Lisa and I were shopping in one of her stores years ago when I heard a song that stopped me in my tracks. The voice was ethereal and enchanting. I fired up Shazam and discovered I was listening to Nina Gordon.
Nina became one of my favorite female singers (she’s also part of a hard rock group I’m not nearly as fond of). Lisa knows my iPod is filled with a few dozen Nina Gordon songs. And Lisa’s level of jealousy over my enjoyment of Nina’s intoxicating voice is zero on a scale of one to ten, even though singing isn’t really one of Lisa’s strengths.
Few people would say it is a sin for me to enjoy Nina’s music. If I’m running and one of her songs comes up on my playlist, making me go “yes!” I can’t imagine anyone would think I’m “cheating” on Lisa.
But what if I enjoyed Nina’s beauty?
Some women (and men) seem to think so. I’ve heard descriptions of “lust” reduced to, “My husband shouldn’t even find other women attractive.” You might as well say, “My husband should be a piece of granite.”
The problem is, God didn’t create your husband to be a piece of granite. God created your husband to be a man. And most men enjoy feminine beauty.
There is a major difference between appreciating beauty and lusting after a woman, but I fear some are so hurt, wounded, and offended that they can’t allow for such a distinction.
Part of me thinks this is such an explosive discussion that more a discerning writer would just step around it, but I trust we have a strong enough connection by now to address this as it does have an impact on what it means to cherish our spouse, and just as important, to make our spouse feel cherished by us. In order for our spouse to feel he or she is our “Adam” or “Eve,” is it necessary for us to be blind to any other person’s beauty?
Abuse Doesn’t Negate the Use
There’s a famous Latin phrase, absus non tollit usum, which roughly translated means “the abuse does not invalidate the proper use.” Just because something can be abused doesn’t mean it can’t be properly used. And that’s the mindset by which I believe we have to understand the allure of beauty.
In the Bible, God celebrates beauty:
Ezekiel 16:14 “Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendour which I bestowed on you,” declares the LORD God.
The psalmist exalts the beauty of the queen: “Let the King be enthralled by your beauty,” and goes on to mention an entire nation, indeed, an entire world, being enthralled with her (Psalm 45).
God exalts Tyre for once being “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12).
To say beauty is a blessing isn’t to say we should define our wives by their beauty or make their physical appearance what we value most about them. If my daughter hears one more young pastor talk about his “smoking hot wife” she is going to walk out of the service, right then and there. And, of course, Peter is adamant that a woman’s beauty should come from her character, not outward adornment (1 Peter 3:3-4).
It’s thus quite possible to take this “beauty is a blessing” thing too far. But I wonder if some elements of the church have undercut how enthralled men can be by beauty and have treated this God-given creational reality as a result of the fall because they think the abuse nullifies the use.
A British playwright once said that the most beautiful thing a man will ever see is a naked woman (he added that the most beautiful thing a woman will ever see is her firstborn child) and I think he was a man who understood men. All forms of beauty are wonderful, but a woman’s beauty is…different.
Going back to the Latin phrase that the abuse does not undercut the proper use, one of the dangers of things like porn and lust is that they are so limiting. For example, my friend’s wife can enjoy a glass of red wine without wanting to drink the entire bottle or even a second glass. “In fact, most times,” he tells me, “she doesn’t even finish the first glass.” This wife can use wine without abusing wine, which allows her to enjoy it as an appropriate pleasure. But if she ever drank to feel buzzed, the use of that wine would become abuse and she’d be wise to avoid alcohol altogether. A guy with a history of “abusing” beauty is a fool if he lets proper use (for spiritually healthy minds) lead him back into a prior pattern of abuse—looking to lust.
Philosopher Dr. J. Budziszewski wrote an entire chapter on “The Meaning of Sexual Beauty” in which he admits that for men, “women seem to glow in more hues than men do, and in different ones. The spectrum is wider, the world has more music and color, just because there are women in it.” Distinct feminine beauty is thus a good thing, what God created men to experience.
He then uses an analogy of classical ballet, pointing out that a man is “affected by the grace of the woman’s movements in an entirely different manner than by the strength of the man’s, but it isn’t about wanting to have sex with her.” I could be mesmerized by a ballerina’s grace, beauty, athleticism, and body, in a way I’d never be mesmerized by a man, without thinking, “I wish I could sleep with her.” So I can appreciate her without lusting after her.
But, there’s a “but.” Budziszewski admits that if I ponder that ballerina’s beauty too long and too intensely, sexual feelings may arise.
If, husband, you have a track record of pornography that has greatly grieved your wife, if you have a constant “neck problem” that regularly insults your wife, please do not take this post as permission to tell your wife “all men like to look and there’s nothing wrong with it.” You’re trying to excuse abuse by someone else’s legitimate use and that’s not what we’re talking about. That’s like an alcoholic insisting he can hang out in bars because “there’s nothing technically wrong with that.” All our actions should be centered around making our spouse feel cherished and honored and for our wives to feel like Eve, “My dove, my perfect one, my only one” (Song of Songs 6:9).
