This is an extended version of one of my first posts, “An Excuse for Beauty.” The subject captured my attention to the point that I wanted to elaborate it further.
Something had exploded – a grapefruit, a glass of pink lemonade, a Japanese lantern with the brilliance of a blazing fire fed by coral and roses. My eyes were not enough to take it in. How wonderful to be able to see such colors! How could God be so creative? My eyes were not enough. I needed something more to embrace the beauty before me. At my core I felt a longing to drink the sunset – anything to be able to experience it and capture it. I felt thirsty – thirsty for the clouds, the glow of the sun, the color. “Don’t you just want to drink it?” I said. “I’ve never thought of it that way,” my sister said. Some things are just too beautiful for words. Or eyes. Or any other single sense. Even now, I feel my tongue go dry at the thought of that pink lemonade splashed in the sky.
Emerson once said, “Beauty is its own excuse for being.” I can believe it. However, if natural selection and survival of the fittest weighed an ounce on the credibility scale regarding the origin of the universe, I could never embrace such a heavenly thought. Of course beauty serves practical purposes. We wouldn’t have many poison dart frogs if their bright colors didn’t warn potential predators, and peacocks would go extinct because they couldn’t attract mates. But more often than not, Emerson is right. The sunset I saw that night didn’t make my body stronger or give me a greater chance for survival. And what about the rainbow that splashes the wall when light catches an engagement ring, or the infinite number of snowflakes, all of them uniquely formed like delicate lace? The only satisfactory explanation for beauty is that God formed the world using nothing but His word, and He said it was very good. God is the definition of beauty, of splendor so intense that human eyes can’t even look at it without being struck dead. What a thought that one day I’ll be rid of this corrupted shell and will get a new body, beautiful as beautiful can be. And then I’ll be ready to see the Lord.
One sense is not enough to appreciate beauty; we need every available channel. The haunting sound of a bagpipe drone as it pierces the air and my soul. A cello slowly vibrating like maple syrup. The smell of dirt just after a spring rain. A home-baked apple pie in October. The sweetness of chocolate. The tingle of an icy Sprite. The tender skin of a baby’s toes. The fluffy fur on an infant mouse. Not only is God the originator of beauty, but He also made us so that we could experience it through all these channels. I think my brain would shut down if I tried to absorb the beauty around me using only one sense.
But sometimes we don’t bother to use any sense at all. Many people complain about the rain so much that they don’t notice how much brighter daffodils look against gray ground, or how splendid a thunderclap sounds in the middle of a downpour. Or maybe they like to fuss about sunshine. I confess, that’s my pitfall – I’ve lived so long in the veritable paradise of Southern California that when I look outside on Christmas Eve and see cloudless, blue skies, my heart sinks. But even perpetual sunlight is beautiful. What else reminds us more of God’s blinding glory in heaven? Besides, when I walk outside after a long lecture in an air-conditioned classroom, the sunshine feels like a warm hug.
Space would fail me to describe salt crystals under a microscope, a mourning dove cooing at dusk, the fragrance of citrus blossoms in the night, a full moon hovering over the housetops. Beauty can be found in the commonest things if we take the time to look for it. Sadly, we tend to mimic Dr. Watson, failing to observe, though we see just fine.
Beauty took on a completely new meaning for me when I stumbled across Isaiah 49:3 one morning while reading my Bible – “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified’” (ESV). Then I noticed the alternate translation in the footnote – “Or I will display my beauty.” Finally it clicked – what it means to glorify God. It means to put his beauty on display, to point at it and say, “Look. See how great and beautiful my God is.” In my mind I saw a lookout sign, one of those roadside labels that lets you know when there is a good view of some mountain or dam waiting at the bottom of a cliff. Christians are like those signs. When a neighbor drives up, they holler, “Look here! This is a beautiful sight.” And as the neighbor climbs out of his car and walks toward the edge of the road, does he look at the sign and say, “My, what a beautiful sign”? No. He looks right past the board and gazes, mouth open, at the view in front of him. That is what it means to glorify God: to point at Him and make His beauty known.
If everything I do is supposed to show how beautiful God is, then how can pity parties exalt Him? I’ve wanted to crawl into a hole so many times, bury my head, and cry, “Woe is me! My life is so miserable.” Oh, spare me my own folly. What a mindless way for a Christian to act. The only message that kind of behavior sends is “Look everyone, my God isn’t good enough for me. I need something better, and He won’t give it.” Before I came to grips with Isaiah 49:3, I’d made excuses for myself when I felt in the mood to lick my wounds, but that verse – that short little verse – made any future defense impossible.
It’s natural for humans to want to surround themselves with beauty. After all, if God cares so much for loveliness that “strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6), how can we not smile a little bigger, delight a little longer, when we see splendor on display in this world? Bring on the rain clouds – they only make the sunsets more beautiful.