Love or Beauty?
[[cross-posted from Facebook, written as the answering article to a very long and awesome comment discussion]]
Early last November found me in Corpus Christi, Texas, participating in a communications conference. I treasure that experience as one of the most wonderful weeks of my life, because as well as having an utterly amazing time with everyone, I was exposed to truths which have cemented themselves permanently in my heart, further directing my mindset towards missions, genuine leadership, and ultimately towards Christ. I remember one particular class I attended where the students were told to write on a piece of paper two values- two admirable things to pursue. I, being a rather abstract person, chose ‘altruism’ (brotherly love) and ‘beauty’. After we had chosen our two values, they told us to underline one. So… I underlined beauty. And then our two teachers excitedly informed us that we were each going to write down all the reasons we could come up with for why the underlined value was greater than the other. I raised my eyebrows, blinked, and thought myself in a quandary. I mean, what reasons could you come up with for why beauty was better than brotherly love? But I got to thinking. And those thoughts that began to stir within me in November have remained to the present moment. Which is why I bring you the question, ‘which is more fundamental- love or beauty?’ I will be endeavoring to answer this question for all of us in these next few paragraphs.
If the answer to the question seems obvious to you on the surface, let me lead you into the depths of the problem. I’m sure it seems clear that love should be valued above beauty. But is it possible that, before we can have love, we must have beauty? Can you ever bestow love without recognizing beauty in the loved thing or person? I’m not talking about physical beauty here, but overall wholesomeness and worth. Without seeing this deep beauty manifested in something (or someone), can you love it? Of course we are commanded to love our enemies and rejoice through suffering. But when we do these things, is it because we realize that there is some inherent beauty in a person or situation, even if we don’t see it? This is the question that I’ve pondered in length.
First of all, I should define love and beauty to prevent any confusion. I will be speaking of love not only in the context of human relationships, but also as affection, admiration, or appreciation for an object or circumstance. Beauty I define as ‘the quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses’. And now, on to the issue at hand….
Since this is a question that faces mankind, and not God, I’ll not be looking at God’s point of view immediately. For flawed humans, which is more fundamental? Does beauty determine love in our case? I believe, for most people, it does. We are born with human sight, and look for beauty at the surface. Only God is capable of seeing beyond the obvious. When a man loves something, it’s because he sees something lovable, something beautiful in the loved object. No normal person is going to go out and love a dirt road, a paper clip, or another person, without first seeing value or worth in it. The apparent value and worth is relative, depending on the person. I’m completely capable of loving dirt roads for their simplicity and overall dirt-ness, and paper clips for their perfectly practical (yet unlikely) swirl. But Hitler loved destroying all other ethnic groups in favor of the Arian race. He saw value and worth in his stance. Throughout the entire human population, there is not one who is capable, in and of himself, of loving something that does not appear favorable to him. So, to much of mankind, beauty is the supreme value. In order for something to be lovable in the eye of the beholder, it must be beautiful in the eye of the beholder. But notice I said that this is the case for much of mankind.
Because you see, as Christians, we don’t love in and of ourselves. We love because of God’s perfect love channeled through us. Romans 5:5 says, “…and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” For God and His followers who he enlightens, love is the more fundamental, because as the Scriptures state, God is love. Love is more than an emotion- it can be bestowed, received, accepted, withheld…. it’s more than something like ‘happiness’, which is a mere emotion and can’t be given away. Love is something infinitely precious- we really have no idea how it works, and yet it rules the world. God is love. God is not beauty, though He is beautiful, and no beauty can exist apart from Him. (In actuality, nothing can exist apart from Him.) Beauty is an attribute, but love is something much more. The fact is, however, that love is not something humans are fully capable of. Thus, without God, WE can only love when we find something apparently lovable. There are plenty of lovable things to be found, since everything God created holds some inherent beauty- otherwise He wouldn’t have created it and said that it was good. We were made in His image, and we have retained that image. Of course we understand that Adam’s fall corrupted that beauty forever, but by God’s grace, it is still there. Nothing WE’VE done has sustained it; it was bestowed once and for all at the beginning of the world. So we still have no reason to boast. Why does God love us? I cannot answer that question. No one can. It’s true that we still retain His image, but God is perfect and we most certainly are not. Why would He love something so flawed? And yet He DID love us enough to send Christ as our bridge to Him, that in Christ our sins might be washed away. God doesn’t value beauty above love. It’s His love that enables beauty to exist. Somehow His love reaches us in our stiffened, black souls, and makes us beautiful. He takes from us all of our sin, and gives us in return a softened heart- capable of loving. We don’t love because of beauty. We love because He first loved us.
So for Christians, love has become the fundamental value! And when God commands us to love our enemies, we can, because He enables us to do so. When He assures us that He will bring good out of every seemingly evil situation, we believe Him, and sometimes He graciously allows us to actually see the beauty that our eyes weren’t able to recognize. This is where a certain quote by G.K. Chesterton comes in, “A thing must be loved before it is lovable.” I translate this to mean that a thing must be loved before it is LOVELY. Certainly there are many things in the world that are obviously lovely. If we love them… big deal. We would probably have loved them before we received new life and new love in Christ. It’s in loving the unlikely things that God’s love is manifested. When He gives us the strength to love our enemies, He may also give us the pleasure of seeing our enemies become our friends. Or perhaps they may stay as vile as ever, but He will work in US when we do His will. And that growth will be beautiful. When we love, it’s as much for our benefit as for the loved. When God fills us with Himself, our eyes are opened to see beauties that were never visible before. St. Augustine put it very wisely, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
So love should be considered the ultimate goal to strive towards. Even though our human flesh aches for the beautiful, there may be unparalleled beauties just around the corner in the dark. If we follow God’s guidance, letting His will subsume ours, we can break through our earthly tendencies and embrace true love. Remember that, as Corrie ten Boom believed, “Whenever we cannot love in the old human way, God can give us the perfect way.”
Let us love for Love’s sake alone.
[As a post-script, I wrote an Italian sonnet. Don’t that sound impressive now? Tehe.]
Such Beautiful Love
The wrinkle in my shirtsleeve is so light.
Not so the cavern breach inside my heart.
All marred existence bleeds for mankind’s plight.
A shadow of the crimson, blighted art.
Why were we deceived by falsehood’s warning
That we were incomplete and ill-prepared?
For there at the beginning of earth’s glory,
We reigned in love; beauty our only care.
And yet we drove away creation’s smile
So innocent, infused with music’s laugh.
In favor of a crooked grin, and wiles
That made us slaves unto the whip of wrath.
That day the sky was wrinkled in a frown,
And all our paths to beauty fraught and dazed
Until, through tears, we heard a promise sound.
Throughout the wasted world, it still remains.
Hear it in the silent cavern’s recess.
Watch it rend a tree with lightning’s gasp.
Know it as it pulses through your soul’s depths.
Unable to be earned, yet here to grasp!
Love has simply melted all our weapons.
Torn the earth apart out of His mercy.
Seized upon and wasted man’s directions,
Infusing in us His own peerless beauty.
And every stubborn wrinkle will dissolve
At the touch of such a beautiful love.