Beauty.

...thoughts on Keats, forgiveness and the challenge of grace.

Have you ever seen something so beautiful that it makes you a little short of breath, your heart beat a little faster and your tear glands start to swell in a way that can make it awkward to look at people in case they don’t feel the same way? I have to be honest, and I know this may not be the most masculine thing I’ve ever said; there is one thing so beautiful that you can almost guarantee it will move me to tears. You may think that I’m about to wax lyrical in some horribly clich├ęd manner about something unworthy of such a physical response. Not so.

Appreciating beauty is built into us, if you consider that superficial then what is at fault isn’t the statement but your definition of beauty. Creation, art, literature, you can find beauty in all kinds of things and there is even a name for the physical effect it can have on people: Stendhal syndrome.

Everyone has different things that they find beautiful. For me? There is a picture in the Laing gallery by a little known artist called Alfred Lambart, whenever it’s put on display I usually go several times to go see it. It’s beautiful. There is a moment on a B-road north of Alness where you round a corner of a hill and see a sweeping panorama of the valley below. Breathtaking. Chapter four of Bulgakov’s White Guard is so beautifully written it’s like being enveloped in the scene he paints.

But do you know what? What provokes my tear glands to swell and my heart rate to quicken isn’t any of those things. What provokes that in me is the most beautiful thing that any of us will see this side of eternity. What provokes it is the grace of God. I firmly believe that when we see the grace of God in action we’re coming as close as we do on earth to seeing God Himself, because in the moment of a grace revelation all of God’s character is wrapped up and revealed.

In the moment of a grace revelation all of God’s character is wrapped up and revealed.

The poet Keats, while not coughing up his insides or looking suitably wan to impress the ladies, wrote the following line: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness…” I love that description. You see, some of the physical things we give the epithet of beautiful? They’re gonna fade. I don’t know how old Helen of Troy was when she died, but I think it’s fair to assume she was no longer as physically attractive as she was when those thousand ships launched. And even if she was, she’s dust now. I love Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus but if people don’t keep restoring it for ever, it will eventually fade and crumble. The only things that really fulfill that line of Keats are from God for only they will never pass into nothingness. If we were to take him literally then you know what he’d be describing? The grace of God. He may have had in mind Selene and the Greek myths but what he paints with that line is a picture of God’s grace.

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness…”
– Keats

Proverbs 4:18 says: “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” It’s the path of the righteous that gets lovelier all the time and will never fade. It’s a reaction started by the immense explosion of Grace that happened at Calvary, the shock-waves of which are still growing. We’re not living in an echo chamber; when grace touches someone’s life it is not because of a distant after effect of a fading light but because the universe is still reeling from the biggest event ever to occur.

The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.
– Proverbs 4:18

The most beautiful things I’ve ever came across? It’s when someone whose been told by society they are no longer wanted, they’re locked up in jail, they’re hated for what they have done and God steps in and says: “Hey, you. Yes, you. I love you. I love you so much. Your life is not over! Come to me and I will show you real life, real love, real hope and an eternal future.” It’s the moment when a trafficked-prostitute is freed from her profession and told that her value is worth an infinite amount more than the price a man will pay for her favours. It’s the moment a child who has been abused and victimised is told that actually life isn’t that way, they’re not worthless and unloved, that there is a phenomenal future for them.

Hebrews tells us that through Christ we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. Grace is what saved us when we were dead and in sin. Grace is the thing that covers us when we fail, when we fall short, when we’re just not worthy. Grace. It’s the most priceless thing ever and it’s given to us free. The reason our evangelism should be effective isn’t us having all the right words, it’s us bringing news of the most beautiful gift people will ever know. When we stress about this, we’re underestimating just how much power is wrapped up in it.

The challenging part is the fact that because we have received immeasurable grace, we have a responsibility to show it to others too. It can be so easy to find ourselves judging others and forgetting the grace that we ourselves needed to bring us to Him. When people don’t meet up to what we expect of them do we think that they’re on a journey, that everyone falls but that Christ makes up their shortfall, or do we get angry and decide that they’re out-of-order? They don’t live by x, y and z rule so they’re not saved. They don’t follow this tradition or that belief so they’re not a true believer.

When people don’t meet up to what we expect of them do we think that they’re on a journey, that everyone falls but that Christ makes up their shortfall, or do we get angry and decide that they’re out-of-order?

The over-riding lesson that grace shows us is that it’s not about us, it’s about Him. And if that is true then when we see others fall and fail it’s not about them, it’s about God and his ability to bridge that gap. We need to reach out and help people, not to condemn them. When we see the broken, the messed up and the abandoned we see exactly the people God wants to reach. Five of the most powerful words ever spoken were spoken by Jesus in John chapter 8. “Neither do I condemn you.” He could have condemned but He forgave; why is it that so often we could forgive but we condemn?

It’s not always easy for us to have grace. God has given us so much of it and yet we can struggle to show it. How do we become better at showing others grace? Immerse ourselves entirely in the grace we’ve been shown, immerse ourselves in the testimonies of God’s grace from around the world. Weep for joy with the murderer on death row who finds it, with the beggar, the thief and the whore. Don’t sit impassive when you hear the story of a broken and bruised person being rescued, instead go with Spiritual Stendhal Syndrome. Let your heart rate quicken, get a bit teary eyed on their behalf and get lost in the wonder of amazing grace. We need to become so fully enveloped in grace that it becomes our first reaction to anything that offends us. That doesn’t mean that we lower our guard, or accept as good things we know are bad, it just means that we meet all people in the same way God met us. We meet them with that because redemption comes solely through an act of grace.

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Photo from Tom Blackwell, used under Creative Commons Licence.

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