Imagine I tell my wife that I want to take her to a special place for our anniversary. We arrange for a babysitter for our children, we dress in our finest clothes, and we hop into our car to set off for our romantic “mystery” destination.
Becky’s excitement soon turns to bewilderment as I pull into the local junk yard. I park the car, open the trunk, and pull out a small table and chairs. I proceed to set up the table, putting a candle in the middle, place settings on each side, and a picnic basket next to the table.
“Here we are, dear,” I exclaim, “all set for our romantic dinner.”
“A romantic dinner in a junk yard?” Becky questions.
“Sure,” I answer. “I thought this place would set the mood nicely. Don’t you just love how the rust on the scrap metal glimmers in the lowering sunlight and how the smell of garbage adds that extra touch to our evening?”
“No, I don’t,” she replies with a frown. “I don’t find this setting pleasing at all.”
“Oh, come on, “ I object. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? You just need to re-adjust your perceptions.”
The situation is silly, of course. No one in their right mind would consider a junk yard beautiful or romantic. There are certain smells and sights that are objectively ugly!
Yet in a culture of relativism, the scenario above sounds strangely plausible. If people do not believe in absolute standards by which to determine beauty, who is to say that a junk yard is not beautiful?
A Christian believes in absolute standards of truth and righteousness. Such standards may be discerned from the Word of God and the nature and character of God.
But what about absolute standards of beauty? Do they exist?
The idea of “beauty” traditionally describes an object or idea in which we take pleasure simply for what it is. In other words, if we delight in something for what it can do for us, we don’t necessarily call that thing “beautiful.” We call something like that “good.” We call something beautiful when we take pleasure in it apart from any practical benefit we may receive from it. A beautiful object has intrinsic qualities in it that cause delight.
For example, I take pleasure in my computer because it allows me to accomplish a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call my computer “beautiful.” On the other hand, I take pleasure in watching a sunset even though it does absolutely nothing for me. It is this kind of delightful thing that I would call “beautiful.”
Is this notion of “beauty” found in Scripture?
In order to answer this question, we must first recognize that although we commonly use the term “beauty” today in signifying this concept, biblical authors use many different terms to describe this same idea. In your English translation you might find the idea of beauty encapsulated in words like sweetness, splendor, majesty, pride, excellence, loveliness, purity, admirability, glory, or even goodness. Words like these are often translations of Hebrew or Greek terms that resemble our idea of “beauty.”
Essential to a definition of beauty is pleasure. People call something beautiful because of the pleasure they find in it apart from what it can do for them.
The Beauty of God
God himself is the one in Scripture most commonly associated with delight and pleasure. For example, notice the joy and delight God’s people find in God in the following passages:
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God (Psalm 43:4).
You satisfy the desire of every living thing (Psalm 145:16).
In each of these cases, God’s people do not find joy in him because of what he can do for them, although his works are certainly great and worthy of delight. Rather, God’s people delight in him simply because of who he is, because of qualities intrinsic to his nature.
What are these intrinsic qualities? Notice the words used to describe God in the following passages:
And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the LORD, and who should praise the beauty of holiness (2 Chronicles 20:21).
Have you an arm like God? Or can you thunder with a voice like his? 10Then adorn yourself with majesty and splendor, and array yourself with glory and beauty (Job 40:9—10).
O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth, who have set your glory above the heavens (Psalm 8:1)!
One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).
I will meditate on the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on Your wondrous works (Psalm 145:5).
They shall see the glory of the LORD, the excellency of our God (Isaiah 35:2).
For how great is his goodness and how great his beauty (Zechariah 9:17)!
God is called “beautiful,” “glorious,” “majestic,” and “full of splendor.” These are qualities inherent to the nature of God and qualities in which his people delight.
So here we find the essential concept of “beauty” used to characterize God himself. God has unique qualities that bring pleasure to people separate from what he does for them. God is Beauty.
But I want you to notice something further in Scripture about this pleasure in God who is beautiful. Finding pleasure in God is not optional. God’s people are commanded to find joy in him:
Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice (Philippians 4:4).
What this means is that these qualities of beauty inherent in God’s nature and character are worthy of pleasure; they must be delighted in. Failure to delight in God for his inherent excellence is tantamount to sin. Another way of saying it is this: it is not pleasure in God that makes him beautiful. It is objective qualities of beauty that require pleasure. These qualities in God are absolute standards of beauty.
