How can I be freed from my obsession with my appearance? An ever-important question today from an anonymous young woman who listens to every episode, and no doubt is listening right now. “Hello, Pastor John! I am 19 years old. I have a question that I have been wrestling with for a while about self-image. For years now I have dealt with hating what I see in the mirror. It’s been a frustrating and emotional journey. I struggle with a lot of self-comparison and am very critical of my appearance. I get very self-conscious when I’m not wearing makeup or when I wear certain clothes. I know this is a huge problem for young women. Women need Jesus to forgive their sins, not to make them feel beautiful. And yet knowing that, I still struggle here. I know that this is a branch of pride and self-love: to be so caught up in appearance. It is very damaging and discouraging and it affects my life daily. I was wondering how you would biblically encourage women who struggle with this same thing?”
Old, Wrinkled — and Beautiful
Let me begin with a story. Evelyn Brand was born in England in 1879 and grew up in a well-to-do British family. She studied at the London Conservatory of Art. She dressed in the finest silks of the day. She was resoundingly converted to Christ, she married, and she went with her husband to minister as missionaries in the Kolli Malai mountain range in India.
After about ten years, her husband died at the age of 44. She came home broken, beaten down by pain and grief. But after a year’s restoration, and against all advice, she returned all by herself to India. Her soul was restored. She poured her life into the hill people: nursing the sick, teaching farming, lecturing about guinea worms, rearing orphans, clearing jungle land, pulling teeth, establishing schools, spreading the gospel.
“The world spends billions of dollars and endless time to persuade women that life consists in their looks.”
She lived in a portable hut — eight feet square — for a season that could be taken down and moved and then put up again. At age 67, she fell and broke her hip. Her son, Paul Brand (a famous surgeon), encouraged her to retire. She had already suffered a broken arm, several cracked vertebrae, recurrent malaria. Her response: “Paul, you know these mountains. If I leave, who will help the village people? Who will treat their wounds, and pull their teeth, and teach them about Jesus? When someone comes to take my place, then — and only then — will I retire.”
She worked on. And then, at the age of 95, she died. The villagers buried her in a simple cotton sheet so that she would decompose and be part of the mountains. Her son commented, “With wrinkles as deep and extensive as any I have ever seen on a human face, she was a beautiful woman.”
Now here’s the great part: for the last twenty years of her life, she refused to have a mirror in her house. I love this. She was consumed with ministry — not mirrors, not self. A coworker once remarked that Granny Brand was more alive than any person he had ever met.
The world is spending billions of dollars and endless media time to persuade women that life consists in their looks: their skin, their shape, their hair. The scam is as old as history. At the center of it is the attempt to trick women into the habit of comparing themselves with other women, even though Paul wrote, “When they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). That’s referring to another situation, but the principle is still the same.
Three thousand years ago, the Old Testament wise man pleaded with women not to be tricked. He said, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30). In other words, true beauty, the real praiseworthiness in life, is not outward appearance, but reverence for God and a life lived for others.
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Peter said, “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).
“The greatest beauty is a life of self-forgetfulness for the good of others in the name of Jesus.”
Paul said, “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works” (1 Timothy 2:9–10). In other words, true beauty is a life lived in the service of others. The greatest beauty is a life of self-forgetfulness for the good of others in the name of Jesus.
Humility, Wisdom, and Love
Let me throw in a little personal aside that will encourage a few thousand women and offend a few million — maybe. I don’t speak for all men, but I do speak for, I don’t know, a few thousand, when I say: we don’t find makeup attractive: lipstick, eye shadow, facial colors, nail coloring — they’re off-putting. We love natural, authentic faces.
Now, if that sounds liberating to you, I’m glad. If it doesn’t, if it’s offensive, threatening, annoying, well, don’t worry; it’s just John Piper’s weird opinion. There are a lot of godly people who would disagree with me. In fact, more godly than I am, I am sure.
It’s not the main point of this Ask Pastor John. So end that little tirade, and let’s get back to the point. What is the main point? The main point is that outward beauty is insignificant compared to the inward beauty of humility and wisdom and love — a life lived for others. Believe it or not, not only God but the world sees this at its common-grace best. How many millions of people would say that Mother Teresa — old, wrinkled Mother Teresa — had a beauty more powerful than all the models of the world put together, just like Evelyn Brand, who refused to have mirrors in her house for the last twenty years of her life?
Our Problems in a Proper Light
Let me end with another story. A long time ago in our neighborhood, a man appeared for a short time. I don’t know where he came from or where he went. He was only here for a short time, as far as I could tell. I noticed that he only came out of the subsidized high-rise near our house at evening. He would generally be on the other side of the street from wherever people were. I caught a glimpse of him one evening while I was out with the dog, and noticed a massive purple birthmark covering most of his face. There was not only discoloring; there was disfiguring. I mean, he would have frightened virtually any child that saw him and probably cause most people to cross the street.
“Outward beauty is insignificant compared to the inward beauty of humility and wisdom and love.”
One evening, I timed my walk to meet him. As we passed, I greeted him and asked if I could say a word to him. Now, this is hugely risky, what I’m about to do. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it’s what I felt led to do. He stopped, and I just cut straight to the chase. I said, “My name is John. I live down the street, over there at that red house. I’m a pastor at the church over there. I just want you to know that I know you’re here, and I don’t want to avoid you. I realize life must be hard for you, but I want you to know two things that are true because of Jesus. One is that I care about you and am not put off by your looks.” (You can see why this is risky, right? I mean, I just have no idea whether this is going to make him angry or not.) “The other is that I have spectacular news for people with every kind of disability — namely, everyone who trusts in Jesus will be completely healed in the resurrection. We will have brand new bodies, new faces, new legs, new arms, but we’ll still be ourselves.” He actually thanked me, and then went on his way. I don’t think I ever saw him again.
The reason I tell that story is this: virtually all of us are way too wrapped up in our relatively minor problems. That man’s face puts my concern with wrinkles and sagging and blotching in a proper light. What we all need is a good dose of exposure to real suffering, which we have not yet known, and perhaps a few decades of glorious service in the mountains of India, with no mirrors in our house.