The Beauty God Desires

August 14th, 2011
Image © junicks | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

I doubt many people readily admit to being superficial; I certainly do not. Yet I must confess that at times I fail to look beneath the surface. Recently, I was watching a television program featuring a married couple searching for a new home. I was struck by the wife’s nose. Her nose did not seem unusual from the front or from one side, but from the other side it looked like she was sneering. One of her nostrils looked like it was constantly flared.

When my wife joined me, I said, “I can’t believe I am going to say this. After all, I’m not much for cosmetic surgery; but she should consider it.”

Later, I wondered, Why did this woman’s appearance bother me? Who was I to recommend a surgical procedure? Why was I judging her? Why was I judging her nose, which had no bearing on the show? Was her appearance really the defining characteristic about her?

The Quest for Beauty

I am not the only one who has ever focused on appearance. “Being pretty—or just not ugly—confers enormous genetic and social advantages,” according to The Economist magazine. “Attractive people (both men and women) are judged to be more intelligent . . . ; they earn more, and they are more likely to marry.”

American scientist David Buss studied what men are looking for in a potential mate. He asked more than 10,000 people from 37 cultures their preferences. Physical attractiveness was at or near the top of the list for every man in the study. According to The Economist, even babies judge based on attractiveness. A three-month-old will smile longer at the face of a person considered attractive by adults than at the face of a person not considered attractive.

Over the centuries, people have gone to great lengths to enhance their outward beauty. In the Middle Ages, upper-class women swallowed arsenic and applied bat blood to their skin in order to look better. In the 1700’s, some Americans believed that urine could erase freckles. In the Victorian era, some women went so far as to have surgery to remove their ribs so they could have what they thought was a more appealing waist.

The early 20th century saw the beginning of the mass production of beauty products, an industry bolstered by movies and magazines promoting an idealized standard of beauty. At that time “the emerging beauty industry played on the fear of looking ugly as much as on the pleasure of looking beautiful, drawing on the new science of psychology to convince women that an inferiority complex could be cured by a dab of lipstick,” according to The Economist.

Today, the beauty industry rakes in billions of dollars selling makeup, hair products, skin-care products, fragrances, and other beauty products. In 2003, Americans spent more on beauty than on education; and the beauty industry continues to grow.

While most consumers of these products are women, the industry is increasingly targeting men. Aging baby boomers and the growing middle classes in developing countries such as China, India, Russia, and South Korea are fueling growth in the sales of beauty products. In Brazil, there were 900,000 “Avon Ladies” in 2003, more than the number of men and women serving in the Brazilian army and navy combined.

During a recent trip to a supermarket in my small town, I noticed that beauty-care products filled one entire side of an aisle and spilled over to part of another aisle. The products included headbands, ponytail holders, bobby pins, barrettes, brushes, combs, curlers, hundreds of varieties of shampoos and conditioners, hair-color products in various shades for men and women, razors and razor blades for men and women, shaving cream, nose- and ear-hair trimmers, deodorants and antiperspirants, moisturizers (including three varieties targeting men), cotton balls, cotton rounds, cotton squares, and cotton swabs.

In a nearby aisle, I found 37 varieties of bar soap, 84 varieties of body wash (including an astounding 37 varieties targeted at men), liquid soap, pumice stones, exfoliating sponges, and loofah sponges, among other beauty products. While the store does not sell makeup or perfume, it does sell diet drinks, diet snacks, diet frozen dinners, and diet supplements. I am sure the store would not stock these products if people did not purchase them.

Magazines and magazine websites encourage the use of beauty products. Among the beauty articles featured in the last few months on Cosmopolitan magazine’s website are articles about how to fight body acne, particularly blemishes on the back, which are more visible in warmer weather; the latest trends in makeup looks to wear this summer; a new trend in manicures; new ways to look sexy in the heat; six major hair and makeup looks from celebrities at the Cannes Film Festival and how to get those looks at home; how you can look like Princess Kate and her sister, Pippa Middleton; and how to get Reese Witherspoon’s sexy look.

A Prophet’s Lesson

The Old Testament prophet Samuel could be superficial, too. He was not only a spiritual leader of the Israelites, he was also their de facto temporal leader. However, the people wanted a king like the other nations and pressured Samuel to choose one for them. Israel’s first king was Saul, who was anointed by Samuel. One of Saul’s more appealing qualities was that he was tall, head and shoulders taller than others. Samuel was convinced that there was no one quite like Saul (1 Samuel 10:23-24).

In time, Saul failed as king. God called Samuel to choose a new king and directed him to the town of Bethlehem to choose a king from among Jesse’s sons. Samuel was convinced that the first young man he saw, Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, “must be the LORD’s anointed right in front” of him. After all, Eliab was attractive. However, “the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the LORD sees into the heart’ ” (1 Samuel 16:6-7).

Samuel, like most of us, was distracted from the most important qualities. Instead of looking at outward appearance, God looks first and foremost at inner qualities. The best king for Israel would be Jesse’s son with a heart for God.

It took Samuel a while to discover the right one to anoint as king. He saw Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah, and four of Jesse’s other sons. No matter how attractive they were, none of them was the right one. Finally, Jesse brought his youngest son, David. When David appeared before Samuel, God confirmed that the youngest was the right choice. (Of course, David, who was chosen to be the new king, was also considered good-looking.)

How Beautiful

Centuries after David reigned as king, the people of Judah were in a crisis. The future looked bleak for Jerusalem, often called Zion. Hope was dim. In that time of despair, a prophet proclaimed, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of a messenger who proclaims peace, who brings good news, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God rules!’ ” (Isaiah 52:7). The prophet’s message was clear: There was hope, no matter how hopeless things may have seemed. A promised messenger would come to proclaim the good news of peace and God’s rule.

The early Christians believed that Jesus fulfilled that promise. Jesus brings the good news of peace and is the embodiment of God’s rule. Paul took that image from Isaiah 52 a step further. If we are Jesus’ followers, if we continue the mission of Jesus, then we, too, are to be messengers proclaiming the good news of peace and God’s rule not only with our words, but also with our actions.

In a letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that everyone—Jew and Gentile—can be saved by calling on the name of Jesus Christ. However, “how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news’ ” (Romans 10:14-15).

The beauty God desires is not physical beauty enhanced with the latest cosmetic products and surgical procedures. The beauty God desires is the beauty of a messenger proclaiming good news, a messenger with a heart for God.


This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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