In Scripture, this necessity to delight in God because of his intrinsic worth is called glorifying God or praising God. To glorify or praise God is to find joy in him because of qualities in his nature that are worthy of such delight.
The Beauty of Creation
The beauty of God then extends to his creation. In Genesis 1 God calls his creation “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25), a word that has implications of beauty. Creation puts on display of the beauty of God:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19:1).
What God created may be considered beautiful because it reflects and displays his beauty. In other words, the same qualities that make God beautiful are those standards by which his creation may be considered beautiful.
Further, God calls certain man-made creations “beautiful,” as well. For example, God commands Israel to build his Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) to display beauty. In prescribing how he wants the priestly garments made, God says,
For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty (Exodus 28:40).
So even men can create things that are beautiful. Again, these human creations may be considered beautiful inasmuch as they possess qualities that reflect the beautiful qualities of God.
This is all important as we seek to discover whether absolute standards of beauty exist. The notion that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” flows from a kind of thinking that says, “Whatever I find pleasurable is beautiful to me.”
Yet as we have seen from the beauty of God, something does not become beautiful simply because someone delights in it. Something is beautiful because of its qualities whether or not people find it pleasurable. A sunset is beautiful whether or not someone acknowledges the fact. And it is therefore possible to delight in something and think it is beautiful when it is in fact not beautiful.
Absolute standards of beauty exist, and they are found in the very nature of God.
Qualities of Beauty
What, then, are these qualities intrinsic to the nature of God that serve as the absolute standards of beauty? We can find such qualities from three sources.
First, we can discern qualities of God’s beauty from descriptions of his nature. Divine attributes such as holiness, purity, reason, harmony, order, balance, goodness, majesty, splendor, righteousness, and loveliness provide the qualities that we should delight in and emulate. Second, since God’s own handiwork displays his beauty, we may look to qualities within creation to determine standards of beauty. Romans 1:20 tells us that God’s invisible attributes, such as his attribute of beauty, may be perceived in creation. Third, since God calls certain man-made creations beautiful in Scripture, we may use them as models for what is beautiful.
When considering both God’s beautiful creative works and the works of man to which God ascribes beauty, theologians have long categorized absolute standards of beauty into three groupings: (1) order, (2) proportion, and (3) radiance.
If not for the presence of sin, all creation would still be beautiful, and by extension all creations of man would also be beautiful. Yet sin subjected creation to futility (Romans 8:20), and thus sin brought ugliness into the world. Because of sin we now have dis-order, dis-proportion, and dullness. Just as something is beautiful when it rightly reflects the qualities of God that make him beautiful, so something is ugly when it possesses qualities contrary to the nature of God. The presence of sin in our own hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) is the reason we cannot simply trust ourselves to determine what is beautiful. We must look to absolute standards outside ourselves. Sin is also the reason we must carefully judge all man-made creations, including music.
Remembering that the idea of beauty is encapsulated in the biblical concept of “glory,” we can see the relationship between sin and ugliness in passages like Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” To fall short of God’s glory is to fail in delighting in God as we should.
There are two primary ways that we can fail to bring God glory in this area. First, when we delight in something to a more fundamental degree than we delight in God, we fall short of his glory. Glorifying God is delighting in his unique excellencies. To take delight in something else to the same or greater degree is sin. Likewise, when we fail to take delight in God at all for his unique qualities, we fall short of his glory. God described this kind of sin when he said through Jeremiah,
For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13).
Second, when we delight in something that possesses qualities contrary to the nature of God, we also fail to bring God glory. To call something beautiful that is not is to contradict the beauty of God himself.
This is why distinguishing between the beautiful and the ugly is so important. To call something ugly that is beautiful when compared to God is to call God ugly. To call something beautiful that is ugly when compared to God is also calling God ugly.
Glorifying God is taking delight in him because of qualities in his nature. Therefore in order to glorify him, we must also delight in other things that resemble him and despise things that do not resemble him.
