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Outward Decay, Inward Renewal - Part 1

  • Carolyn McCulley Author & Contributing Writer
  • 2007 23 May
Outward Decay, Inward Renewal - Part 1

Each morning, as I asphyxiate myself with my recommended daily allowance of hair spray, I am reminded of Sisyphus. This mythical Greek figure was condemned to exist in the realm of the dead, with the eternal, futile task of rolling a stone up a steep hill, which only tumbles back down when he reaches the top. 

Every morning, Sisyphus awaits me in the mirror. Each day, I labor to push that stone uphill to a good hair day, only to wake up in the morning with the stone at the bottom of the hill—and with bed head. No matter how much effort I put into my latest beauty regimen, it’s always a race against decay.

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was said to be the founder of Corinth. I find amusing irony in that idea, because it was to the fleshly, contentious Corinthians that the apostle Paul writes with these words familiar to every aging Christian: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NIV).

As we accumulate more birthdays, each of us sees the truth of Paul’s words. Outwardly we are wasting away. A few gray hairs here, a few laugh lines there, an upper arm jiggling as we applaud, an aching back just from sleeping—these are the indignities of aging. And it’s only going to get more undignified. My mother says that she, too, is startled to see the old lady in the mirror, and to observe her grandmother’s hands at the end of her own sleeves. 

If you are young and still unlined, you may find this perspective alarming—and not as darkly humorous as the rest of us. If you are not prepared for the inevitability of aging, the day you discover that first gray hair or laugh line can be traumatic. I well remember once speaking with a single woman 10 years younger than I am who was reduced to tears after encountering her first batch of gray hairs. So I hope you will continue reading—as you will one day be there, and faster than you think! I trust the truths in this article will enable you to embrace that day, and not mourn it.

One more consideration: I’ve recently thought that it’s God’s mercy that we fall apart as we get older. How humbling it is to end one’s creaturely life dependent on others, unable to function as we once did, no longer as attractive as we were at our prime. It drives home the point that there is only One whose glory is unalterable. If that lesson didn’t sink in as young adults, it will certainly sink in later. We might rail against it, we might work hard to hide the effects, but we won’t change the immutable fact that “all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25).
Beauty in the Balance

Does this mean I need to put down my hair spray can and back away from the mirror?  Not necessarily. God made women to be beautiful to men. There’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking to be attractively feminine. The Bible certainly doesn’t back away from celebrating feminine beauty—one quick read through Song of Solomon confirms this statement. “How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights!” (Song of Solomon 7:6). As Carolyn Mahaney writes, women should want to be attractive, especially to their husbands: “We need to discover what makes us attractive to our husbands. What clothing, hairstyles, or makeup do they find most appealing? And we should strive to care for our appearance—not only when we go out, but also at home where only our husbands see us.”  But as single women, we need to be mindful of the heart issues surrounding this topic—I think we can be tempted to swing from one extreme to the other when considering physical beauty. We either become a slave to the mirror or else we disdain it. As in most things, wisdom is found in the balance.

First, let’s consider something that can tempt older, single women—giving up. I remember talking years ago to an older woman who had decided that her man was going to pursue her only for her character. But looking at her, I wondered if she might do something to make it a little easier for that man to notice her character. She had that prematurely dowdy look going on. I kept thinking, “Give the brother a break! Try to make a little effort here.”

In a show aimed at single women, radio host Nancy Leigh DeMoss addressed this temptation with her listeners: “I've noticed that, frequently, women who are single for a long time become less feminine, at least in ways that are visible. Now, I'm not saying that's true of their heart, but I'm saying that in ways of appearance and manner, sometimes they become less feminine.”

I am not trying to be hard on anyone. Please don’t get discouraged. I know what it’s like to take on that “built for comfort, not for speed” look. I know what it’s like to get older and find your own body thwarting your efforts to exercise or your metabolism flat-lining. But men appreciate some effort being made. They notice a woman who takes the right kind of pride in her appearance, who wants to be womanly. You don’t have to be perfect, but feminine is good.

