God’s wise plan for her life in this story, even as a piece of lumber, is made clear when she becomes the means of our Redeemer’s life-giving death.
At the end, her humble cry of praise, declaring it is far better that people think of God when they behold her than if she were the tallest tree in the world, importantly teaches us that all beauty other than God is not meant to glorify itself but God. God must give a tree its beauty, God must give an orange sky beauty as the sun sets, and God must give us beauty as we humbly submit to Him. We cannot make ourselves beautiful. Beauty, in the tree, in the sunset, and all around us, calls us to reality, that we must glorify God.
Just as faithfully as he exalts the humble, God will humble those who exalt themselves in pride. Perhaps the most dramatic instance in all of the universe is the fall of Lucifer. Scripture reveals that Lucifer was a glorious angel, “the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). Whatever position he held before he fell, he clearly was honored by the holy God of the universe as beautiful. Yet, the following verses reveal his fall when he grew proud. God declares of him, “Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground” (28:17). Lucifer, perhaps the most beautiful of God’s creation, grew vainglorious as he adored himself. He failed to worship God as he beheld his own beauty. And though he reflected God’s wondrous beauty, he proudly exalted himself above his source of beauty, the One who alone deserves His creation’s praise and worship. Therefore, God humbled him, literally throwing him to the humble ground – humus.
In complete contrast, Christ was exalted by God when he humbled himself. Philippians 2:8-9 declares this gloriously rich truth: “And being found in human form, [Christ] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” God himself became human, made from the ground; he came to humbly walk on the humus of his creation; and he died the most horrific, humiliating death imaginable on the wooden cross. He was even buried in a rich man’s grave surrounded by humus (Is 53:12).
Christ humbled himself; therefore God exalted him. Lucifer exalted himself; therefore God humbled him. Christ, the most glorious and beautiful, is self-existent, being God himself. Lucifer, though created glorious, was indeed created. If even Christ humbles himself, trusting that God will exalt him, we the created ought to do so all the more. We ought to stop, listen, and behold God. We were not created to worship ourselves or creation, though we and creation are created beautifully. Instead, we were created to worship God, and he has given us the avenue of all creation through which to do so. This is how we were created to live.
Indeed, to live as we were created to live, we are trusting God to make everything beautiful in its time, as He has declared He does (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It means to obediently submit to His Word, repenting of our sin and believing in the Son of God to redeem us from our idolatrous hearts. It means we must trust that what He deems to be beautiful truly is beautiful, and what He deems ugly and vile truly is ugly and vile. It means to worship God in all that we do. It means to submit to God alone, the same way a tree by a great river submits to God, humbly rooting itself in the earth which God gives it, relying on God to supply the rain and the river and the sun. In order to live as we were created to live, we must join all created beauty as it beholds and reflects our self-sufficient God in all His beauty. We must humbly receive our beauty from God.
Yet what if we don’t trust God? What do our lives look like if we aren’t humbly submitting to God? Do we find ugliness and a lack of beauty where there is no trust of God? After all, sometimes studying the lack of a subject can yield great insights. Considering each conclusion about beauty made above, our lives do indeed look much different if we are not ourselves submitting to God just as the beauty around us is. When these truths are properly understood, they should lead us to repentance. We should see the ugliness of our sin as it defies God’s beauty.
But perhaps it doesn’t seem beautiful to submit God. Perhaps it seems mundane. Perhaps the idea of beauty is initially exciting and enjoyable, until a theological concept dares to declare God is the source of all beauty and deserves our submission and humility. And perhaps we wonder if surrendering and submitting to Him is worth the effort in a world that entices us to more apparent, visible pleasures. C.S. Lewis, in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” addresses such thoughts of boredom. Speaking about our apparent lack of desire, he states, “[I]f we consider the unblushing promises of reward... in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”
With an excellent analogy, Lewis continues to artistically unravel our improper thinking that God, even in His beauty, is mundane: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (Lewis 26). How foolish of us to think that submitting to God is boring. In our idolatry, we may think God is so. But when our hearts have been changed, God no longer appears boring. Instead, we see His beauty and we are given joy as we delight in Him. To find joy anywhere else not only disobeys God, it destroys us. It destroys our taste of beauty, and we fail to live as we were made to live.
Is this a contradiction then, as I have offered up that we find beauty even in the mundane, and yet Lewis claims we are far too easily pleased with this world’s pleasures? Certainly not. The beauty in all good and true things, even the mundane, reflects the greater beauty of God. The beauty all around us is reminding us of and inviting us into enjoying God’s beauty. What Lewis means is that we tend to be content to only take our pleasure from the things of this world. Our taste buds need conditioned to worship God through the beauty we see in this world.
We must submit to the lordship of Christ, humbly dethroning ourselves from the kingdom of our hearts and trusting in Christ as King. It is only when we submit to God, by the very grace He Himself gives us to do so, that we too will be made beautiful. We will live as we were made to live, reflecting and beholding His great beauty in worship of Him alone. Thus, because all true beauty humbly reflects and beholds God, beauty summons us to likewise reflect and behold God. In doing so, we are living as we were made to live, worshiping God.
When we live as we were made to live, beauty will remind us of our eternal state. Today is but a moment, and as Laura Wifler’s friend reminded her, “We were not made for eternal youth, we were made for eternity.” When we’ve humbled ourselves, beauty will uniquely enter and captivate our hearts, implanting truths deeply inside us. Beauty will instill a sense of wonder and awe as we become dumbstruck and full of questions in the presence of a glorious sunset. This wonder will invite us further into a humble realization that we indeed are human and not God. If we will humble and silence ourselves into such a realization, beauty will remind us of our great God, transforming us to reflect His beauty as we await the perfection of beauty.
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