Monday, October 6, 2014

Vanity of Vanities: Insulting God's Handiwork

Vanity, and the insecurity that goes with it, is one of my recurring faults.  Perhaps it's because as a child I really admired the physical beauty of my birth mother and my aunt--I now see that my grandmother, who raised me, was clearly the source of this beauty, but she was already middle-aged by the time I was born, and when you're a little kid the mid-forties seem "old."  Anyway, the women in my family all, particularly in their heydays, tended to look striking enough that they'd not have looked out of place on the silver screen.  I am not just looking through nostalgia or bias:  I've had friends visit me who, upon seeing pictures of these relatives (and at least one particularly glamorous picture of my grandmother even into her fifties), make extended conversation about their beauty.  The irony is that each of these women considered herself homely and plain, despite what everyone else could see.

It may seem odd that I would look up to the women this way, rather than to a man.  But the man who was ultimately a father to me was not related to me by blood.  There was no "growing up to look like my Dad," because as a child I didn't even know who my biological Dad was, let alone what he looked like.  Besides, people always told me I looked like my mother, so my hope was clear, at least once I hit puberty and became more conscious of my own appearance;  I wanted to be as handsome a man one day as she was a beautiful woman:  A man who looked as if he could be an A-List movie star.

Yet I never felt like I measured up.  I would go through a laundry list of reasons why I felt that I was not the male equivalent of my mother, but it occurs to me that some of the characteristics that cause me to be hard on myself might be shared by some of my readers, and I don't want to inadvertently insult anyone.  Suffice to say that, while I rarely ever feel ugly, and often do in fact feel that I'm fairly handsome, sometimes I nonetheless feel forgettable, like someone who wouldn't really catch your eye in a crowded room.  Since I felt my mother, and other women in my family, did have that "eye-catching" quality, I felt like I was a step down from their good looks.

One step, a whole flight of steps, who's counting?

What I just said?  It's insulting to God's work; to think that I'm "a step down" just because I may not meet a societal standard that defines what it means to be a "head turner" is to scoff at the very craftsmanship of God.  And I need to stop it.  Maybe you've done the very same thing.  If so, you need to stop it too.  The sin of vanity, I believe, is not committed by wanting to be beautiful.  As human beings, as I'm about to demonstrate, I think beauty is our birthright, so it's only natural that we desire it.  Vanity occurs, however, when we think that we have to measure up to a certain shallow standard to be beautiful, and spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to meet that standard, all the while judging others who do or don't seem to meet it themselves.  Vanity does not do beauty too much honor, it does the opposite:  It fails to give beauty enough credit.

Who are we to insult ourselves or to insist that we are "less than impressive" if we don't measure up to the standards of Hollywood, or whatever else?  Consider:  Who is the artist behind our creation?  God.  Who "knit" us together in the wombs of our mothers, according to scripture?  God.  When I fret that a man must be taller or more imposing than I in order to catch the eye, I'm questioning God's handiwork in ever creating men who are not up to those standards.  When I fret that my nose is too big, I suggest that God's genius was suspect when He gave me such a nose.  Does God, the omniscient and glorious, make "duds," that I could consider myself one of His "less successful" works?

It's my own belief, with which I'm well aware that some sharply disagree, that each human being is a masterpiece.  Yes, even physically.  Don't get me wrong, there can be defects or distortions in the human form that mar its beauty, but I'm talking about the fixed traits that define a person's appearance.  If we imagine any given person as he (or she) would be at his healthiest, with no deformities or defects--much as I imagine he will look in Heaven--then I believe it would be totally accurate to say that each person is truly beautiful, breathtaking, a real eye-catcher.  There is not a human being who is not worthy, by way of God's handiwork, of "oos" and "ahs."  I think that we don't see that because we are fallen.  So we see some features as "less desirable" or as "less pleasing to the eye" than others, even if those features are in no way defective or unhealthy.  If we saw with the eyes of God, we would find that each human being has a beauty all his or her own, so that calling one human being less beautiful than any other would be like comparing apples to oranges.

Although I am partial to apples...

Let's be clear:  I am not saying that, if humanity had never sinned, everyone would be sexually/romantically attracted to everyone else.  Attraction serves a function, and it would be chaos if all human beings were equally attracted to each other human being.  But to recognize beauty is no more synonymous with being sexually attracted to someone than one is sexually attracted to a breathtaking sunset.  After all--here's a perfect example--I was never attracted to my mother, despite having recognized her beauty and finding her highly aesthetically pleasing.  I believe that, in an ideal world, that is the sort of recognition we would have of everyone's beauty.

It's true that the beauty of the soul matters far more than the beauty of the body.  No contest, even, for as good as the material world is, spirit is consistently affirmed in Christianity as better still.  However, we mustn't forget that God made both.  We Christians believe in the resurrection of the body.  Our souls are not going to be disembodied for eternity.  The body has an eternal dignity.  So the answer to body insecurities, at least insofar as they apply to fixed traits that inherently part of us, physically, is not to say "it's only the inner beauty that counts" but to reject the notion that our inherent physical traits are less than beautiful.

It's easy for pagan dualism or Gnosticism, which believes the body is just incidental to one's identity, to say that "only the soul matters."  But in Christianity the body is just as much a part of the human's eternal makeup as the soul.  Yes, it will be glorified, it will be perfected, but there is every reason to believe that it will be, more or less, the same body.  So if we suggest that some people really are objectively less beautiful, then we also suggest that this is their eternal lot.  By this implication, some people even in Heaven will be gorgeous in body and soul, while others--to absolutely no fault of their own--will only have one blessing of the two.  I just don't buy it, personally.

So in the end, I dare to believe that even if I myself don't see it (and I am just as fallen as anyone else:  There are plenty of people to whose beauty I am sadly blind), each individual human being is beautiful.  Not just sorta pretty if I look at them the right way, but breathtakingly, epic-poem-worthy, eye-catchingly beautiful.  That includes you, dear reader.  Because when He makes a human being, God never makes anything less than a masterpiece.  And in Heaven, I think we'll all see that reality for what it is.

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