When I hear a question like this, it makes me groan, partly because I can count on three fingers, maybe less, the people who have ever called me ugly or handsome. In other words, I groan because I know I’m being asked to speak to a sorrow that I’ve never tasted. It would be so much easier for me to just ignore this question, because I know that when I’m done, many people would have the right to say, “But you’ve never experienced this.” And that’s true.
Another reason it makes me groan to hear a question like this is that I know that what this person calls ugly is the tip of the iceberg of human suffering when it comes, for example, to horrific deformities — the kinds of dreadful disfigurements that in another age would be exploited in what were often advertised as “human freak shows.” And then there are the kinds of diseases that produce hideous malformations and growths and cankerous, open, unhealable flesh. Then there are ghastly wounds that leave a person in pain the rest of their lives — disabled, unsightly.
So as I try to say something biblical, which is all I have any claim to say as far as helpfulness or authority goes, I have all of that in mind. I see this question about ugliness as a species of a larger question about disfigurement and disease and deformity and injury. And if anyone thinks this is not relevant for them, keep in mind that you may not start life ugly, but you may well spend the last year curled up in a fetal position, weighing eighty pounds and wearing a diaper. Very few people escape the relevance of this question at some point.
I think the deepest answer to the question of why there is so much ugliness and deformity and injury and disability and misery in the world is found in Romans 8:18–23. I don’t think it gets any more helpful or important or profound than these verses. I want to read the whole thing, making comments as I go, because I think this paragraph is worth meditating on for the rest of your life. Here’s what he says. This is Paul in Romans 8:18:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
I’m going to include in that every form of ugliness or disfigurement, and you’ll see why I include it in this word sufferings as we go on. So, the fundamental hope of Christianity is suffering now, glory later — suffering now, glory later. Now, what kind of suffering?
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. (verse 19)
Now take note: this is not primarily suffering persecution here. This is creation-based suffering.
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope . . . (verse 20)
Who’s that? That’s God, because only God subjects the creation in hope. The devil doesn’t do that. Sinful man doesn’t do that. Only God subjects the creation to futility in hope. So this is a reference to the fall in Genesis 3, the fall into sin and the consequent miseries that were brought into the world — all the horrific consequences of sin, including every disfigurement, every injury, every disability, every catastrophe. And so, he says that God subjected the creation to that in hope. What hope?
. . . that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption . . . (verse 21)
That’s just another phrase for “subjected to futility.” So we have creation in subjection to futility and in bondage to corruption — decay, ruination, futility, horrors. Continuing now with the description of hope:
. . . and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (verse 21)
So, the physical world, the creation — including our bodies — will share in the glory God has destined for his children.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (verse 22)
What an image! This is another way of saying “subjected in hope.” It’s as if the creation is pregnant, and all the pain and misery and disfigurement are like cosmic birth pangs — a mother crying out in pain, a world in labor. And here’s where it gets really personal:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (verse 23)
“The physical world, the creation — including our bodies — will share in the glory God has destined for his children.”
And you can hear Paul responding to people here who say, “Look, I’m saved. I’m redeemed. I’m forgiven. I’m a child of God. I have the Spirit of God in me. How can it be going so bad for me?” And he’s drawing attention to that.
The phrase “redemption of our bodies” covers the whole waterfront of aging miseries, disease miseries, disability miseries, ugliness miseries. In other words, he makes explicit that the horrors of groaning and corruption and futility include Spirit-filled Christians. Our bodies — John Piper’s body, Tony Reinke’s body, everyone’s body — desperately need now, or will need soon, redemption. We feel it in disease, we feel it in aging, and we see it in the mirror — some early, some late. And that redemption is coming. I think that’s the most important passage in the Bible for our friend to think about.