Thursday, 26 February 2015

God's beautiful people

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:2

One of the world’s leading fashion designers was quoted in the paper recently as saying, “I hate ugly people. Very depressing.”

You almost feel you should apologise to the poor little petal: “Dear Mr Fashion Designer, I really am so sorry to be a cause of mental anguish to you - please forgive me.” (Mind you, I can’t resist commenting that, judging by the accompanying photos, he himself is hardly an oil painting.) 

I have to admit that if I were asked to draw up a list of the ten most stupid, bone-headed, nasty, ill-mannered, coarse, odious, contemptible remarks ever made in the history of the human race, this one would be right up there. Ugh!

Yet on further reflection I find it hard not to feel genuinely sorry for a person capable of such a repugnant opinion. And when I see the fashion pages in newspapers and magazines - unsmiling models (why are they always so frowny?) parading in absurd clothes you would never see in everyday life - the feeling is only intensified. 

Isn’t it sad that a massive industry involving millions upon millions of pounds is built on the need to look (supposedly) good, to impress, to turn heads? Sad, sad, sad!

And then we read that prophetic word about Jesus in Isaiah 53, which The Message translation gives as: “There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look”. Or the word about David in 1 Samuel 16:7: “... the Lord does not see as mortals see: they look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Or Peter’s word to women (though - with adjustments no doubt - every bit as applicable to men): “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and gold jewellery and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self...” (1 Peter 3:3).

It’s striking that the New Testament never so much as mentions the physical appearance of the people it’s describing. Centuries of Christian art have more than plugged that gap, but it’s all pure guess-work.

I wonder what Mary looked like? Was she pretty; was she plain? Was Peter really the stocky, muscled, bearded figure we probably carry in our imaginations? We just don’t know.

Indeed, the nearest we ever get to a physical description of a New Testament figure is that of Paul, who was apparently "baldheaded, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, and a rather large nose...” Not particularly impressive, it would seem! 

Let me be quick to add that this description doesn’t come from the Bible, but from an early Christian document called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, so we have no way of knowing how true it is. (Mind you, judging by Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 10:10 he wouldn’t have been particularly bothered about disputing it.)

There is of course nothing wrong with taking a little trouble to look nice and to dress smartly and even elegantly. But an obsession with outward appearance is a symptom of a false set of priorities. If we are to seek beauty, or handsomeness, let it be of that “inner” kind that Peter mentions.

And what, precisely, does that mean?

Well, I don’t think I can do better than quote the words of that ugly little runt of a man - you know, the one who wrote Galatians: “, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control...” (Galatians 5:22). (Why not take a few minutes to suck slowly on each of those words?) 

Yes, the harvest of the Holy Spirit coming to fruition in our lives. (You might be interested to know, by the way, that that quote about Paul’s appearance goes on with the words: “...he was full of grace and mercy. At one time he seemed like a man, and at another he seemed like an angel.") 

Various questions arise: Where do I spend more time, in front of the mirror or before the Lord? What matters most to me, how I look to others or how I appear to God? What consumes more of my money, giving to God’s work or spending on my appearance? 

The fruit of the Spirit or the vulgar glitz of the celebrity industry...? I think I know which matters more to God. Don’t you?

Lord God, give me a deep desire to have the true inner beauty that comes of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and so to prepare for that day when, seeing him as he is, I shall be like Jesus. Amen.

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