By Bob Hostetler
It began with cable television shows like The Learning Channel’s What Not to Wear and 10 Years Younger.
But the trend quickly spread—and worsened—into shows depicting surgical makeovers. ABC launched Extreme Makeover, a series in which two ordinary people, shown first in an unflattering, ridicule-inviting “before” phase, underwent various operations and tutorials that culminated in a climactic unveiling of the effects of their “Extreme Makeover”—always to tears, applause, and congratulations.
Imitations soon followed. The Swan turned the “extreme makeover” idea into a beauty competition. The MTV series I Want a Famous Face gave contestants the opportunity to look like their favorite celebrity.
It doesn’t take great insight to recognize plastic-surgery-for-entertainment as un-healthy. But many of us reflect the same attitudes that gave rise to those shows. Some of us have come to value our personal appearance to a dangerous—perhaps even idolatrous—extreme.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with youth, beauty, and fitness. (I was young once myself). But some people fight aging so desperately they exalt youth as the ideal. Some of us spend so much time, effort, and money striving for beauty and a slim figure that anyone who is watching closely can see who our true god is. Some of us place such an emphasis on fitness that our workout rooms have become shrines. We color or comb our hair to look more youthful. We diet incessantly, even praying to improve our appearance.
Christians are far from immune; in fact, examples of this idolatry can be found on Christian television, at Christian conferences, and in Christian bookstores. We don’t see it as a big deal, of course; we are merely dressing to impress, perhaps, or looking for that boost in spirit when someone mistakes us for our daughter’s sister. But in so doing, we are not pursuing God, but something else. And in that pursuit is the root of idolatry.
Building Up the Temple
God’s Word tells us plainly, “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19, New King James Version), so physical health and cleanliness is nothing less than taking good care of the temple of the Holy Spirit. But when does wise stewardship of our bodies cross the line into tampering with the temple? How can we guard against elevating our pursuit of youth, beauty, and fitness to the place of a god in our lives?
God’s Word helps us answer such questions. In a letter to his pastoral protégé, Paul, the great church planter of the first century, wrote to Timothy, “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10, New International Version, 1984).
While these verses are addressed specifically to women, the words Paul wrote to Timothy contain four timeless and universal principles—appropriate for both men and women—that outline a godly approach to youth, beauty, and fitness.
Paul commanded “women to dress modestly” (2:9), rather than pridefully and expensively. Pride is often behind an unhealthy desire to tamper with God’s temple, a desire to elevate ourselves above those around us. We know that when we wear that ensemble, for example, heads will turn and we will enjoy people’s admiration. But God’s will for you and me, of course, is for us to find what we need in him. He longs for us to feel his approval to such an extent that we no longer crave the approval of men and women. He asked through the prophet Isaiah, “Why spend your money for what is not bread, your wages for what fails to satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2, NKJV).
Expensive fashions do not nourish us. Expensive cosmetic surgeries and hair implant procedures do not nurture us. They will never satisfy the longings of our hearts. If we “dress to impress” in order to gain the approval and respect of men and women, we are spending our money for things that do not satisfy.
Paul’s letter to Timothy also urged “women to dress . . . with decency” (2:9). The culture in Ephesus, where Timothy ministered (1:3), wore its sexuality on its sleeve. Paul said their indecent fashions were not appropriate for women who follow Christ.
Like Timothy and Paul, we live in a culture that seems to delight in revealing fashions and styles of dress that leave little to the imagination. If Paul were writing today, he may have mentioned breast enhancement surgery and buttock implants. Beauty and fashion choices that inflame the passion of any person other than one’s husband or wife cross the lines of decency.
God wants us to pursue his standard of decency rather than the world’s standards of youth, beauty, and fitness. Again, that is not to say these things are inherently wrong, but our primary emphasis when we stand before the mirror should be modesty and decency, not looking “hot.”
Paul specified that women should dress “with
. . . propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (2:9). One New Testament scholar points out that “in Greek society there were women whose whole life consisted in elaborate dressing and braiding of the hair. . . . Even the Greeks and the Romans were shocked at the love of dress and adornment which characterized some of their women.” Braided hair and fine fashions are not immoral in themselves, but they crossed the boundary of propriety in that cultural setting.
Propriety is a sense for what is fitting in a specific situation. What is appropriate for the bedroom is not appropriate for the boardroom. What is suitable for the beach is not suitable for the street. What is okay among family is not always okay elsewhere. Standards of propriety have blurred and all but disappeared in our culture. Some young women have taken to wearing lingerie blouses to the office and pajamas to go jogging. Some young men will wear the same clothes to a job interview that they would wear to
exercise. Some folks forget that it’s always proper to be clean and odor free! In such cases, it’s not primarily a question of modesty, or even decency; the issue is propriety.
Finally, Paul writes, “I want women to dress [themselves] . . . with good deeds” (2:9, 10). Good deeds are the most attractive adornment for the person who worships God. And how like God it is! Your beauty in his eyes doesn’t depend on things outside your control (like good cheekbones or a creamy complexion) but on things entirely within your control (like mowing the lawn for an invalid or rocking a baby in the church nursery). God is less interested in whether your nose or teeth are crooked than whether your actions are. He is far less impressed by a flattering hairdo than he is by the deeds you do. He is much less concerned with the makeup on your face than he is with the makeup of your character. He doesn’t care about your sculptured biceps; he cares about your surrendered heart.
Temples that Glorify God
God doesn’t want people to look at you and marvel at your youthful beauty; he wants people to look at you and worship him. He doesn’t want people to ask how you stay in such good shape; he wants people to ask why your life is different. He doesn’t want people to see you and ask for your plastic surgeon’s name; he wants people to “see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, NIV, 1984).
You may not always see these standards of modesty, decency, propriety, and (true) beauty in the church. You may not always see them on Christian television or among Christian “performers.” You certainly won’t see them reflected in the world. But they are so powerful because they are so rare. Men and women who apply God’s standards for personal appearance and adorn themselves with good deeds instead of expensive clothes will reap a rich harvest (Galatians 6:9). And those of us who remove the idols of youth, beauty, and fitness from the altar of our hearts will open the way for God to work in us and through us in new and greater ways.
Bob Hostetler is a minister, author, and freelance writer in Hamilton, Ohio.
God’s Blessings for Aging Bodies
• Regardless of age, your body is God’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). Nothing changes that—even days when you don’t feel like facing wrinkles and achy joints.
• When you’re lacking some of the physical, outward things people often take pride in, you may find it easier to develop and deepen humility. Humility is the gateway to God’s grace (Proverbs 3:34).
• Ideally, as you age, you acquire more wisdom and a deeper understanding of God’s Word. You’re no longer “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). It feels good to have your feet on solid ground.
• Aging can free you from the meaningless pressures of youth and beauty, allowing you to love God and others apart from those hindrances. It’s hard to care about you when I’m so caught up in me.
• The limitations of physical ailments encourage us to rely on others—and other people are one of God’s favorite avenues of blessing.
• When you see something you’re not (agile, attractive, strong), you can put confidence in what God is. (This works for young, attractive, healthy people too.)
• God loves using the not-so-young. Think about Sarah and Abraham, Moses, and Simeon. God still has big plans for you.