Grace & Beauty: the Shaping of America, and Our Ideal of Beauty

What happens when a nation rejects the grace of God that made it beautiful? The answer is evident for the whole world to see today, as it relates to the United States. When a nation rejects the grace of God that once made it beautiful, that which was beautiful becomes ugly by and by and the people of the nation begin taking “pride” in what would have in the past been regarded as shameful by general public consensus. Beauty departs when the grace of God is rejected. But this happens in the nations of men only because it first happens in the hearts of men.

Have you ever thought about the relationship between grace and beauty and the bearing it has on the life of a nation and its people?
America the Beautiful

In 1893, inspired by what America already was and the promise it held for the future, Katherine Lee Bates wrote the poem, “America the Beautiful.” It is a poem that first describes what America is beautiful for and then prays that the land would stay beautiful by the grace of God being poured upon it: 

“O beautiful for . . . America! America! God shed His grace on thee. . . ”

When you look at the shaping of America as a nation, its rise to prominence, and the great privileges people enjoy here, you wonder what power has shaped this great land and made it one nation out of many nations—e pluribus unum. For not only is the United States one nation out of many nations, but it is one nation under God, as the Pledge of Allegiance says. It is an anomaly indeed, as some have said, yet it is an anomaly of grace as Katherine Bates alluded to. It is only the grace of God shed on America that has made her beautiful among the nations.

The relationship that grace and beauty share is perhaps not as commonly recognized as it ought to be. We may understand and talk about grace and beauty as two separate concepts. The two however, share an inseparable, interdependent relationship. How is that so? The true beauty of a thing is dependent on God. Without God, there is no grace, and when there is no grace, there can be no beauty. Unless God favors a person, an effort, a nation, nothing beautiful can be produced. It is only God who is capable of taking something or someone ugly and making them beautiful.

We often call some people gracious for their behavior, and others beautiful for their looks. Going by 21st century visual standards though, seldom is a person of gracious conduct seen as beautiful because beauty in the true sense of the word has been redefined.

Post-Modern Beauty: A Base Thing or a Grace Thing?

What defines beauty today? There is such a great emphasis today on appreciating external beauty of a certain kind. Of course, there always has been an appreciation for external beauty ever since God gave us eyes to behold things and people. It is good to appreciate beauty. But now there is an emphasis on appreciating external beauty of merely the sensuous kind—­the kind that excites the mind, rouses the flesh, and fires the emotions, all temporarily. We are seeing sensual beauty everywhere, in places we ought not to be seeing it. We are seeing the sensual beauty of people whose bodies we ought not to be seeing. Pictures and videos of good looking, well-shaped men and women showing off their bodies to the world are ubiquitous today, and even if one does not want to see them, the assault is made on the eyes.

Now please don’t misunderstand me here because here I am not talking about willfully indulging in secretive voyeurism on the internet (that is a separate issue to this discussion). Neither am I talking about men and women wearing sensible summer apparel to beat the heat. What I am talking about is a brazen defiance of sensibility, modesty, and decency. What I am talking about is a full-frontal and inescapable attack on the eyes as photographers, ad makers, producers, and models hold people against their wills. They show us the sensual side of beauty that should be reserved only for the most intimate encounters between a man and a woman within the sacred covenant of marriage. In doing so, they have redefined beauty, and have made it a base thing, instead of letting it remain a “grace thing” in the eyes of people. In doing so, they have redefined beauty not just theoretically, but in practice, because we see people following their lead and displaying their own sensual beauty.

This begs the question from the onlooker,

“Is all of this really beauty anymore?”

Isn’t this beauty devoid of grace? I think it is in fact beauty devoid of grace, and here are two reasons why I say this. 

Firstly, this kind of beauty does not have the favor of God resting upon it, because in a fallen world God does not define beauty by the amount of skin a person shows the world. Beauty in the Biblical, Christian worldview is always defined by covering. That is how Christ makes sinful, ugly, and broken people beautiful—by covering their sins.

Secondly, the kind of skin show I’m talking about really does no good to those who encounter it. It is forced upon our senses without giving the beholder time to appreciate it. As such, it ceases to be beauty and becomes an ugly and repulsive thing that draws out peoples’ baser instincts. It promises satisfaction and wonder, but the wonder dies very soon when beauty is only skin deep. Let me be clear here though. This counterfeit beauty draws out the baser instincts of those people who have not been transformed by grace, by leading them further away from true beauty. True beauty, for many people, has been lost to the winds and can only be recovered by a special and persevering grace in life—the grace of God.

Beauty without grace is not beauty at all, but ugliness yearning to be transformed by God’s grace.

Grace that Transforms a Base Thing into Beautiful is Amazing

How is a person beautified by grace? I could give many examples. I’ll mention here the poignant example of John Newton, the writer of the famous Christian hymn, Amazing Grace. He knew what it meant to have an ugly life transformed by God into a life of beauty. So he wrote,

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

Newton was an English sailor who became a slave trader, and was one of those responsible for the animalistic treatment of humans being brought from Africa to England as slaves. Not only was he responsible for this ugly practice, but lived a life of moral abandon:

“I sinned with a high hand . . . And I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.”[1]

Once he was apprehended by Christ however, who found this lost sailor and sinner, Newton’s life of moral abandon stopped, and very soon the slave trading would end as well. Towards the end of his life he so loathed the evil of slave trading that he did all he could to end it, in fact mentoring in some measure William Wilberforce who would eventually bring an end to the horrors of slave trading in England. How the ugly life of Newton was transformed into a life so set apart to God and the good of other people could only be possible only by the grace of the Lord Jesus. That’s what Christ does to us in His grace—He makes people who were once ugly and without grace into people who are beautiful and full of grace, on display for the world to see. 

The landscape today is ugly and base—morally, spiritually, and in a myriad other ways. As we think of living beautiful lives and reclaiming that which has been ravaged by counterfeit beauty, are you at the point where all you see is ugliness and horror? If so, Christ alone is able to make grace flow into your life even where there is sin, when you heed His call and come to Him. He will forgive and cleanse you of sin and make you beautiful in His sight. And when He makes you beautiful, the transformation to true beauty will be evident for all to see.

May the America that was made beautiful by the grace of God, be made beautiful once again, not merely because of purple mountain majesties, but because our minds and hearts are captivated by the beauty of the Lord Jesus. Katherine Lee Bates saw not only the beauty of America, but the need there was for the ugliness of this nation to be mended into something beautiful by God:

“America! America! God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law.”

And in our relationships may His beauty inform our understanding of what physical beauty is—not merely what the eye sees externally, but what the soul confirms internally.

© Kenny Damara, 2015

[1] Galli, Mark and Olsen, Ted eds. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Holman reference, 2000.

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