“I don't care what she'll look like,” the young man declared about his yet-unknown future bride. “I'll love her for who she is inside.” Everyone in the small gathering of young people looked at him with distinctly unconvinced expressions. But this was a church gathering, and we all knew he was saying the spiritual thing. Such piety simply couldn't be challenged. That is, until one guy ventured what was to him a sincere question: “Yeah, but don't you want her to be hot?”
As if something appalling had been said, we collectively turned to the youth minister, who had been quietly backing away from the conversation. With an uneasy smile, he said, “Well, you can make a pretty girl spiritual, but you can't make a spiritual girl pretty.”
Everyone sensed the sarcasm in his maxim, but it didn't bring much resolution to the dilemma. Do looks matter? This question comes up a lot in my current ministry, too, usually in the form of a single friend feeling guilty for not being attracted to an otherwise worthy romantic candidate. I usually tell friends they shouldn't feel guilty for not being attracted to someone—but they shouldn't think the matter is necessarily settled, either.
Importance of the Body
The importance of physical attraction is related to the importance of the body itself. The Bible presents us as a psychosomatic unity. That's a fancy way of saying that we are embodied souls. This is, in fact, God's ideal for us even in eternity. We're not souls longing to be freed from bodies but rather to have resurrected ones (1 Cor 15:35-57). The body is a necessary and good part of God's design of every person you meet. So loving the inside of a person while disregarding the outside is not the biblical ideal of love. Just read Song of Solomon if you don't believe me. Looks do matter. No woman wants a Valentine's Day card that says, “You're so sweet on the inside, it doesn't matter what you look like on the outside.” No man does either, though admittedly we are the visually inferior half of our race.
But before we settle into holding out for that girl with the right curves or the guy with the square jaw, let me point out that the importance of the body does not necessarily validate our personal preferences regarding what it should look like.
Basis of Attraction
Marital love involves valuing your spouse's body. But this isn't exactly the same thing as finding it attractive, at least not in the way we typically think of finding something attractive. We may inadvertently assume that being attracted to something is primarily about its level of attractiveness. Attraction seems like it just happens without our conscious participation, and we therefore conclude it is beyond our control. You're attracted to someone, or you're not, and that's that. But attraction seems so automatic because we are culturally influenced even at the level of desire. Our preferences unwittingly imitate the narrow criteria for beauty reflected in fitness magazines or clothing advertisements, in the fashion of the day or the remarks of family members.
Without dismissing entirely the mysterious nature of attraction, I wish to point out that we are more capable than we often recognize of directing our preferences. We should not presume that our initial aesthetic sensibilities are an unchallengeable law within us. We have some level of direction over them.
The basis for attraction is valuing an actual person, body and soul. Husbands and wives should be attracted to one another because they value the whole person, not because they happen to like olive skin or a firm body. Those things change, but physical attraction need not. Attraction is more a matter of my commitment to value the full breadth of who my spouse is.
Isn't this more like Jesus' love for his people than simply following initial attractions? I'm not casting doubt on couples who fell in love at first sight—but even love at first sight will eventually require the self-emptying love that only Jesus makes us capable of giving (Phil 2:1-11). In marriage we hold hold our preferences loosely, valuing the person concretely rather than seeking a certain body shape or hair color. This is a far more stable basis for physical attraction in marriage. And it makes for better Valentine's Day cards.
Preparation for Marriage
This principle can inform the way we seek a spouse. Perhaps this means that singles should be willing to direct their affections toward potential spouses they may not initially find attractive. My reasoning is not that looks are unimportant—remember, our bodies are a vital aspect of who we are. Rather, my reasoning is that our opinion of what constitutes good looks must not be an idol carved in stone. We need to be willing to challenge our own preferences regarding physical attraction in light of the greater principle that attraction stems from valuing a person.
How do you do this? Honestly, I don't know. There is a level of mystery to the whole thing that we can't escape. But maybe it could start with simply acknowledging that weak physical attraction is not necessarily a permanent situation. If you know a potential mate who is godly, relates well to you, and would otherwise be a worthy spouse, you should not feel guilty for feeling unattracted. Instead, holding your preferences with an open hand before the Lord, ask him what he would have you do. You may decide to pursue this person—then, you determine to appreciate God's design, body and soul. You may be surprised at just how strong such properly grounded attraction can become.