Since sin marred beauty in creation, the atoning work of Christ on the cross and subsequent regeneration of individuals by the Holy Spirit is the way in which man’s capacity to correctly take pleasure in God and other things worthy of such delight is redeemed. Because of sin, every man is born without the capacity to delight in God (Romans 3:10—12), yet because men are God’s creation, they are born with an innate need to delight in something. This causes them to spend their lives finding ultimate satisfaction in things that are not God and things that are inherently ugly.
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides the supernatural means by which people are enabled to see the beauty of God in the person of Christ. We find this explained in 2 Corinthians 4:3—6:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Unbelievers cannot apprehend the beauty of the gospel and of Christ. This is what the text means in verse 4 when it says that they do not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” They do not perceive its wonders and its value and its beauty, and therefore they do not submit to the gospel since they do not recognize its value.
We submit to things only when we appreciate their value, not when we simply know about them or believe in them with our minds. We follow after what we delight in, not just what we know.
Someone may understand the facts of the gospel, but unless he recognizes the beauty and value of the gospel, he will not submit to it.
Yet there is hope. Just like God created beauty at the beginning, so he has the power to illumine hearts so that they apprehend the beauty of the gospel. And when he does this, when God illuminates the heart, then the beauty of the gospel of the glory of Christ is revealed!
Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of the beauty of God because he is the very image of God. John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory [or beauty], glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ is “the radiance of the glory [or beauty] of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”
Regeneration restores in an individual the ability to recognize what is truly beautiful, first in the person of Jesus Christ, and then in other things. This does not mean that unbelievers cannot recognize beauty or even create beauty. God’s common grace enables even the unregenerate to do so.
But what this means is that a believer has no excuse when it comes to making value judgments about beauty.
Once a person becomes a Christian — once his capacity to recognize beauty has been restored — that person has an obligation to correctly judge things beautiful or ugly. God commands believers to “test everything” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The word translated “good” here signifies the intrinsic excellencies of something, and its first definition in Greek dictionaries is “beautiful.” It is contrasted with “good” from verse 15 of the same passage, a word that identifies something that is beneficial. In other words, here Christians are specifically commanded to evaluate everything in order to determine whether something has intrinsic worth.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Perhaps the passage that most clearly articulates such a command is Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Here we find a list of absolute standards by which we must judge all things. The phrase rendered “think about” literally means, “take into account.” Everything we encounter must be judged by the qualities in this list. Each of these terms is worth considering:
These qualities could be grouped into the three categories of truth, goodness, and beauty. Something is true when it agrees with reality; something is good when it meets real needs; and something is beautiful when it is worthy of pleasure.
In all three of these categories, there is a subjective realm (what we think) and an objective realm (what really is). With truth, we may subjectively think something is true that is objectively not true. For example, I may truly believe that grass is red, but that doesn’t make it true. So in the case of truth, we must always change what we think is true to match what God says is true in his Word. John 17:17 says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” With my belief about the color of grass, I have to readjust my beliefs to match reality.
With goodness, we may subjectively think that something is good for us when it is objectively not good. For example, I may think that drinking cyanide daily is good for me, but that doesn’t make it so. Here, too, we must always change what we think is good to match what God says is good. With my views of cyanide, either I would need to adjust my thinking or reality would eventually sink in!
The same is true with beauty. We may subjectively think something is beautiful — we may take pleasure in something — but what we think may not match with what is objectively beautiful. For example, I may take pleasure in a particular work of art or song or style of music and think that it is beautiful, but that does not make it beautiful. According to this passage, we are to take into account things that are worthy of praise, things that are admirable. This implies absolute standards. Here again we must change our tastes to match what God says is beautiful. Our responsibility as Christians is to change what we take pleasure in to those things that are actually worthy of our pleasure — those thing that are actually beautiful.
During the years I was in college and the one year before I was married, I ate a lot of junk food. I grew to love junk food. So when I eventually married, and my wife began to prepare healthy, well-balanced meals for me, I’ll admit that I really didn’t have a taste for it at first!
But over time, after abstaining from junk and dieting on healthy cuisine, I soon developed a taste for that which was actually good.
Similarly, Christians can change their tastes to match what is actually worthy of their delight. There are three truths about the Christian life that if you come to understand will really help you in this realm of beauty:
This essay was excerpted from Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World by Scott Aniol (RAM, 2010).
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.