“It sometimes happens that a woman is handsomer at twenty-nine than she was ten years before.” – Jane Austen
In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I used to be the girl who thought she was ugly. Used to be. There’s a story there and even though I feel that the theme is a common one, I suppose that it’s time for me to tell it. Allow me to first state that the subject of beauty in Scripture and philosophy goes far beyond my powers of expression. Why beauty matters and what defines it are questions for greater minds and certainly greater writers. This is simply a sharing of my personal journey as I am discovering what it means to be beautiful.
“D— is in love with you,” my first grade class mate announced, grinning from ear-to-ear, seated in the swing next to mine. “Of course he is. I’m beautiful.” This memory makes me chuckle, especially my matter-of-fact declaration of my own beauty. I didn’t suffer from a lack of self-esteem as a child. I was blessed to spend the first ten years of my life in a home where my parents were both attentive and generous with their compliments. But the collapse of my parents’ marriage undermined my sense of security and for the first time in my young life I truly felt unwanted. Gone was the girl who said, “I’m beautiful.” I emerged from my family’s crisis with a new idea: I didn’t really have whatever it was that could make someone want to love me. I wasn’t enough.
The eight years between my parents’ divorce and my high school graduation were… messy, to say the least. As I look back I can see how God’s mercy spared me, how grace sustained me, and how He was faithful to draw me unto himself. I clung to scripture and what I knew of God’s character. Those two things kept me. But those were hard, heartbreaking years. I suffered from frequent nightmares, panic attacks, an eating disorder and you can be sure that I cried myself to sleep most nights. I finished high school feeling broken, emotionally crippled and too tired to dream. I now concluded that there were too many things that had been a part of my life for anyone to want me. I was too much.
During the two years between my high school graduation and my freshman year of college, things began to change . I managed to find my bearings and determined that I would be really good. Part of my heart really did long to serve and to bless others. But the other part- the part of me that felt I wasn’t really the sort of girl that people were drawn to- thought that maybe I could be appreciated enough to be happy. Maybe I could do stuff that people really liked, and so when they wanted whatever stuff I could do it would almost be like they wanted to have me around. I decided the best thing was for me to become invisible.
Not enough. Too much. Invisible. I may have been functioning but my heart was dead in my chest.
My first semester of college changed everything. It began with reading Psalm eighteen. The latter part of the verse nineteen caught my eye and knocked me off my theological block. “He rescued me because He delighted in me.” I knew that I was loved. The cross proved that. But God delighting in me? It sounded strange. Does God delight in His creation? So I took my question to scripture and found that He does. Not because the creation is prefect but because it belongs to Him and reflects His glorious nature. That’s an oversimplification of a large principle but I think it works here. (If you’d like to dialogue with me about it, I’d love to go deeper.) The Holy Spirit revealed the truth of scripture and the tender love of Jesus to me in such a way that I couldn’t help being effected. It was like waking the dead. Everything was transformed: my understanding of Him, my passion for His glory, my personality, my behaviors, my habits, my joys. My middle name, Renee’, means “rebirth” and that promise was certainly fulfilled in those months.
By now you may be wondering how any of this relates to what I see when I look in the mirror. I did mention that everything underwent drastic changes in that first semester. The fact that I couldn’t take a compliment came up in discussion as my dear friends were helping me learn to live in this new reality of God’s love. And so the girls in my dorm made it something of a mission to tell me that I was beautiful as often as possible. It irked me. It made me uncomfortable. You see, the problem wasn’t really that I thought I was ugly. It was unbelief. God, who is the source and definition of beauty made mankind in His likeness and so it stands to reason that all people are beautiful. We reflect His beauty. If I dismissed the kind words of my friends then I also dismissed His skill and craftsmanship in creation. Either I believed that He created me “fearfully and wonderfully” or I did not. Either I accepted that someone else could recognize His handiwork or I pronounced them dull to His Spirit. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision to change my thoughts or if they were altered through steady exposure to truth. Something shifted.
And then one day I looked in the mirror and I saw myself. I was twenty-one years old but it was as if I’d never seen my reflection before. My heart had finally learned to recognize His goodness and I could see it in the lines of my face. I’m enough. I’m worthy because He made me. I’m not too much. The cross lifts me from shame and makes me new. I’m not invisible. Like Hagar, I cry out to God, “who sees.” I’ve been completely redefined. And I can see what I had not been able to see for almost ten years. I’m beautiful. I’m short. I have a broad face. I’m round when I’d rather be slim. I have dark skin and freckles. Yet I’m absolutely lovely. The face I see when I look in the mirror (and how I feel) is defined by how I see it. Love sees beauty everywhere.
Not that I’ve perfected this. I’m still learning. Usually, I’m weakest when having to trust that others can recognize what I see. It’s a journey. Sometimes I move ahead with vigor, sometimes I lag behind and usually I’m leaning heavy on Him for the grace to keep walking. Like I said, a journey. A process. A grand adventure. One that ends when I find myself face to face with Jesus, made fully like Him and radiant. Spotless, sinless and ever so beautiful.