The Pain of Beauty

“It’s so beautiful that it hurts me,’ said Anne softly. ‘Perfect things like that always did hurt me — I remember I called it “the queer ache” when I was a child. What is the reason that pain like this seems inseparable from perfection? Is it the pain of finality — when we realize that there can be nothing beyond but retrogression?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Owen dreamily, ‘it is the prisoned infinite in us calling out to its kindred infinite as expressed in that visible perfection.”

― L.M. Montgomery, Anne’s House of Dreams

   I’ll never forget reading the above quote in Montgomery’s book Anne’s House of Dreams, fifth in the Anne of Green Gables series. The two characters are contemplating a beautiful sunset when Anne remarks that looking at really beautiful things hurt. I remember this so clearly because I never knew anyone else had felt that way. I thought it was some weird emotion in me that finds exquisite beauty painful. Owen, the other character, expresses in words an idea that I had never before contemplated. Perhaps our longing for beauty, for perfection, is in reality our own longing for God. The part inside of us that was made for eternity yearns to meet with that visual expression of God’s perfection. 

   When I thought about that, it made sense then why we are all so drawn to beautiful things, to beautiful people. The rightness, the sense of things fitting together speaks of God’s own wholeness. And our so obvious brokenness cannot help but draw us towards that which is not broken. 

In our world, we can see the fruit of that longing. We see it in amazing creations—impressive buildings, complicated works of art, sleek graphic designs, and, of course, in the pages of magazines. The standard for beauty is high—so high, it’s impossible. It’s not surprising that we would take one of God’s attributes and turn it into an idol. 

   Believers have responded to the allure of beauty in different ways. The typical stereotype of conservative Christians portrays them rejecting beauty altogether. We may envision the long-haired, dress-clad ladies with no makeup and garner the idea that unattractiveness is holy. In our fear of beauty and its power over mankind, we have discouraged a focus on the external. Young Christians chant the mantra, “It’s what’s on the inside that matters.” 

   Unfortunately, we cannot divorce the external from the internal. Despite what gnostics tried to teach, the physical is not disdained by God. A look at creation and its extravagant beauty shows us that the Earth still retains its splendor even while displaying the scars of fallenness. 

   What does this mean to believers? It means we have to develop a healthy balance. The desire for beauty will always be with us, and it makes no sense to pretend it doesn’t. It does not need to be condemned, and it does not need to be given free license. Instead, like all gifts from God, it needs to be tempered with love. 

   In our search for perfection either in our physical selves, our homes, or our work, we have to understand what the end result could be. Anything too perfect creates a response in us that is hard to control. We are moved to worship. Time and time again, we’ve seen what happens when we encounter truly lovely things: whatever it is becomes unreachable, a distance is created, an altar erected. Either we will worship the God who created this, or we will worship the created. On this side of heaven, perfection should only be a sign, but it is often a stumbling block. We cannot ignore beauty or try to diminish it in order to hinder its worship effect—we can only gird it with humility. 

We can remind ourselves that beauty isn’t the end. All the symmetry and balance of beauty (which is what it really is, isn’t it?) isn’t in itself valuable. It is only valuable as much as it points to the One who is perfect in every way. This mindset keeps us from becoming prideful. 

   This means that when we strive for a beautiful home with everything in its place, we realize the purpose isn’t to make others think we are amazing decorators, but to create a space of beauty where people can relax and hopefully connect with God.

   This means that when we ladies get ready in the morning and apply our makeup, the goal isn’t to communicate “Look at me! I’m amazing!” or even “Don’t look at me! I’m hideous!” We clothe ourselves in beauty to the best of our ability knowing that we are presenting an entire package. 1 Peter 3:3-4 says, “Do not let your adornment be merely [italics mine] outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” There isn’t a problem with making ourselves attractive, but we need to add to that a beauty of character that connects the internal with the external.

   There will always be a tension in the Christian world between the internal and external. Between beauty and idolatry. Between creation and the Creator. While we are here on Earth, our responsibility as God-followers is to help bridge that gap as we rightly connect internal and external, beauty and humility, and the worship of the Creator instead of the creation.  

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