Philippians 2:4 tells us to look to the interests of others. Let’s consider our potential husbands for a moment. Men are wired to notice beauty in women, but our culture is steeped in a standard of beauty that isn’t even possible for the models themselves to have in real life—they are propped, styled, and digitized into otherworldly perfection. On top of that, godly men are negatively affected by the immorality of our culture. In real life and in the media, blatant sexuality and immorality are always but one averted gaze away. A godly man will do his best to avoid these pitfalls, of course, but consider how hard it must be for him not to be affected by our culture. In the midst of this barrage of flesh, we are asking Christian men to commit themselves to be faithful to one woman for the rest of their lives. Wouldn’t it bless them if we were the best we could be, both spiritually and physically? That perspective has propelled me to the gym many a time—and not just for reasons of vanity. I’m sure our future husbands would also appreciate healthy wives.

Let’s swing to the other side and consider vanity. It’s not wrong for a woman to adorn herself, but the Bible does warn against the excess that results in immodest or ostentatious displays, or becomes a life-consuming pursuit. The Hebrew word that is translated as vain in the phrase “beauty is vain” is hebel, which means “emptiness or vanity, something transitory and unsatisfactory.” This is the same word that permeates the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is an exploration of the meaning of life, but by the second chapter, the writer has concluded that pleasure, laughter, hard work, homes, gardens, herds, servants, gold and silver, and even wisdom are hebel! This overstatement is effective, because the writer goes on to call hebel “striving after the wind.” Many good things are called hebel because we can’t grasp true satisfaction from these items any more than we can grasp the wind. There’s nothing wrong with these activities, but they won’t provide the fulfillment we often seek to derive from them.

In the same way, beauty is hebel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with beauty, but the meaning and fulfillment we seek in it will elude us like the wind through our fingers.

The Power of Beauty

If this is true, then why do we care so much about being beautiful? Why aren’t we content with the measure of attractiveness that God has given us? For one reason, because beauty has an effect on men. “In every man's heart there is a secret nerve that answers to the vibrations of beauty,” wrote American journalist Christopher Morley. Men notice beauty. They fight for the favor of a beautiful woman. They memorialize beauty in art. They write lyrical poetry about beauty.

 She walks in Beauty, like the night
 Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
 And all that’s best of dark and bright
 Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
 Thus mellowed to that tender light
 Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.
 —George Gordon Byron

Every woman wants to elicit this kind of rhapsodic response from a man. That’s the second reason right there: “every woman wants.” Perhaps I would be more honest to say “craves” or “lusts after.”  As Joshua Harris writes, “A man is created to pursue and finds even the pursuit stimulating; a woman is made to want to be pursued and finds even being pursued stimulating. . . . Lust blurs and bends true masculinity and femininity in harmful ways. It makes a man’s good desire to pursue all about ‘capturing’ and ‘using,’ and a woman’s good desire to be beautiful all about ‘seduction’ and ‘manipulation.’ In general it seems that men and women are tempted by lust in two unique ways: men are tempted by the pleasure that lust offers, while women are tempted by the power lust promises.”

Let’s drive home that point by expanding that thought: “Women are tempted by the power lust promises to attract other people’s husbands.” You might say you don’t want that kind of attention from married men. Good—I hope so! But let’s face it: if we want lots of interest from many single men, we actually want to lure men who probably will be other women’s husbands in the future. If these men were already married, I trust we would not want their attentions. So why do we want them now? Because we sinfully enjoy the self-centered power and attention of being attractive to others, even when we can’t possibly follow through on the interest we’ve raised. You may think from reading that statement that I have known this kind of allure personally. I have—in my heart and in my daydreams. If these are our desires, it doesn’t matter whether or not we could actually attract hordes of men. I know a woman who honestly confessed one of her leading motives for losing a lot of weight was to be able to fit into slinkier, immodest clothes and draw lots of attention to herself. She is a godly woman, but she was right to be concerned about her motives for being thin. 

Adapted from Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred by Carolyn McCulley.  © 2004 by Carolyn McCulley. Published by Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois.  Used by permission.

Carolyn McCulley works for  Sovereign Grace Ministries in church and ministry relations.  She is also an author ( Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred) and blogger (  Carolyn is also a member of Covenant Life Church where one of her favorite ministries is the single women's discipleship program.  She highly recommends the resources for singles from the New Attitude conference and blog.

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