I’ve written before that “Wives submit to your husbands” is the most hated Bible verse in America. Because of that hatred, the tendency of apologists is to always play defense–to be constantly explaining why it’s not the terrible, abusive exhortation that so many people make it out to be. In a situation like that, it’s really easy to neglect the positive case–why a wife’s submission is a wonderful gift of God rather than an onerous burden. When we forget that, our message ends up coming off as a rather underwhelming, “submission: it’s not super terrible.” Consider this post to be a small corrective (loosely adapted from a chapter of my book.)
One of the great things (among others) that God provides through a wife’s submission is feminine beauty. That connection may seem peculiar to us today–when so much of worldly culture desperately tries to convince us that spunk and moxie are a woman’s most attractive qualities. But it should come as no surprise to Christians, for the Apostle Peter explicitly ties beauty to submission in his first epistle:
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you ear–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. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.
But peculiar or not, it is quite interesting that as our culture rages harder and harder against submission, it is also having greater and greater problems on wrapping its head around feminine beauty. And no, I’m not going to address the ugliness of contemporary fashion or attitudes–that pretty much speaks for itself among anyone willing to hear it. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to the common phenomenon of women’s self-hatred about their appearance.
We’re all familiar with the cliches of women looking in the mirror and lamenting over some aspect of how they look–clothes that don’t hang right, hair that won’t stay in place, breasts that seem too small, or thighs that seem too big. But the problem goes deeper than just this. Physical attractiveness and “external adornment” will always be with us, and desirable body-sizes are just another style to which people seek to conform. As a rule, women will always want to look beautiful and always experience some measure of disappointment when they fail. Nevertheless, there is more going on than business as usual. After all, we live in a culture that actually needs to invent terms like “negative body image” & “body shaming” and feverishly raise awareness about them just to try to put some kind of brakes on women’s self-perception of ugliness.
The blame for this state of affairs is usually placed on the media for promoting unrealistic expectations of beauty for women. After all, most women don’t have access to the team of makeup artists, personal trainers, and Photoshop experts that are tasked with maintaining the glamour of actresses and models.
While I have no wish to completely absolve Hollywood in the matter, this cannot be the whole story. After all, nobody is blaming the latest Marvel movie for setting unrealistic standards for courage or heroism. Nobody condemns Olympic athletes and professional sports stars for setting unrealistic standards for physical prowess. Nobody condemns museums for setting unrealistic standards for artistic talent. On the contrary, these are the kinds of things we look to for inspiration. If somebody were to instead respond to these things with bitter and resentful charges of unfairness, we would instantly recognize it for what it is: Envy.
The sin of envy arises in us when we make everything all about ourselves. For example, we envy another’s wealth when wealth becomes a means to our own pleasure and position rather than something of God’s which we steward. We envy another’s accomplishments when accomplishments become a means to receiving accolades rather than service to our neighbors. When we look at things in such self-centered ways, another’s abundance is always perceived as our own deficit. In the same way, when a woman envies another’s beauty, it is because in her mind, beauty has ceased to serve God’s purposes and only serves her own.
And there are any number of alternative purposes. Perhaps a woman wants to be beautiful so that she can be admired, whether by men, or simply by her peers. Perhaps a woman wants to be beautiful for the sake of power or control–to be able to win favors or influence from men by deliberately giving the impression that she might be willing to offer what she’s displaying with the right pampering (the friendzone often operates on this dynamic.) Or perhaps a woman wants to be beautiful purely for her own self-satisfaction–the purpose that is widely promoted as most virtuous by feminists. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with enjoying admiration, extra attention, or simple satisfaction with one’s own appearance, just as there is nothing wrong with enjoying good food. But just as how making enjoyment rather than nutrition the purpose of eating will lead to gluttony, making these other things the purpose of beauty will lead to envy.
So what is the actual purpose of feminine beauty that’s being subverted? Peter gives us two. The first is that “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” is precious to God–not too surprising as every aspect of creation has the purpose of reflecting God’s goodness in some way. The second, however, goes against everything we’re taught: Peter directs a woman’s beauty towards her husband. She is to be beautiful in her submission to him so that he may see it and be won over. But while it may go radically against culture’s grain, it’s completely consistent with Christ’s teachings of self-giving love, for it is better to give than to receive.
But if you find that simple piety is an insufficient motivation to avoid envy and direct your beauty towards your husband, then consider some of the magnificent benefits God provides women through his instruction to submit to their husbands. After all, if envy results from a corruption of God’s purpose, then submission to God’s instruction restores that purpose and its benefits.
First and foremost, submission reduces the misery of envy. As C.S. Lewis observed in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, envy is, for humans, really the most odious and least pleasurable of the vices. A person can enjoy gluttony, lust, pride, or wrath fairly easily–at least for a time. Envy, on the other hand, is characterized by constant feelings of inferiority and discontentment. You’re always measuring yourself according to others, always coming up short, and always bitterly resenting everyone who exceeds you according to whatever standards you’ve set for yourself. It’s an incredibly unpleasant way to live.
In contrast, one is far happier and more blessed pursuing beauty for the sake of another. There is no mistaking the fact that women desire to make themselves beautiful, but being beautiful solely for oneself is like any other form of hedonism–empty and unsatisfying in the long run. It’s the kind of appetite that can never be sated, for there is always some way in which you fall short–a distance that will only increase with age. In contrast, the woman who delights in her husband’s delight over her beauty can find genuine satisfaction. It replaces the limitless scope of seeking admiration from everyone at once with the limited and accessible scope seeking only one person’s admiration–specifically the one person who is most capable of appreciating every aspect of it.
But beyond that, submission provides the only option for lasting beauty in this world. No matter how well you take care of your body or how well you adorn yourself, you are fighting a losing battle. You will get wrinkles and gray hair. Things will sag. Maintaining a pleasant body shape will become impossible. Desperately clinging to your fading physical beauty for your own sake is a recipe for misery.
In marriage, however, there is another dynamic at work. A seventy-year-old woman isn’t going to turn any heads when she walks down the street. However, it’s entirely possible for her seventy-year-old husband to genuinely find her beautiful. In a relationship that has been typified for years by that precious gentle & quiet spirit that can certainly last into old age, that spirit will always bring to the husband’s mind the physical beauty of his wife’s youth. Marriage goggles are a real thing. Husbands don’t really see every new wrinkle or every extra pound–they see the woman they married all those years ago. That’s not license to let ourselves go because our spouses don’t care about looks–we all do care, and staying in relative shape is a wonderful gift husbands and wives alike can give to one another. But the fact remains that staying in shape is merely the slowest way of looking ugly. Persistent beauty requires something else, and faithful submission to her husband gives the wife a beauty that can outlast her youth.
So Christian ladies, if you find yourself unable to shake the feeling that you’re ugly–not due to the kind of obvious physical issues that you notice in others but due to a never-ending cavalcade of tiny physical peccadilloes that you never notice in others–perhaps the problem is not in your form. Instead, why not try the Biblical prescription for beauty: submit to your own husbands and don’t give in to fear. If always trying to receive isn’t working, then it might be time to try giving instead.