We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable,
nothing more profitable. – Bernard of Clairvaux
Not long ago, a prominent (or at least vocal) atheist described the God of the Bible as “… arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. Among the adjectives he used to describe God were petty, jealous and proud of it, control-freak, and megalomaniacal. From the perspective of a hardened materialist, God’s calls to love him must seem like pathological narcissism. After all, what rational being will call on other rational beings to love him or her with all their might? Before his conversion to Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that
When I first began to draw near to belief in God and even for some time after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should ‘praise’ God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it. We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind.1
The pious might wince at such statements, but they need to be faced, and the objections answered. Why does God call on people to love him ultimately? Is this sheer vanity from an insecure God? Is this, as Lewis said, the pitiful state of a fisher for compliments?
Only one possibility exists to exonerate God from the charge of petty egotism. It lies in Bernard of Clairvaux’s answer for why one should love God: nothing is more reasonable, and nothing is more profitable. This double-reason points to why God ought to be our ultimate dependence and ultimate delight.
Human experience knows one thing where people agree that they have a reasonable obligation to love something for itself, and yet find profit in doing so: beauty. Beauty is not utilitarian, nor is it an instrument for something else. Beauty is enjoyed for its own sake. Though people may disagree on what is beautiful, when they find something is beautiful, they feel pleasurably obliged to enjoy the beauty. Indeed, human life is filled with humans pointing to beauty and calling for others to agree and enjoy that beauty with them.
What if all beauty simply points to God as the ground, source, and consummation of all beauty? If God is the most beautiful being of all, then ultimate love for him is not only reasonable, it is necessary. If God’s glory (his outshining excellence that we can perceive and reflect) is simply another word for his beauty, then objections to loving God must evaporate. Jonathan Edwards said, “God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty.”2
It isn’t difficult to make the case for God’s glory and his beauty being closely related, if not identical. At least twelve different Hebrew words are translated glory, but they all carry the connotations of beauty, or ideas such as impressive, adorned, ornamentation, comeliness, splendour, and honour. Scripture pairs them up, and puts God’s beauty where his glory could be.
Have you an arm like God? Or can you thunder with a voice like His? Then adorn yourself with majesty and splendor, and array yourself with glory and beauty. (Job 40:9-10)
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)
Honor and majesty are before Him; Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. (Psalm 96:6)
Men pursue beauty with a vigour second to none. Whether it be the beauty of scenery, art, spectacle, or human beauty, the race of man spends itself furiously for beauty. And most often, it does so not because this beauty serves some utilitarian or practical end. Sunsets, waterfalls and symphonies do not provide you with anything except the consolation of their beauty. Beauty is an end in itself, and man seeks delight, pleasure and satisfaction in beauty.
Certainly this pursuit is tainted by depravity. The love of human beauty can become lust or vanity. The love of natural beauty can become pantheism or creature-worship. The love of artistic beauty can become a detached effete aestheticism. The love of intellectual beauty can become pride. In spite of how human love becomes twisted by our idolatries, the universal pursuit of beauty provides evidence that God has placed in every man the desire for beauty as the source of consolation and fulfilment.
What do we mean when we say that God is beautiful? Just as natural beauty is not of one kind, nor is the beauty of God. There is the tranquil beauty of meadows, and the intimidating beauty of canyons. There is the barren beauty of deserts, and the lush beauty of forests. There is the triumphant beauty of a symphony, and the lilting beauty of a ballad. There is the simple beauty of a folk saying, and the intricate beauty of an complex mathematical equation. There is the ordinary beauty of a well-decorated and laid table, and the imposing and stark beauty of cathedrals. There is the humble beauty of a clumsy toddler and the extraordinary beauty of an elite athlete. So it is with the beauty of God.
God is beautiful as majestic and infinitely high Ruler, and as condescending Friend and Servant. He is beautiful in unwavering justice, and in gentle mercy. There is the beauty of his punishing rod, and the beauty of his healing hand. There is the beauty of his miraculous interventions, such as in Daniel, and the beauty of his hidden providence, such as in Esther. There is beauty in his unapproachable transcendence, and in his perceivable immanence. There is beauty in the mystery of his tri-unity, and in the simplicity of his love. There is beauty in his incomprehensible Incarnation, and beauty in his simple answers to prayer. The atonement is rich in beauty, as is creation. His past works display beauty, as do his promises for the future. God’s beauty, as seen in his nature, and character, manifested in his Son, his works, his Word, his world, and his people display the beauty of God, in all its shades: majestic and ordinary, awesome and gentle, surprising and predictable, incomprehensible and elegantly simple, breathtaking and ordinary.
Our experience of God’s beauty is both one of need and gift. We experience the beauty of God’s sufficiency for us as needy creatures. We experience the beauty of God’s surpassing excellence as admiring children. In perceiving the beauty of God, we come to see how reliable and desirable he is. To put it another way, we see the beauty that stirs up dependence, and delight. We come to love him, and this love deepens our desire for him. Beauty is pleasurable to behold. It delights our souls to encounter the most beautiful person of all. It satisfied our souls to have our deepest needs met, our weaknesses balanced, our insufficiencies met. We pursue God not because of some painful obligation laid upon us. God himself is spoken of as a reward that we seek for his value and beauty.
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)
Show me Thy face-one transient gleam
Of loveliness divine,
And I shall never think or dream
Of other love save Thine:
All lesser light will darken quite,
All lower glories wane,
The beautiful of earth will scarce
Seem beautiful again. (Author Unknown)
If a person is pursuing God for his beauty, there is great joy and hope in the pursuit. Without the promises of his beauty and our satisfaction in him, we would be ‘weary and heavy-laden’ in our obedience. The Christian life is not driven by Law, it is drawn by love.