There’s a common saying that is disastrous when taken seriously and even heretical when taken spiritually. Maybe you’ve heard it: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Sounds humble enough, doesn’t it? It’s the idea that each of us finds beauty in different things or experiences beauty in a different way from the person next to us; that if we tried to pin down a definition of beauty we would rob one another of human enjoyment by applying narrow and artificial parameters. But the subtle buy-in of this statement is that beauty is not something “out there,” beyond our own finite consciousness, but it is something “in-here,” a human-centered value and invention. Taken to its limit, this little platitude means none of us can say for certain whether or not something is good or whole or valuable. It means we must accept, with however painful an acquiescence, that it is perfectly normal for someone else to be repulsed by the very thing that enthralls us, be it a concerto, a sunset or God Himself. It means we must make our peace with radically differing preferences, as if it were completely natural for some of us to prefer total darkness, while others of us prefer light. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it is nowhere.
The deepest mystery of what it means to be a human created in the image of God is explained by the eye. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body” (Matthew 6:22), and He would know. After all, He designed humans to be enraptured by splendor, to gaze and go on gazing insatiably on beauty. So if we insist that beauty cannot be defined, or geo-located, then we are in trouble; we have lost our bearings in the search for our deepest significance.
And “lost” aptly describes a culture such as ours that exults in visions of terror and immorality. Take the pornography industry for instance—more than 11,000 new pornographic films are released every year (about 20 times the mainstream movie output). Two-and-a-half billion pornographic emails flit through the interwebs every day, and “sex” is the leading search term entered into web browsers. What’s worse, there is a strong correlation between purchases of pornographic magazines and recorded rapes, but that may not come as a great surprise when you consider most mainstream pornography is extremely violent. It’s not hard to see how these trends could lead to much larger and pernicious trends such as human trafficking. There is nothing remotely beautiful about any of this. The “beholders” have gone astray and, as a result, beauty and justice lie fallen in the streets.
What the pornography industry demonstrates is that when our perspective of beauty is separated from the Creator of beauty, soon after, it demands that we give expression to every vain and worthless thought that pops into our heads. The generation of Noah knew this well and they tumbled into a global culture so depraved that God pronounced “every intent and the thoughts of [man’s] heart … evil continually” (Genesis 5:5), just before He washed them all away.
As we survey the landscape of our planet and see daunting social justice issues such as human trafficking, what can we infer except that the minds of millions of wicked men have dreamed up monstrous evils and are now acting out their vision? The crimes committed across the globe were first dreamed up by people in the privacy of their mind’s eye.
As our eyes have wandered in search of truth and beauty, the answer has been staring us in the face. Acclaimed Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, when cornered with the question of relative beauty, answered this way: “Beauty is an extraordinary gift given to us, but it is not given in a vacuum. Scripture says worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It must be bounded by the very person and character of God.” Unbound beauty is to blame for a thousand ills. But put in its proper place—to, from and through a holy God—beauty becomes the magnet that pulls us into our destiny. This is in part what the psalmist meant in Psalm 29, when he wrote: “Ascribe to the Lord glory and majesty.” Credit God as the author of beauty, and you will be drawn into consummate beauty, God Himself.
The most private issues of personal sanctity to the most grandiose social justice agendas begin with a reformation of the eyes of our heart. If we don’t embrace the clear understanding that we are not the reference point of reality and wholeness, we will miss the critical point: God is our reference point. When we choose to gaze on His beauty, we find our innermost desires satisfied and a plan for humanity birthed in the mind’s eye of a holy God, beyond anything we could ask or imagine.
Bret Mavrich is a missionary and writer living with his wife in Kansas City, Missouri. Formerly the Director of Abolition for Exodus Cry, he now leads a program at the International House of Prayer University designed to activate the next generation of leaders in Christ-centered social justice. You can visit his website at BretMavrich.com or follow him on Twitter @BretMavrich.