Saturday, February 19, 2011

True Beauty in Christ

The following is a talk which I gave at our Church Women's Fellowship this morning. We enjoyed a lovely brunch together, had a lesson in tying silk scarves and an accessory exchange, some songs, and then I shared what had been on my heart as a result of going through the book of 1 Peter with my Bible study group for the past several months.

When you hear the word, "beauty", what comes to mind? Personally, "tall" and "svelte" top my list. Images of physically beautiful women are all around us. Every grocery store checkout line has magazines plastered with the world's ideals of glamour and beauty. Television and movies parade for us endless images of beautiful women. There is an entire industry devoted to convincing us that physical perfection is not only to be desired, it may even be within our grasp. If we take their diet pills, wear their fashions, use their makeup, and subscribe to their magazines so that we can keep up with their ever-shifting definitions, we too might achieve their ideal of beauty. The beauty that we see emblazoned across the world's standards is representative of only a slim percentage- no pun intended- of women today, and yet, for all of the billions of dollars spent on the beauty industry each year, it is missing the mark.

Now, being good stewards of what we have been given is wise, and I know for certain the Bible does not discourage that. Pursuing health and wholesome beauty is not the same as pursuing vanity. Watching what we eat, wearing clothing that suits us, and wearing makeup are not necessarily attempts to radically change the body with which we are born. As a wise, yet anonymous philosopher once said, "If the barn needs painting, paint it." Taking reasonable care as opposed to pursuing unreasonable goals is a matter of motive.

Further, as Christians we know that we are not to set our standards according to the values of the world around us, but by the Word of God. My point of entry to this topic will be 1 Peter 3:3-4, "Do not let your adorning be external- the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious."

Let's look first at what this is not saying. "Do not" what? Braid your hair? Wear gold? Put on clothes? Clearly not. This IS saying DO NOT let those external things be your adornment. Your beauty isn't going to be found in what is external.

What DOES this say? "But let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit." What is the heart? All through Scripture we are told that the heart is the seat of who we really are. "Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life", Proverbs 4:23. It is the fount from which our personality- our character- springs. The hidden person of the heart, then, we can understand to be our genuine selves- who we actually are.

Looking closer into Scripture to find information about our hearts yields a disturbing diagnosis. According to Jeremiah 17: 9, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick, who can understand it?" This is not a description of beauty, but of a wasting illness. Reading further into verse 10 we see the Lord telling us that, "I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give to every man according to his ways." If what the Lord finds when he searches our hearts is such wicked sickness, how then are we to be found beautiful? How are we to be made well? Worse yet, how can we even approach this God who sees us so clearly? In Psalm 24:4 we find that the entrance to God's presence is barred to such defiled creatures; "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…" How does one cleanse a heart so utterly filthy?

In David's psalm of repentance, Psalm 51:10, we catch a glimmer of hope. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." Could it be that we aren't the ones to do the cleansing? Has the Lord of Glory provided a way for our hearts to be cleansed by Himself?

Turning to Ezekiel 36 we read, "I" says the Lord, "will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." This is no mere glimmer of hope, this is life-altering news. We who have wicked and sick hearts have recourse to the Great Physician who will Himself perform for us a heart transplant! This is why the Father gave us such a dire diagnosis in Jeremiah, and yet His Son can say in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God," Matthew 5:8. And how can we be sure that this new heart will function properly? Look again at our verse in Ezekiel, look at the pronouns used: "I will sprinkle", "I will cleanse", "I will give", "I will put", "I will remove… and give", "I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk". This is the Lord's work, not our own.

Those who are in Christ have experienced this heart transplant, this heavenly cleansing. Scripture tells us from beginning to end that our clumsy efforts to purify ourselves and reach to God's throne only end in failure. Indeed, we are not only crippled by our sins, we are dead in our sins. "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:4-9) This, then, is the beginning of our heavenly make-over. God Himself is at work.

Let's return to our verse and look further at the adornment which Peter is encouraging us to wear. "Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit…" What can we learn from the term "imperishable"? Evidently it is essential to the nature of the beauty we are searching out here, so it is worth investigating if only for a moment. Something that is imperishable will not perish, will not fade, is not susceptible to decay, and is not temporary. This is something that will last forever. I'm reminded of the verses where Jesus tells us, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Matthew 6:19-20) Might this imperishable beauty described by Peter be one of the treasures about which Jesus is speaking? I believe it is, and here's why.

God is forming and shaping our character- the hidden person of the heart- for a purpose, to a specific end. In the first chapter of First Peter he speaks to that end. "Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct." (1 Peter 1:14-15) Hang with me here- let's get a broader picture of what this means. Romans 12:2 says almost the same thing, but with a clue as to how this can happen, "Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." One more verse: Romans 8:29, "for those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…" In the first two verses we see what we are not to be conformed to: the passions of our former, (sin-driven) ignorance, and the world, meaning the fallen, sinful world. The third verse shows us to what God is conforming us: the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. The end to which He is shaping us is holiness, clearer understanding of His will, and imaging our Savior. The key to how this transformation is accomplished is in the renewal of our minds.

Traced throughout Scripture is the admonition to seek God's Word in order to transform our minds and hearts. Skipping through Psalm 119, which is through and through about the Word of God from one verse to the next, brings us these gems; v.2"Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with their whole heart," v.11 "I have stored up your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you." v.33-34 "Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law." v.105 "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path". In the New Testament, Paul instructs us that, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16) So the very Words of Scripture are the means which God uses to transform our hearts and minds.

