Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre. True Beauty. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 128 pp. $15.99.

We live in a beauty-obsessed culture. All around us we are confronted with magazines, images on screens, and flesh-and-blood people who show us what defines beauty. In fact, you could even say we're hardwired for beauty. We crave it. We work hard to achieve it. We praise it when we see it. With the constant chatter filling our minds about what classifies as beautiful it can be hard to discern truth from error. As a woman, I understand this inner struggle all too well. I know what it’s like to walk into a room and suddenly feel small and downright ugly. I know what it’s like to wish I had straighter hair, a thinner body, better skin. Beauty is relentlessly pursued but often elusive.

So what’s a girl to do?

The beauty discussion in the evangelical world has run the gamut. On one end I’ve heard some banish all beautification efforts as vain and secular, while on the other I've heard some say the only beauty that matters comes from within. Identifying and applying the Bible’s words on beauty can be difficult, and many have tried it. Thankfully, the mother-daughter team of Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre have written a timely book for us. In True Beauty, Mahaney and Whitacre take an often obsessed-about topic and show us how “the Bible actually has a surprising amount to say about beauty” (22).

Beauty Defined

From the beginning, Mahaney and Whitacre seek to show that true beauty is “to behold and reflect the beauty of God” (28). While the world promises that if you simply sweat a bit more in your morning workout, spend a little more money on your makeup, or buy the latest style you will finally be classified as beautiful, God’s Word shows us that the effects of sin are inescapable. We are all decaying and will all die, unless Jesus returns. Even the smallest amount of beauty we possess is fleeting and will one day pass away (21). As Mahaney and Whitacre demonstrate, however, God promises a beauty that is unchanging—even when age and brokenness take their toll (24). 

In addition to defining beauty by God’s Word, they also show us that beauty is defined by God himself (25-35). Because he is the author of creation, he sets the standard of beauty. When we look to him, we see all that is truly beautiful. Here the book really takes off, since it's only from this understanding of beauty that we can even begin to see what it means to value all that is truly beautiful. Christians, of all people, should know and promote beauty in a world that so distorts it for selfish gain.

Taking Beauty to the Heart

Perhaps the most helpful section of True Beauty is when Mahaney and Whitacre take our understanding of beauty straight to the heart. Proverbs 4:23 tells us our actions reveal what's really going on deep in our hearts. This teaching applies to beauty as well. Throughout the book Mahaney and Whitacre practically show how our beliefs and actions expose our understandings of beauty. It’s more than what we wear or how we beautify ourselves; it’s about our hearts. While chapter 3 is specifically devoted to this idea (37–47), it can be seen in the bulk of the book. We live in a self-obsessed culture. As Mahaney and Whitacre demonstrate, self-absorption can be easily masked by claiming low self-esteem, which is really the reverse of vanity (41). We are quick to condemn the woman who, in pride, spends an insane amount of time on her appearance while being quick to console the one who's regularly discontent with her appearance. But both need a heart fix. Both need to remember that their appearance isn't finally about them.

Along these same lines, Mahaney and Whitacre take our bent toward being “glory thieves” and apply it to our bodies and closets, reminding us that everything about our lives is meant to tell a story about the truly beautiful One, not ourselves. We are not autonomous beings. We are meant to glorify God with our bodies. I especially found chapter 4 (“True Beauty and Our Bodies”) helpful as I regularly fight worldly ideas about exercise and healthy eating. “We are to eat and exercise in order to make our bodies effective and efficient in service to the Lord” (56), the authors write. This truth screams in the face of a culture that promotes healthy bodies for the glory of self. The Christian woman will find much to ruminate on as she examines her own heart in light of true beauty.

True Beauty Applied

When we hear the words inner beauty it’s easy to cringe or tune out. If we're honest, though, we don’t really want to be defined as “pretty on the inside” by a group of friends. It's more than simply a compliment for the nice girl, however. As Mahaney and Whitacre show us, inner beauty is actually for all women who claim Christ. We should want it for ourselves. If we are going to put off false beauty, we must in turn know what to put in its place. While I appreciated the entirety of True Beauty, this section is where it really convicted me. In the final two chapters, “True Beauty and Our Trust” and “True Beauty and Our Works,” Mahaney and Whitacre apply what they call “the true beauty regimen.” Taking their cues from 1 Peter 3, they show how true beauty is found in a gentle and quiet spirit, not in our external efforts, and then define this often misunderstood idea:

A gentle and quiet spirit is not a personality trait. It is the quality of a woman who meets adversity—slander, sickness, rejection, and loss—with a calm confidence in God. (81)

This is what makes a woman truly beautiful. This is how women can look beautiful even when the effects of age, cancer, sickness, and even death have ravaged their bodies. Beauty is found in the grace that God provides.

And it is fitting that True Beauty should end there. As Christian women, our lives should be markedly different than those of the world around us. More than anyone else, we should value beauty, because we know the truly beautiful One. But we also should value beauty in a better way—by praising true beauty when we see it and refusing to capitulate to a culture that seeks its own glory in its beauty efforts. Mahaney and Whitacre have written a book that not only provides a good primer on beauty, but also encourages Christian women to hope in the God who alone is beautiful and makes all things beautiful.