I’ve been reading a book entitled “The Good and Beautiful God,” by James Bryan Smith, with some men at our church.
Before we even hit the table of contents, there were a couple of hurdles for the group to get over.
First, on the cover, there is a picture of a cluster of peaches. “What kind of guy book has peaches on the cover?” one of the men demanded to know! (I think it has to do with the fruit of the Spirit, but that’s for another musing . . .)
Second, and more challenging, how many guys think of God as beautiful? Certainly, we can think of a newborn baby as beautiful, we’re willing to admit that a sunset is beautiful But a beautiful God? Who among us would describe God in such a way, especially a God we cannot see? And what difference would it make for us, man or woman, to think about God as beautiful?
Well, the historic Christian tradition might be helpful to us here, for it describes the unique, historic person of Jesus as the “visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Moreover, it declares that the knowledge of God’s glory can be seen in the face of this Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6).
If “glory” is an older word that has beauty at its heart, what we’re hearing is that we can come to understand and know God as beautiful as we come to understand and know Jesus. Yes, we can see something of God’s beauty in creation, which reflects God’s character, just like a work of art reflects something of the painter or sculptor. But Jesus makes that character, that beauty, personal. Jesus reveals to us not just how to observe that beauty but the depth of it, as well as how we can enter into a relationship with it.
The significance of this is unpacked in Smith’s book as he identifies, chapter by chapter, all of the false and un-beautiful narratives about God by which we can live. These are narratives that we’ve picked up along the road of life which tell us that God is not good, cannot be trusted, is frequently angry and disappointed with us, and makes us earn everything he has to give us.
Not to open old wounds, but maybe some of us grew up with parents like that and we couldn’t wait to leave home. But in Jesus, the beauty of God shines forth in living color. In Jesus, in what he said, in what he did, and even in how he died, we see the forgiving, healing, self-sacrificing, and restoring nature of God, all of which are beautiful things. In Jesus we can come to see and know God as good, trustworthy, generous, loving, holy, self-sacrificing, and transforming.
Even more, Jesus reveals that this beautiful God wants to do a beautiful work in each one of us. He wants to repair in us that which has become broken by our sin and self-centeredness, helping us to grow up into beautiful human beings, not only for our sake but also for the sake of others. To put in into theological terms, God wants to restore in us the “image of Christ.”
A very thoughtful author, Robert Mulholland, describes the beauty God has in mind for us: “The image of Christ is that which brings cleansing, healing, restoration, renewal, transformation and wholeness into the unclean, diseased, broken, imprisoned, dead incompleteness of our lives. It brings compassion in place of indifference, forgiveness in place of resentment, kindness in place of coldness, openness in place of protective defensiveness or manipulation, a life lived for God and not self” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 34).
This is a God I want to come to understand and know better.
So yes, enjoy the beauty of that newborn baby, appreciate the beauty of that sunset, and celebrate (hopefully) the beauty of that hockey trophy. But let those places and moments of beauty, all of which are temporary at best, point you to the yearning of your spirit that yearns for a beautiful God.
And let the person of Jesus show you just how beautiful this God is, and how beautiful he wants you to become.
The Rev. Dr. Timothy Ziegenhals is pastor of the First Congregational Church of Essex