Going back to our original verse, and looking at the next quality of this beauty we see this idea carried out even deeper; a gentle and quiet spirit. According to the commentary which I use to help me in studying this, the Greek word which is here translated as "gentle" is used only four times in Scripture. Curiously enough, two of the other places where it is used are in descriptions of Jesus, the third is in the beatitudes; "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5) In Matthew's description of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he reaches back to a prophecy which was being fulfilled, "Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey." (Matthew 21:5) In Matthew 11:29 Jesus says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." So we have here four translations of this aspect of our inner beauty; meek, humble, and gentle in heart. They describe Jesus, and they describe our inner beauty. And don't let that word, "meek" throw you. As the commentary elaborates on this verse it says, "A woman with a meek and quiet spirit ought never to be underestimated, for meekness is not the same as weakness, and quietness is not synonymous with dullness." As we are growing in this beauty, we are growing more and more like Christ.

In fact, there are several places in Scripture where we find lists of the character qualities which God is working into our hearts. In Galatians 5:22-23 we find the Fruit of the Spirit: "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." In Colossians we see that we are to, "Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." (Colossians 3:12-14)

In Ephesians we see how these qualities are to shine forth from our hearts; "Put off the old self,… and be renewed in the spirit of our minds,… put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness… speak the truth,… do not let the sun go down on your anger,… do honest work (so that you may) share with anyone in need,… be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you… Be imitators of God,… walk in love,… walk as children of light,… discern what is pleasing to the Lord,… walk not as unwise but as wise,…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Skipping through Ephesians 4:17-5:20)

Now we come to the "quiet spirit" in our verse. When thinking about quietness of spirit, two verses that have particularly ministered to me have been Psalm 46:10, which many of us know, "Be still and know that I am God", and another which may not be as familiar, Psalm 131:2, "I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me." These speak of a trust in the Lord which does not necessarily understand all things, but entrusts to God what is beyond my own reach. This trusting quietness was also known to our Savior, as we see in Isaiah 53:7 "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth." When the rage of the world was screaming in its bloodlust, "Crucify Him!", Jesus faced the noise in quietness, in order that we might find peace and quiet with God in the midst of the noise and tumult of our lives now. Even Peter, when he is encouraging his readers to imitate the Lord, tells us that, "When He was reviled, He did not revile in turn; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly." (1Peter 2:23) When we learn to quietly trust the Father, through times of trial and suffering, we are being conformed to the image of Christ.

As we look at the beauty which shines forth from a heart that has been cleansed by the blood of Christ, it becomes obvious that, just as beauty is not "skin deep", neither is ugliness. That which is truly ugly is not a physical feature, but a character bent and twisted from the filth of sin. In fact, returning to Isaiah 53 we can see, in a brief glimpse, a mere fraction of the cost our Lord paid to free us from the bondage of sin, "He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed Him not." (Isaiah 53: 3) What cosmic treason is this? How could the very Son of God be despised? How could he be rejected? The answer is that it's the very thing he came to earth to do. He came to carry our sin and filth on the cross; to suffer the agony of rejection, not only by men, but also by His Holy Father, in order that we may be free from sin's grip on our hearts and souls. Our Savior died that we might live. The pure and Holy One was engulfed in the ugliness of our sin, so that we may gaze upon His beauty. "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) He took our ugliness so that we could be as beautiful as HE.

Though I have emphasized that God is the Master craftsman, somehow, we also play a role in this work. Phil 2:12-13 instructs us in this divine mystery, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." I've gotten this far without a single quote by John Calvin, so here at last I'll turn the reigns over and allow him to shed some 16th Century light upon the meaning of this verse. "Nothing hinders God from training His own people in humility, that while fighting stoutly, they may restrain themselves under the bridle of self-control. And from the context it is clear that this was the intention of the apostle where he assigns the cause of fear and trembling to God's good pleasure, whereby He gives to His people the capacity to will aright and to carry through valiantly… For not only does piety beget reverence toward God, but the very sweetness and delightfulness of grace so fills a man (or woman) who is cast down in himself with fear (awe), and at the same time with admiration, that he depends upon God and humbly submits himself to His power." (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.23) The very sweetness and delightfulness of grace, is that not beautiful? God trains us in humility and self-control, reveals to us the gravity of our quest, gives us the capacity to will aright and carry through valiantly, and teaches us to depend upon Him and submit to His power.

Meditating on the Word of God, (which is a lost discipline worthy of recovery) wherein we find this grace in our Savior, into whose image we are gently being conformed, will gradually bring about the changes which God has designed for His children. "Finally, (sisters) whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8) God's Word certainly fits this description, and is worthy of turning over carefully in our hearts and minds, to "sus out" the meaning and various applications for our lives.

As we do not all look the same physically, with differences in ethnicity, body type, and style, so also the inner beauty about which Scripture speaks will look differently on each of us. God isn't designing a church full of behavioral clones any more than he designed us physical clones. He has hand-crafted each one of us with unique personalities as well as influencing life experiences in order to shape us individually. His Spirit teaches each one of us as a private tutor, and we learn in different ways and at different speeds the lessons from His Word. As we wear our outer beauty differently, so also shines our inner beauty with different nuances from one to another. What we hold in common, as the Lord is changing us in the hidden person of our hearts, is that God highly values this transformation. Our verse ends with, "which in God's sight is very precious". What counts above all other opinions is that the beauty which is being carefully crafted in our hearts by the Lord is precious in His sight.

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