“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, 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. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.”
1 Peter 3: 3-5
I think that if I was to be completely honest, I would say that the very concept of beauty – and the outworking of the idea of true beauty – has been the most diligently fought battle in my 22 years of existence. No matter how many times I hear that I am beautiful because I am created in HIS image, no matter how many times I read how HE formed me in the inmost womb, no matter what people say to me, still I battle. I fight and I struggle and I gain some ground only to fall backwards again. Though I have at my fingertips vast knowledge about true beauty, though its true definition can be found contained within the worn pages of my Bible and displayed widely and brilliantly in all creation, still I struggle.
It is as though the words on the Page fight a raging duel with the images that are displayed across the pages of my life: television, magazine covers, Facebook advertisements, the people around me. . .the list goes on. Even the vastness of HIS creation, while it causes me to stop in wonder and amazement, also causes me to observe and compare. Oh, I can see the beauty in creation and in the people HE has made, but when that beauty passes through my eyes, my mind will eventually manage to cheapen it until it is distorted to such an extent that it becomes only a tool for comparison. The moment my eyes perceive beauty in someone else, my mind processes those images side by side with images of myself stored throughout years of mirror-gazing and relentless critique. Such side by side comparison leads me down a path of insecurity and dissatisfaction, for beauty distorted through comparison produces an empty longing within my heart rather than the contented appreciation it should produce.
Time and time again I come to the same desperate conclusion: I will never be what “they” say I should be. Looking at my reflection in the mirror I see flaws, imperfections, “extras” that I would rather not have, and my countenance almost immediately changes out of resigned disappointment. Time and time again, in a state of immense frustration, I will look myself square in the eye, daring that mirror to try and get inside my heart and my head, stating out loud to the empty room: “Bethany, YOUR beauty is not measured by ‘their’ standards.”
But, therein lays the problem. I know the answers. I know the right things to say. I know what the Bible says about my beauty. I know how God feels about me. I’ve heard it from my dad and from numerous people throughout my most impressionable development years. I was not raised in an environment that would have developed within me a propensity for low self-esteem and a poor self image. I know the facts. I know the truth. I’ve read it, I’ve studied it. I’ve repeated it to myself time and time and time again. I know it inside and out.
Not only that, but I’ve lived in an environment that promotes the acceptance and appreciation of a woman’s beauty. I’ve attended retreats and meetings at church events where the speaker shares about God’s incredible design, how He “greatly desires our beauty,” and the ways in which our beauty is clearly displayed. I have watched as women flock to altars, sobbing. Repairing years of wounded hearts and distorted self-perception, amazed by the truth that God indeed finds them beautiful, and has creaed them to display that beauty. I will sit in my seat, totally in agreement with the words being shared, but completely unfazed. Books that are supposed to capture the essence of every woman’s heart seem to illuminate for others truths that seem so elementary that they provide for me no emotional connection and I discard the book in boredom after the first chapter. I know and understand the truth, and have in fact been taught it all my life. Why, in the face of what I know to be true, can I not seem to apply that to my own heart and life? Why is there a disconnection between what I know, what I believe, and how I feel or perceive myself? What, exactly, is going on?
As I was reading 1 Peter, this whole concept of beauty hit me in a totally different light. You see, I have already worked through the “symptoms” of my problem. Over and over and over again I have fought against the outworking of “distorted beauty” in my life, but in doing so; I have treated the symptoms without really attacking the source of the problem. Staring myself and my flaws in the face through the mirror and shouting the truth louder than the barrage of lies that have tried to work their way into my life is simply not going to achieve the purpose I have longed for it to achieve. For, you see, I have been looking at my outward beauty and attempting, unsuccessfully, to convince my mind that it’s more beautiful than I perceive it to be, due to ___________. I’ve filled that blank in with the truth found in the scriptures, with the love of my father and those around me, with the words of speakers and Bible studies and Dove commercials that appreciate women for who they are. But, it’s not enough.
As the truth of 1 Peter pierced my heart for the first time, I realized that the issue is much different than I originally perceived it to be. It is not that I do not know the truth, or that I am unable to believe it. I know the truth, I believe the truth, but the root issue is far deeper than I’d ever imagined it to be. Somehow I’d minimized my concept of beauty to be, as Peter describes, an outward adornment: my body, my face, my smile, my carriage and composure. While true beauty is displayed in the outward realm, it originates in a place much deeper, much more intimate.
“The unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. . .a woman who puts her trust in God.”
The root problem, that I have attempted to patch with the super-glue of what I know to be true, lies not in a deficiency in the person that God has created me to be, but an immaturity in my walk with God. The sense of dissatisfaction that I feel when I look in the mirror does not come from the image looking back at me, although that is where I have perceived its origin to be. The problem lies not in the shape of my body, the crookedness of my teeth, the blemishes and flaws, or the extra pounds hanging onto my thighs. Materializing itself through my physical flaws is a lack of that gentle and quiet spirit of a woman who puts her trust in God. Though it manifests itself in the physical realm, my dissatisfied heart is longs not for a flawless outer image, but for a deeper more intimate walk with my creator.
And, I have not recognized it until now. My heart longs to know him more, to experience him more deeply, to allow him to transform me from the inside out. All this time, it has shouted to me through the image in the mirror, and all this time I have tried to shut it out, believing that it was only an inability on my part to understand what I know to be true. The fact is, my heart really does understand. It understands that God has formed me in his image, that he sees me as beautiful, but it also understands that the truest form of beauty displayed is purity, wholeness, and a secure hope in the One to whom I have given my life. My heart has been longing for and crying out for a deeper relationship with my God to the point of being dissatisfied with the person looking back at me in the mirror.
The truth of the matter is, in the depths of my heart I am not dissatisfied with the way that I look because of my physical features; I am dissatisfied with the way that I look because the way that I look reflects a walk with God that I am not satisfied with. My heart is crying out for a deeper trust in the One to whom I’ve given my life, a greater dose of faith, a greater hope in the assurance that He gives rather than my outward circumstances, a more intimate relationship with my God.
Shoving “truth” about beauty at a longing heart has not been a success. Attempting to patch a gaping wound with kid’s sized band aids would only leave the wound to bleed out as I waste band aid after band aid in a futile, frustrated attempt to solve the problem. Likewise, attempting to make my heart believe the truth about beauty rather than taking the time to develop the relationship it truly longs for has proven to be a futile, frustrating process that has gotten me nowhere.
The truth I’ve realized through Peter’s words is this: as I develop my relationship with God, the peace, the hope, and the quiet gentleness that it will produce within me will be much more apparent in my physical appearance than my crooked teeth and imperfect body. When the beauty of my savior shines through my countenance and illuminates my eyes, the imperfections will fade away.
I’m not longing for outward beauty at all. I’m longing for more of him. So much of him, in fact, that no matter what the ads and the newspapers say, when I look in the mirror, the beauty I will find staring back at me will overshadow every cheap imitation of beauty that this world has created. For, the image looking back at me in the mirror will be that of my savior, my perfect, spotless, pure, holy, beautiful savior, who’s beauty far outshines the most beautiful of all creation. For all else will fade away in the face of the One who is, in himself, the essence of beauty.