Skin-deep beauty is subjective, fleeting—and big business. Media images and alluring ads create unattainable aspirations. But what does true beauty look like?
Margaret was in her 70s when I met her. Just looking at her, she might not have seemed like anyone special. She shuffled when she walked, her skin was rough and wrinkled, and she had lost most of her hair. Yet to her husband, Tony, she was the most gorgeous woman in the world. Sometimes he would put his arms around her and tell me, “She is absolutely lovely!” As Margaret blushed, I would smile and nod.
Many others, young and old alike, were totally captivated by Margaret and considered her a dear friend or an adopted aunt or grandma. When Margaret walked into a room, people flocked to her. Someone always wanted to talk with her or get her attention.
Once, Margaret told me she thought her nose was too big, and that she never liked her looks, even when she was young. Still, she never let that get her down. Margaret understood that true beauty is found in a woman’s character. It is a reflection of having a close relationship with God, striving to live His way of life and showing an outgoing concern for others.
This is what I saw in Margaret and what drew so many others to her as well.
The ins and outs of beauty
The apostle Peter tells us, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4).
Outward beauty diminishes over time, whereas inner beauty is long-lasting, and may actually improve with age.
But we live in a culture that is obsessed with physical beauty. Commercials, magazines, movies and television programs bombard us with images of models and entertainers with seemingly perfect bodies and exquisite hairstyles and makeup jobs.
Media messages insist that to be attractive, a woman must have a slim build, symmetrical features, flawless skin, perfectly straight teeth, pouty lips, long eyelashes and a youthful appearance.
Packaging and priorities
Increasing numbers of women are buying into these fallacies. The cosmetics industry is huge and getting bigger all the time. One analyst, Inkwood Research, reports that global sales of beauty products (makeup, hair preparations, skin treatments and other cosmetics) totaled $432.7 billion in 2016. This figure is expected to jump to $750 billion by 2024.
Wrinkles, age spots, eye bags, graying hair, sagging skin, cellulite, varicose veins and other natural physical changes give today’s women a lot of angst, boosting the demand for elective cosmetic surgery. A new report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons revealed that Americans spent over $16 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2016—the highest amount ever.
Putting too much emphasis on our physical appearance can cause us to put less priority on developing inner beauty, which is far more important.This is not to say that it’s wrong to try to look attractive. “It’s important to take care of our bodies and make ourselves as presentable as possible in terms of what God has blessed us with physically,” says Andy Burnett, pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, congregations in Dallas and Sherman, Texas. “However, outward beauty should not be our complete focus, and we shouldn’t obsess over our perceived imperfections.”
Putting too much emphasis on our physical appearance can cause us to put less priority on developing inner beauty, which is far more important, adds Mr. Burnett. We’ve all met individuals who are perfect 10s in terms of looks, but seem a lot less attractive once they start talking.
Pretty packaging doesn’t mean much without the inner strengths.
Just as is true with physical beauty, many different traits can contribute to inner beauty. When I think about Margaret and other truly beautiful people I have known, seven character strengths stand out:
- A service mind-set.
I attended church with Margaret when I was in college. Rare was a Saturday evening when she didn’t have guests over to dinner, and very often it was young people who benefited from a wholesome meal and an older person who took an interest in them.
Serving is an excellent way to cultivate inner beauty. The classic biblical example of service is found in Proverbs 31:11-31. This virtuous woman worked hard to provide food and clothing not only for her own household, but also for needy people in her community (verse 20).
Opportunities to serve are all around us. It might mean preparing your husband’s favorite meal after a hard week, taking a meal to a shut-in, or doing yardwork for an elderly neighbor. Serving could also be simple gestures like holding a door open for someone, being a good listener or sending a get-well card.
There is nothing more beautiful than when we focus our time, energy and resources on those who need encouragement.
A truly beautiful woman is peaceable. She does not become easily angered or offended. She is not domineering, conniving or combative, nor is she a nag or a complainer. Rather than demand her way, she is willing to yield to others for the sake of peace. This is the essence of having a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).
