Singles Q&A: How to Find Freedom From Vanity
- 2006 22 Mar
QUESTION: Where does contentment fit in with issues of looks and appearance? I’ve been dealing with different bouts of discontentment with looks and my figure. Eating too much, then too little, running and exercising, and just a general obsession that steals the joy out of my Christian life. I'm thinking, "Hmm, should I eat more of this, less of this, exercise more?" The problem is real and I'm not sure how Christ fits into this. I wonder what freedom would look like?
CAROLYN: I’m so glad that your question ended with that important perspective: Christ and the freedom He introduces as our Savior. Galatians 5:1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What you’ve termed as a “general obsession” is actually slavery – the slavery of gratifying the desires of the flesh. Though you’ve raised this as a personal question, it is by no means a concern limited to only a few people. It is a condition that is common to everyone, and one that is all too familiar to me, as well.
Recently I saw a documentary that showed the extreme of this kind of slavery. It was about identical twins who were some of the most photographed women ten years ago. They were top models with everything we think should bring contentment and happiness: stellar looks, celebrities calling for dates, television interviews, and tons of media coverage. But they were in bondage to bulimia. They literally became recluses who refused to go out because their secret might be discovered. In fact, at one point they did a television interview in matching oversized jackets so that they could have their favorite snacks stuffed in the inside pockets. Just to be near the food, even if they couldn’t eat it, was comforting. Obviously when they weren’t binging, they were purging and exercising. Their entire lives revolved around food … literally. And it sucked the life out of them. They didn’t even enjoy the fame, fortune, or celebrity access that our culture so highly prizes.
In other words, they were miserable slaves to their flesh.
Let’s go back and look at Galatians for a moment. Chapter five, verses 16 to 24 (ESV) elaborate on the kind of freedom introduced in verse one:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
You asked where contentment fits in with the issue of appearance. Contentment is a result of receiving with joy God’s gifts, assignments, and calling. It is a freedom to be others-oriented instead of beholden to what the Bible calls “fear of man” – the constant concern about what others think of us. If we sow to fear of man, the harvest we will reap is found in that passage above. It’s a short walk from craving men’s approval for our looks to indulging sensuality, impurity, and sexual immorality. On the flip side, fearing what others think of us quickly leads to enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy.
We don’t have to live such sinful, contentious lives. Christ came to redeem us from this vicious cycle of sin and to give us the fruit of righteousness. Through the Holy Spirit, we do receive the fruit of self-control. So there is hope for living an orderly, disciplined life. But it is not a life lived for our own glory. It is a life lived for His glory. Any glory that we think we have is fleeting – most especially in our appearance.
But don’t misunderstand me.
It’s not wrong for a woman to adorn herself or seek to make herself attractive. What the Bible warns against is the excess that results in immodest or ostentatious displays, or an effort that becomes a life-consuming pursuit. The Hebrew word that is translated as vain in the phrase “charm is deceitful and beauty is vain” (Proverbs 31:30) 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 – just as you are discovering.
In all seriousness, I believe 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).
So now let’s consider what is eternally beautiful. While we have no description of what Jesus looked like when he lived on earth, the prophet Isaiah had foretold that He “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him; nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2 NIV). The apostle John, however, had a vision of the ascended Lord, and He was both breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying in His grandeur:
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:12-18 NIV).
This is the One we will spend eternity worshiping. We will also be dwelling in otherworldly beauty. John described his vision of the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of the heaven of God “having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (Revelation 21:10-11). This city doesn’t need sun or moon to shine on it, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (v. 23).
As we consider this kind of beauty and majesty, it is right that our own physical glory should be hebel. The creature should be the lesser being; it is a reminder that we exist to glorify our Creator. Yes, dear friend, outwardly we are fading away, but that’s not the end of the story. Scripture tells us we will spend eternity contemplating God’s everlasting beauty – and it will be our greatest joy.
May David’s words be the banner over our mirrors, for it celebrates the true beauty that should captivate us:
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
— Psalms 27:4 (ESV)
Carolyn McCulley handles church and ministry relations for Sovereign Grace Ministries and is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. She is the author of "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred." (Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers). Carolyn welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit her website or blog.
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