Beauty can be appreciated without it always being about sex. But this doesn’t mean appreciating beauty can’t lead it to become about sex. “A wise man governs his eyes, not because it is wrong to delight in beauty,” Budziszewski writes, “but because otherwise his delight may suffer transmutation into something very different.”
How Do We Use Without Abusing?
One of my beloved classic writers, John Climacus (579-649), suggests that properly appreciating a woman’s beauty can lead to worship. He wrote of Nonnus, the bishop of Heliopolis. “Having looked on a body of great beauty, he at once gave praise to its Creator and after one look was stirred to love God.” Recognizing the deeper truth he was witnessing, Climacus remarked, “It was marvelous how something that could have brought low one person managed to be the cause of a heavenly crown for another.”
This is where the gift of worship comes in, for “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). If a woman’s physical beauty stops me in my tracks the same way that first Nina Gordon song does, I can worship God for being such a brilliant creator.
If I’m not in a healthy state spiritually and sexually, however, I’m more likely to respond in a spiritually unhealthy way. A worshipful heart allows us to enter into a genuine, soul-satisfying appreciation of beauty without wanting to exploit it. There is a world of difference between appreciating a beautiful body and sexualizing, dehumanizing, and selfishly wanting to “consume” that beauty for our own pleasure.
Next to worship, I make sure to remind myself that in God’s creative genius, sex and love are part of the same package. With love, sexual interest is to be mutually enjoyed in lifelong marriage. When we remove love from sex, we risk fostering an addiction in our own souls and guarantee abusing the person we are selfishly lusting after.
Psychologist Patrick Carnes warns that, “Anything that is exploitive or harmful to others or degrades oneself will activate the addictive system.” If you separate sexual interest from love and begin to look lustfully you will either create or strengthen an addiction. Healthy sex brings healing, pleasure, and intimacy, but exploitive sex brings addiction and the loss of control.
If someone knew you were watching them or sexualizing them in your mind, would they feel violated? If so, you’re acting out. The ”use” has become “abuse.” A spouse may present herself to her husband with provocative clothing because she wants to excite him. An anonymous woman on the beach, at the grocery store, or running in the neighborhood isn’t inviting your sexual interest. And don’t think she can’t tell. In When to Walk Away I recount this true anecdote: “A good friend of mine is married to a beautiful woman. He noticed one time that a customer at the checkout line was mentally addressing her with a brazen stare. They talked about it on the way home and she confessed, ‘It happens all the time. And yes, it feels like rape. It is a violation. I can feel it.’” Lust has a spiritual quality to it that’s creepy and real. It’s not as invisible as men think, at least not to the spiritually discerning. Men don’t talk about this enough, but women sure feel it.
This, then, is the protective “guardrail” of appreciation: as a Christian who worships God, we should know that love and sex are a package deal. And we should never separate them. When you separate sexual interest from love, you open the door to all manner of horrors.
Men, on our journey to cherish our wives and honor them as “Eve,” the only woman in the world we will ever look at in that way, let’s celebrate the “use” of beauty as a blessing that reflects God’s creative genius while guarding against the abuse: looking too long and too intensely in a way that leads to damnable abuse. God gave us men eyes that are designed to be utterly captivated by our wives throughout their lives (Proverbs 5:18-19). That’s the proper use of beauty. But he also gave us minds to figure out when the proper use becomes abuse.
It’s worth pointing out that when we teach this to younger men, we have to emphasize that the “problem” is never the woman’s beauty. It’s the man’s focus. If asking a man not to notice is to ask him to become a piece of granite, asking a woman to try to appear less beautiful so she doesn’t “cause” him to stumble is asking her to become a piece of granite, which God never created her to become. The problem isn’t her beauty; that’s a blessing.
Famed novelist Robert Louis Stevenson rightly called out early missionary efforts to clothe indigenous races. He believed this was “infecting” them with the “beastliness” of our own sexual hang-ups. The same warning exists today whenever we talk about “modesty.” Of course we all want to dress with appropriate decorum. But my hang-ups shouldn’t be used to limit any woman’s wardrobe. Nor should women be guilted into catering to the lowest common denominator of men who haven’t learned how to control their lust.
Learning to cherish my wife as my Eve (or a woman cherishing her husband as Adam) will help us have a healthy basis with which to appreciate beauty without being ruined by abusing beauty.
Cherish Challenge Week 4
- Read (or listen to) chapter 5 in Cherish.
- Talk about the comfort you have, as a couple, in “noticing” other people. If your spouse feels insecure because of your past misbehavior, hear him/her out. Remember, the important thing isn’t “maintaining your rights,” it’s making your spouse feel cherished. You may not be able to stop “noticing” but you can change the way you notice, and if you want your spouse to feel cherished, that needs to be taken into account.
- After reading chapter 5 in Cherish, root out any markers of “contempt” in your relationship. Ask your spouse if there is anything you’re doing that even smells like contempt.
- Think about John Gottman’s insight; “Being mean is the death knell of relationships.”
- Let us know how pursuing cherish has helped you appreciate your spouse and rooted out contempt. You can do that in the comments below and/or on our Cherish Challenge webpage here.