In The First Epistle of Peter (1990), Peter Davids describes a gentle woman as “a woman of remarkable strength and tenacity, because she does not strike back when someone sins against her. Rather, she waits on God. Knowing that God is just, she can suffer without bitterness.” He explains that quiet has “the sense of being calm, peaceful, and tranquil.”
Peaceable people are a joy to be around. We don’t have to “walk on eggshells” when we’re with them, or be overly concerned that we might say something to get them upset. A peaceable woman gives others the benefit of the doubt and is willing to forgive when offenses do occur.
True beauty is free of pride, arrogance and self-centeredness. Humility includes acknowledging that the strengths and talents we have are gifts from God and that we should use what He has blessed us with to serve and glorify Him. True beauty is not possible without a humble mind-set.
In practical terms, humility means thinking about what’s good for others, not just our own needs and wants. We shouldn’t vie for the spotlight. We should be happy for others when they shine—even if they’re better at something than we are. If we are blessed with physical beauty, we should not become conceited about it.
Another way to exhibit inner beauty is by being trustworthy. Margaret was a “woman of her word.” If she said she was going to do something for someone, she did it. If a friend confided in her, she did not repeat that information to anyone else. Her husband could trust her to manage the household finances. If he asked her to do something for him, she made that her top priority.
Trust is a very precious quality and the cornerstone of any relationship.
A woman who is genuinely attractive seeks to dress in “modest apparel,” as Paul instructed in 1 Timothy 2:9. The word modest could also be translated “proper,” “respectable” or “decent.” Our clothing should not be revealing or sexually suggestive, nor should we dress to show off.
That said, modesty means more than just avoiding promiscuous clothing. In its fullest sense modesty means being moderate or temperate. A truly beautiful woman does not seek undue attention for herself through her appearance, speech or conduct.
Outlandish hairstyles (e.g., Mohawks and unnatural hair color), excessive makeup, facial piercings other than the standard earlobe, or alternative clothing styles (e.g., Goth and heavy metal) are not moderate forms of grooming and can be very distracting to others.
A modest woman does not use profanity, boast about herself, gossip or belittle others with her words. She is not brazen, boisterous or ostentatious, nor does she always have to be the life of the party.
A truly beautiful woman feels deeply for people who are hurting. I have several friends who shine in this area. When I’ve felt down and needed to talk, they were willing to drop whatever they were doing to serve as a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear.
There have been times when these women were facing their own challenges, yet they put their own situations on the back burner to make my problems their focus, eager to help in any way they could and weeping with me as I wept, as we’re admonished to do in Romans 12:15. Compassion is a very endearing quality, as it shows others that we genuinely care about them and will be by their sides through thick and thin.
Margaret’s hair loss and rough skin were due to the chemotherapy she had undergone after being diagnosed with cancer. When I first met her, the disease was localized. But after four years, the cancer had metastasized, spreading throughout her body and ultimately leading to her death.
Through it all, Margaret was courageous. She exuded an incredible sense of peace, because she knew God was in charge and would see her through the ordeal. No matter what happened, she knew she had a future in God’s Kingdom to look forward to.
Margaret’s calm confidence in God made her very beautiful, and it helped reassure those of us around her that God would help us get through our own trials. The fact is, when we allow our fears and anxieties to take over, it makes us less attractive. It’s not pleasant being around someone who is continually worrying. Conversely, the more we trust God, the more beautiful we become.
We don’t have to excel in all of the strengths noted above to exhibit inner beauty. But they are all qualities we should be striving to have. To possess even one of them will make us more attractive not only to others, but most importantly to God.
Whether we’re young and a real looker, or older with arm flab and wrinkles, our focus should be the same: to develop true, lasting beauty.
“If you are more concerned with your outer appearance, you will be unhappy when you start seeing those first signs of aging,” Mr. Burnett says. “But if your focus is on building godly character, that’s what’s going to last, and that’s what’s going to lead to real, authentic happiness.”
Sure, Margaret would have preferred a more petite nose. But in the broad scheme of things, it really didn’t matter. No one was distracted by her nose. What others did notice was her character, and that’s what I will always remember.
Truly, it’s what’s on the inside that matters most.