I was 16 and it was about time our youth leaders talked to us about sex. There was then, of course, the mandatory single sex session where us boys talked about porn and the girls talked about image and self esteem (there was absolutely no need for the girls to hear about porn or the boys about self esteem). Unfortunately for that plan, the girls told us pretty much everything they had covered in their session – “real beauty is on the inside” being the crux of the matter. At best it did nothing, at worst it made all the girls feel guilty for caring about their appearance.
Now I loved my youth group and am aware that actually I was pretty privileged that they were talking openly to us about sex and porn back in the late 90s, but that idea about beauty has always struck me as being so inept.
I hear you all gasp because it’s right there in 1 Peter 3 – “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self”
I’m not saying it’s wrong but I am saying that it isn’t the whole answer; it lacks depth and therefore is not actually helpful as the message for young people.
For starters, it draws somewhat ambiguous lines – define an elaborate hairstyle or “fine” clothes? is silver jewellery acceptable? What about things that are gold-coloured but not actually made of gold?
This approach results in articles and blogs arguing whether make up is a tool of the devil or helpful in fulfilling our God given potential, discussions about whether a little bit of lipstick is okay but contouring is a no go. Be the man that God made you to be – but please be the man God made you to be who wears deodorant and cuts his hair more frequently. You see these rules that we decide upon are often not constant but constructed from what is societally acceptable or not – or, more likely in Christian circles, what was societally acceptable 50-100 years ago. Those things make the cut but this new-fangled stuff is out. We fall into the same old trap of making scripture say what we already thought and in the meantime fail to help those entrusted to our flock. We allow for the beauty of a great view or a sunset but not of the human body which is God’s masterpiece.
I love my wife – I fancied her from the moment I set eyes on her. I find her beautiful today – when she is wearing her pyjamas and my hoodies but also when she wears a gorgeous dress, puts some lipstick on and lets her hair down. Just the other week we went shopping for her and were looking for things that enabled her to feel beautiful. I make an effort to make her feel wanted and appreciated and attractive physically on the outside as well as her character and abilities and attributes because I love ALL of her.
That is not a bad thing – her beauty is a wonderful gift to me from God. Similarly I like trying to look my best for her – I shave and cut my hair more regularly, wear aftershave that she enjoys and clothes that she likes because I enjoy and love that she finds me attractive and wants her to enjoy her husband.
You only have to read Song Of Solomon to witness two people finding one another desirable not just on the inside. In Isaiah 3:18 God says he will “strip away everything that makes her beautiful” – and Isaiah points to headbands and headrests and the stuff dismissed in 1 Peter as unimportant. The consequence from God is that they will no longer be beautiful until He restores and washes them clean, prophesied in chapter 4.
So there is beauty. To be beautiful and to appreciate beauty is a good thing created by God as a gift but like everything else, it is distorted by sin. So while 1 Peter is an important aspect of the conversation it is not THE aspect and it is ineffective when used in isolation because it does not actually address the problem – the yearning and desire to be desired and wanted and to be found physically beautiful. 1 Peter addresses the importance of your character above that but not this core need, placed by God as a reflection of the beauty of the Trinity. That need is God-given and will be God-fulfilled to some extent on earth (for many within marriage but not all) and fully in eternity on the new earth.
In the same way that I teach that sex is a gift from God, that the desire is a gift from God that can be appropriately fulfilled according to the gift giver’s instructions, so I must also adjust my teaching around beauty. Instead of inferring that external beauty is wrong by focusing solely inner beauty (verging on Gnostic – flesh bad/spirit good), I should be explaining where the desire comes from, that it is God-given and that there are godly and non-godly ways of fulfilling that desire.
This will equip my young people to be able to navigate why they fancy people, why they want people to fancy them and why and how this drives their behaviour regarding dating, relationships and sex.
I can (and do) tell my young people that their spouse should become their standard of beauty – that Adam was given a wife not a selection box to chose from. While that is helpful in part (acknowledging that for those who may never marry it still leaves a gap) it does not help them navigate their present circumstances of waiting years to have a spouse and therefore having a standard. Meanwhile, they find themselves attracted to a variety of people and want to be attractive and feel desired.
And so, I need to move my young people out of the classroom and into the beauty of creation. I need to lose some of my Greek scholar culture of wanting an equation and step into the mystery that is beauty. There is no formula for why a sunset is beautiful, or a dance is mesmerising or that dinner your about to eat was Insta-worthy. It takes artists and poets and an experience to open the conversation around beauty and how it reflects our beautiful Lord. To behold and enjoy it in the moment for what it is.
To quote Notting Hill “What is it with men and nudity, particularly breasts? How can you be so interested in them? They’re just breasts… they’re odd looking, they’re for milk, you’re mother has them.” And yet (when they’re not your mother’s) a women’s breasts, and her naked body in general, produce exactly what they are supposed to in a man. The body captivates and enthrals in a way that we cannot effectively measure, explain or quantify and so we must wonder and marvel and engage with the unfathomable.
I recognise that I am bad at that. That I struggle with the non-linear, with the things that I don’t and cant have a lesson plan for. Yet when so much of God is steeped in mystery – Himself as 3 in 1, christ as fully man but fully God, why and how healing works sometimes to name but a few, I need to learn to operate in the mess of that place and I need to learn to give my young people that opportunity.
Realising that this is a journey that needs a whole new level of thinking and experiencing, I/we need to start simple. Sunsets, walks in the country, wonderful architecture, (for those of us in London especially) a starry night sky. Then dance, drama, art, poetry, music, food – all pointing to the beauty of a creator who established those things before returning to the pinnacle and masterpiece – the one part of creation that was above the others – in its naked form declared “very good.”