- Visual beauty
Would anyone ever say that a rainbow is ugly? So, why the commonplace saying that ‘beauty resides in the eye of the beholder’? Isn’t it still beautiful when no one sees it? Perhaps Mortimer J Adler helps us when he fine-tuned that everyday sentence as: “Admirable beauty is objectively present [within an object, a person or a scene], but enjoyable beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who gets pleasure from beholding it.’
Take, for instance, the reaction of Sir Francis Younghusband when deeply moved by the scenic grandeur of Kashmir. He assumed that everyone else who was there would feel the same overwhelming elation: “There came to me this thought . . . why the scenes should so influence me and yet make no impression on the men about me. . . . Clearly it is not the eye but the soul that sees. But then comes the still further reflection; what may there not be staring me straight in the face, which I am blind to as the Kashmir stags are to the beauties amidst which they spend their entire lives? The whole panorama may be vibrating with beauties man has not yet the soul to see.’
Just after my sixth birthday I consciously yielded my life to Christ one bedtime, but next day I felt no difference emotionally. However, when I was a young evangelist, in my late twenties I submitted to him as the Baptizer in the Holy Spirit and I overflowed in an unknown tongue. My experience on that occasion could best be described in the words of the second verse of that delightful hymn, ‘Loved with everlasting love’:
‘Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green;
something lives in every hue, Christless eyes have never seen:
birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauties shine,
since I know, as now I know I am His, and He is mine.’
The eye – and soul – of this beholder was no longer restricted as is the vision of a Kashmir stag. I can appreciate beauty visually because I have been created anew in Christ Jesus in the image of God who, as Creator, enjoys his handiwork visually. ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31 New International Version, unless otherwise indicated).
But beware, for visual beauty can be deceptive and an alluring bait that may lead those tempted by the beauty they see in the forbidden fruit to partake of it and thereby fall morally. When Eve ‘saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it could give her . . . she took some of the fruit and ate it . . .’ (Genesis 3:6, New Living Translation). The book of Proverbs warns us about ‘your neighbour’s wife’, or any ‘wayward woman’ [nowadays maybe one’s charming female work colleague]: ‘Do not lust in your heart after her beauty’ (Proverbs 6:24-25). In contrast, the book concludes by honouring ‘a wife of noble character’: ‘Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ Proverbs 31:30) – even one who has earned the lines of care in her aging face!
Now let’s consider briefly some other aspects of beauty mentioned in Scripture.
- Seasonal beauty
We do well to realise that, because God ‘has made everything beautiful in its time’, therefore ‘there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens’ (see Ecclesiastes 3:1-14). For example, bridal beauty is limited to the wedding day, hence the gasps of pleasure throughout that specific occasion – ‘Isn’t she gorgeous!’ Then, only when they see the subsequent album of photographs and the video movies will some guests say, ‘He doesn’t look so bad either.’ Trees that display the beauty of spring blossom portray a different beauty in the season of fruit picking; and their frost-encrusted twigs convey yet another beauty on a cold and sunny winter’s morning. Interestingly, according to W E Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, the Greek adjective for beautiful, horaios, literally translates as ‘what is seasonable, produced at the right time’ – from hora, ‘season, a period fixed by natural laws’. Therefore my behaviour would not be beautiful were I to try to act and dress and talk like a teenager!
If seasonal beauty has a time factor, how about the spacial aspect of spiritual beauty?
- Situational beauty
A diamond is beautiful in itself, but its glory is enhanced when situated in a gold necklace worn in sunshine against a black velvet dress.
Travelling for the north, the south and the east to one of Israel’s annual festivals, as pilgrims caught sight of Jerusalem ahead of them they would burst into song: ‘Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise in the city of our God, his holy mountain. Beautiful in its loftiness [or ‘beautiful for situation’], the joy of the whole earth . . . is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King’ (Psalm 48:1-2). Personal testimony is important, but our corporate interaction in the communal life of the local church enables us to be beautiful for situation.
- Verbal beauty
At a till in the supermarket the other day I observed from her badge the name of the woman dealing with my few purchases. To acknowledge her as human and not a mere machine, I greeted her with the phrase ‘Good on ya’, Sonya!’ ‘Oh! you’re a poet,’ she replied; so I admitted I’d written quite a few poems, as I paid and got out of the way of the customers queuing behind me. In fact, just about all of my many poems have been biblically inspired, I know how the composer of Psalm 45 felt when he wrote, ‘Beautiful words stir my heart. I will recite a lovely poem about the King, for my tongue is like the pen of a skillful poet’ (Psalm 45:1, New Living Translation) – but others must be the judge of that in my case!
- The divine bestowal of beauty
May the prayers of the psalmists David and Moses express our own desire for spiritual beauty:
‘One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple’ (Psalm 27:4).
‘May the beauty of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us – yes, establish the work of our hands’ (Psalm 90:17 margin).