Up the road from where I live is a Stationery shop I like perusing. Recently I happened upon a card for sale which features a photo of a woman with a short mannish haircut, thick-rimmed awful glasses, who clearly hasn’t made a lot of effort and underneath is written “Carol believed that beauty lay within”.
I have a mixed reaction to that card. On the one hand I can’t help a small smile in amusement. That’s because, like a lot of humour, it has been taken to extremes. And because, as we all probably know, women who make such proclamations usually make different (ie negative) value judgments on physical appearance, but they’re value judgments based on physical appearance all the same. And if they proclaim such things to others chances are that they need to work on the humility aspect of their beauty within, for starters. (Few things are less attractive than a woman who is self-righteous in her own piety!) If we, out of our own convictions, hold to a standard of minimal physical effort, yet sneer at or question the spiritual priorities of our sisters who make more effort, then it’s unlikely we are any closer to true beauty than they are. In this way a woman who doesn’t wear make-up can hold the wearing of make-up as an issue of vanity and spiritual significance in a way that a woman who does wear make-up doesn’t, she’s just taken it in the other direction. But perhaps our current culture isn’t really veering in that direction!
On the other hand the card saddens me, because it would seem to be implying that the idea that beauty lies within is a preposterous idea. God teaches us otherwise in the Bible, as we saw in this chapter. David Powlison has observed that one of the most conspicuous obsessions of our culture is the quest for physical beauty. And so I particularly liked the quote from Carolyn Mahaney on page 169 on how what God teaches us on beauty is so very different to what we hear from of our culture.
But I did appreciate that this chapter was not ascetic, it acknowledged the truth that God is the creator of beauty and that men notice beauty (there is not much point pretending otherwise!). But I think it made the helpful point that therefore the reason many women strive to be beautiful is because we know the effect it has and we long for the power that it gives us. We want to use it, and perhaps especially as single women, to gain something. But I wasn’t quite sure where the line was then going to fall for single women between maintaining a certain (balanced) level of appearance for the benefit of a future husband and that being tangled up with wanting to be beautiful to attract the attention of a husband in the first place (we may not want the attention of many men, but we’d like the attention of one of the many!) or of what any pursuit of beauty meant for single women, in the absence of the future husband scenario. Perhaps the point here is that we be wise to the influence of beauty, and evaluate our hearts and motivations in pursuing it. (I have linked to a talk by Carolyn Mahaney below on Women, Beauty and God, which elaborates on the lies and deceit of physical beauty and how the pursuit of God’s glory will keep our attention to our physical bodies in its proper place.)
A married woman making an effort at beauty in order to please her husband seemed more straightforward to me. I appreciated that Carolyn mentioned the heart issues, but I think we need to be careful that we are not holding physical beauty on par with spiritual beauty. Rachel has actually discussed this is more depth (and read the comments too), so I won’t discuss that again here. I don't think that is what is intended in this chapter, but it's important to be clear on what's of much greater importance.
The section I liked the most was that of “Inward Beauty: Attractive to Others” (though we need to make sure our motivation in pursuing inward beauty is because it is precious and glorifying to God, and not just to be attractive to others). I liked that it elaborated on what a quiet and gentle spirit might actually look like. And I thought the application to us as single women was profound. We won’t glorify God, or adorn the gospel, if we are agitated and distrustful in our singleness, and we will glorify him if our satisfaction is in him. (That may, of course, make us attractive to godly men, but that is not our main aim.) As Geoff Purswell is quoted as saying, in the talk linked below, a gentle and quiet spirit is “an inner disposition of humble contentment and quiet tranquility rooted in an unwavering trust in God and his purpose”. That will make us truly beautiful.
Here are Carolyn McCulley's discussion questions for this chapter:
Women, Beauty and God by Carolyn Mahaney. You can download this talk for free here from Sovereign Grace Ministries and it is well worth a listen.
This is not some kind of conservative option for the diehards, but a biblical command 1 Tim 2:9-10. You can download the chapter by CJ Mahaney, from his book called Wordliness: Resisting the Seduction of a Fallen World titled "God, My Heart and Clothes". If you've never spared much of a thought for your wardrobe this is something to work through.