Can we talk about ugliness?

John Piper hosts a podcast called “Ask Pastor John”. Recently he was asked:

“Pastor John, why did God make some people ugly and unattractive? How can I accept the fact that God, though capable of making me beautiful or at least average looking, chose to create me in an unattractive manner?”

Now I guess, Piper could have answered the question in a number of ways. He could have responded by immediately saying that “God does not make any of us ‘ugly’” we are fearsomely and wonderfully made and so that would have been on one level a legitimate answer. If he had been talking to the person one to one he could have  and may well have taken time to draw out why the feel ugly and what might be behind that. I think that would have been pastorally legitimate but obviously not possible in this context.

So what he did was something that has surprised and indeed offended some of his readers.  He has accepted the premise that there is such a thing as ugliness. Indeed, he goes on beyond the concept of simply being considered subjectively as average looking at best and talks about deformity, pain and suffering.

You can read or listen his response in full here.  All I will say about his introduction is that I’ve had far more people tell me I’m ugly than he has (it’s a badge of honour if you are a northerner) and one less tell me I’m handsome (just my mum and my wife).*

More seriously, I want to suggest that in the context of the specific setting, his response is valid and important. It might not be how we would approach the question if approached one to one by someone struggling with confidence or hurt by the mean things that bullies have been saying but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Indeed, I would suggest that the response creates space for us to think more deeply on a subject than we might in normal pastoral situations so that we might allow God’s Word to disagree with us. Piper in effect offers us a theology of ugliness.

This theology of ugliness can be summed up as follows

  • The fall makes things ugly because sin and evil is ugly, so too the consequences
  • We live in the now and not yet tension so that this ugliness is still present with us.
  • The presence of ugliness serves to further highlight the ugliness of sin
  • The presence of ugliness contrasts the beauty of Christ serving to magnify his glory more and more.
  • This draws us to find our satisfaction and delight not in our own physical appearance but in Christ.
  • Christ is at work in our lives -we are new creations and we are being made beautiful. This will be fully realised when we see him face to face

On the fourth point notice crucially where and how Piper says that we see this ugliness at work in order to better see God’s glory.

There are other things Piper could have said but I wonder if by not saying those things he might be helping us to get to hear the bits that we don’t often hear because we’ve accepted the first answer, been reassured and are rushing on.

So, why do we struggle with the message here. Essentially Piper has given us an exposition of Romans 8. Why do we find God’s Word disagreeing with us?   I think that it’s similar to the struggle that we witnessed when people were falling out the other day about “original sin.” Indeed, I suspect that Piper’s comments are to an American audience what Katherine Birbalsingh’s were to a British audience.  We hear Piper saying something about creation when he is in fact talking about the Fall. Just as the Fall means that there is original sin without negating original goodness in creation so too the Fall means that we can talk about ugliness without negating the truth that God made us beautiful.

Now, there are a couple of things I might add at this point. Aside from the obvious qualification that much of our view of beauty and ugliness is driven by subjective evaluations I would want to add that the Fall even distorts our understanding of beauty.  It means that sometimes we will perceive things as beautiful when they are not. It means that people learn to hide their inner ugliness of character behind the veneer of what the world considers beauty. It also means that sometimes we will knowingly design, create and present things and ourselves in a way that we know to be ugly,.

Denying the existence of ugliness and deformity doesn’t in the end truly help.

It is no benefit to me if I’m told that there is nothing ugly or distorted about me.  That is to hide from the truth.  I know that I am a sinner and that sin is ugly. Because I’m not a Gnostic I know that what is spiritually true also has an effect in terms of what is materially so.  What I need to know is that there is a God who loves me and is not put off my by ugliness. I need to know that this God removes my ugliness and gives me his beauty.

*That’s the light hearted self depreciating bit but more seriously, I have written previously about my experience of bullying as a child a significant element of that bullying related to appearance some of which was affected by health conditions including asthma and an impaired vision due to Keretoconus (see https://faithroot.com/2020/04/14/bullies-a-personal-story/ )

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