Remember that old Sprite line, “Image is everything”? I’ve always thought that was a fairly bizarre marketing ploy, “Everything boils down to your image, so drink our sugar water.” There are some serious lapses in logic there, but deep down I believe it touches on a serious blind spot in our culture. Sadly, many really do believe image is everything.
Media and entertainment tell the story well. Just weeks ago, there was legitimate debate as to whether an overweight man could be elected President. In Italy, prosecutors claimed Amanda Knox’s beauty helped her win her murder trial appeal. Television shows like “American Idol” consistently laud those who have “star quality” (meaning they can sing and are easy on the eyes). Another show, “The Biggest Loser,” thrives on the cultural stigma against being overweight and the dramatic appeal of people losing weight fast. The list is long. A huge segment of current entertainment unashamedly over-emphasizes physical appearance.
However, this cultural problem of image runs deeper than mere entertainment and media. The U.S. weight-loss industry has an annual market-value hovering around $60 billion with an estimated 75 million Americans on some type of diet. Add in the cosmetic and clothing industries, and it’s obvious there is huge cultural pressure to look as good as you possibly can.
But what are the real costs of a culture over-emphasizing image and attractiveness? One of the costs is valuing things and people based primarily on their physical appearance. We all learn as children not to judge a book by its cover, but do we ever learn not to judge a person by their appearance? I believe one of the main reasons so many are obsessed with improving and maintaining their physical appearance is they have accurately perceived the cultural truism: Success rises and falls with physical beauty. Good news for those who are beautiful and bad news for everyone else.
Many today have been devastated by increasing use of pornography, which leaves users addicted and marriages shaken. Andy Stanley summarizes the porn epidemic well, equating the use of pornographic material with going to school and learning that your spouse (or future spouse) will never be good enough. Porn users numb their own awareness of beauty, becoming increasingly and unrealistically picky about who and what they view as beautiful.
So two groups rise in our culture: some who work really hard to be as physically beautiful as possible and some who habitually act to ensure nothing and no one will ever be beautiful enough. It’s a sick cycle, and many have been swept up.
As Christians, we know this physical world and its desires are fading away (1 John 2:17). The teachings of Jesus and the other New Testament writers point people toward a focus on spiritual realities rather than physical ones. In fact, Peter clearly instructed first-century women to focus on their inner beauty rather than the external, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3-4). Peter taught women to think about beauty in terms of their spiritual conformity to Christ’s character, and in the same way, men should think about image and attractiveness in terms of character.
When the Bible describes the beauty of Christ, it always speaks of His love, His humility, His sacrifice for His people, His continuing work as their mediator, and many other things He is and does. It never even mentions what He looked like. We must learn to see the beauty in ourselves and others in the same way.
Practically, this means we shouldn’t spend more time at the gym working on our abs than we do improving our soul’s condition before God. Just as Paul reminded Timothy, “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). What good is it to look physically attractive if you’ve neglected the holiness which God rewards eternally?
In a culture that boasts image is everything, let’s remember true beauty is a heart growing in the likeness of Jesus Christ. We should regularly recalibrate our hearts upon eternal reality and not spend our time, energy and money chasing physical beauty that simply will not last. Turns out godliness is everything; image is a distant second … if that.