The problem with God’s beauty is that it often seems so ugly.
Not the nice Bible verses, of course. The beauty of holiness—that has an attractive ring to it. We’d like God’s beauty to establish the works of our hands. “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). Yes, yes, let’s cross-stitch this (plus lambs and flowers) and frame it.
Wait. There’s more.
Mountains and men drowning together while eight souls survive, along with a boatload of smelly new creation. Fire and blindness burning an X-rated city. Naked prophets, belly fat closing over swords, Jezebel splatted on the patio, the dust of Jericho settling on the heads of the wicked crushed beneath her rocks, and Jeremiah getting very muddy and unattractive down in that well. John’s bloody head rolling on a platter. Rachel weeping for her children. Abel dead on the ground.
What about flesh-eating diseases that eat half a girl? What about the God-hating grandfather who refuses to fight cancer and blows his own brains out instead? What about pedophiles and North Korean prison camps and intestinal parasites? What about tiny babies dragged out of their mothers’ wombs piece by piece, gripped by forceps?
This is the challenge. If you haven’t faced it yourself, you know others who have. We worship a God who allows genocide and birth defects and blisters and the American Civil War and rape. How can a God who handles so much ugly be a God of beauty?
Open your eyes
Take a step back. If this world and all its history is a canvas, then you are standing too close and staring cross-eyed at just one woven millimeter. Let’s look at this story, all of it, not just brain tumors and plane crashes and weight problems.
Before there was any of this, there was a Storyteller who opened His mouth and spoke a world decorated with olive trees and turtles and azaleas, and inside a stunning garden, one man living happily with his wife.
No. Then a dragon.
A dragon stole the man’s bride, and rather than die for her, the man decided to die with her. The whole world died alongside them.
Sin cannot survive the presence of God. It will burn like cotton candy before a bonfire. And so God mercifully drove mankind away—but not without a promise. God promised to continue the story. Instead of a tragedy, the story would be a comedy filled with light and dark, peaks and valleys, laughter and heartbreak, wilderness and gardens, building every minute to the reunion of God and man on an eternal throne. And at the story’s hinge, He Himself would breathe His last on a bloody cross.
The ugliest scene in history is of a wooden stake with the flesh of the God-Man nailed into its splinters. The thorns from the ground cursed for Adam’s sake have been battered into His skull, and the burning torch passes between the Word made flesh, cut in two. The ugliness of sin, the blackness of evil, the pain of suffering—God heaped it all on Himself.
He painted that picture. He told that story. He performed it live.
“You are inside a very great story”
Why didn’t God simply tell a story with no dragon at all? No Fall, no sin, no curse. We’d like a world without childbirth agony and drive-by shootings and tornadoes, thank you very much. We’ll take a Rembrandt with no shadows. We’ll take a movie with no Darth Vader. We’ll take a novel with no White Witch.
I tried telling such a story to my nephews once, ages six, five, and two. They wouldn’t stand a word of it.
The moment Frodo was stabbed by the Black Rider, do you think he yelled “Cut!” and complained about how things were going? “Excuse me, Tolkien, I thought you wrote beautiful stories. This just got distinctly not beautiful. Also, it hurt.”
Better than no tension is resolved tension. God, in His wisdom, chose death and resurrection as His plot. Dry bones are His material of choice. His vision: a new mankind in a garden city. He did not scrap the world when evil invaded, but rather worked even that evil for good, turning—as He always has since the dawn of time—darkness into light.
“You are inside a very great story,” a wise man once wrote to his son. “No man can estimate what is really happening at the present. All we do know is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” The man’s son was a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, fighting some of the most gruesome depravity the world has ever seen. The father writing the letter was J. R. R. Tolkien.
Evil turn to good
At the end of Paradise Lost, Adam, crippled by despair, climbs a mountaintop where the angel Michael shows him what God will do down the halls of history. Adam watches his own two sons present their sacrifices. When the older murders the younger, Adam screams.
Adam watches death eat away at his offspring not simply through old age or battle or murder, but through sickness and rot.
Adam watches wickedness eat the world like cancer until there is only one godly man left.
Adam watches God chase the godly man and his family onto a life raft, turn on the faucets of heaven, and throw a flag of many colors into the sky, an emblem of mercy. He watches Abraham plant his son on the altar, knowing that the God of new life will not leave his son’s soul in Sheol. He watches Israel shake off her chains and march through forty years of dust before defeating armies of giants and claiming their cities. He watches David ascend a throne that will never end. He watches Israel rise and fall, wander and return, blaspheme and repent for hundreds of years until one night, a legion of stars rides down the heavens to sing in the Messiah.
Then Adam sees Jesus the Christ—a Man from his own loins—pay the blood debt for the world on top of a hill named Skull. And as His heel bleeds, the dragon’s head bursts. Up into heaven, Jesus ascends a throne that will never end, and it is there that He reigns, and it is from there that He returns in the last chapter of Earth Part 1, and rights every wrong, wipes every tear, and puts Death to death at last.
Adam: “Thank you.”
Our first father, just moments ago crushed by the shame of his sin, now decides he ought rather to rejoice in repentant faith, for he has seen a story so beautiful, he would not change a bit of it, a story wherein evil defeated and sins forgiven and mercy triumphant is far more glorious than a story with no darkness at all:
“O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done, and occasioned; or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring;
To God more glory, more good-will to Men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound.” (Paradise Lost, 12.469-78)
In God’s hands, good created out of evil burns brighter and rests in a far weightier crown of glory than good that never fell, never died, was never raised again. Resurrection is worth the valley of the shadow of death. Revelation 21 is worth Genesis 3. The new creation is worth the fall of the old. Easter is worth the Good Friday. Eucatastrophe is worth the catastrophe. The glory of the Lamb that was slain is worth the mangled body of a Jew on a tree.
So if your story looks ugly with chronic pain or a broken marriage or an abusive father, remember that your story is not the end. You are a single pixel on an infinite screen, a sentence in a novel that spans eternity. Climb the mountaintop with Adam and see what God has done, what He will do. He has made everything beautiful…in its time. Know that in the end, despite whatever horrors and heartache beat you down, everything really does turn out all right—better even than before it was broken.
The joy set before you is worth the cross. And it is scary beautiful.
This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of Every Thought Captive magazine. It has been mildly revised here.