Many are the hindrances to our spiritual flourishing. Weights cling, whenever possible, to stop us from running (Hebrews 12:1–2). They fasten themselves to our feet, hold us down, and stop the soul from soaring to heaven.
What do these burdens look like? Their appearance is varied, and often subtle. Rarely assuming the form of evident sin, the hindrances that hold us back frequently claim to be of great value. Endless emails that must be answered, a never-ending to-do list, another important meeting — the hundreds of worthy components that make up a productive day. So often, these are the weights that cling and keep us from abounding.
The antidote? To recalibrate our value system. As we limit our love of productivity, we may learn to delight in that which is majestic. We have trained ourselves in efficiency; we must also train our minds in the discipline of beholding in order to contemplate glory. For when the soul beholds beauty, it grows wings.
Problem with Productivity
Before we consider more fully this dynamic of seeing and soaring, it is helpful to dissect the problem further. Why can the ordinary pressures of life exercise such a spiritually hindering influence? How do they stunt our flourishing in Christ?
Of course, the realities of a busy schedule are not inherently evil. We need not label them as sin. At the same time, they can be detrimental, even dangerous, to a life that seeks spiritual strength. The reasons for this danger issue from the subtle impulses that guide so much of our everyday lives. Underpinning the habitual practices of the modern man are ways of thinking whose logic rarely accords with biblical Christianity.
Foremost amongst these impulses is our preoccupation with utility. This is not an obscure way of saying we love dishwashers. Rather, we delight in all things that produce. We celebrate processes, efficiency, and tangible outputs. We esteem gadgets and machines alike, because their usefulness is quantifiable. We can measure their contribution. Where this preoccupation came from is not entirely clear. Most likely, it developed over many decades as we celebrated an improved quality of life brought about by the industrial revolution. The advent of modern medicine, the automobile, and food-supply chains taught us to esteem mechanized production. Couple this production with a steady increase in material wealth, and we gradually came to treasure all forms of utility.
The problem with such a disposition is that it distorts our understanding of ultimate value. Don’t misunderstand me. I praise God for the health care I receive. I am truly thankful for the car parked outside of my home. But our obsession with utility has trained us to neglect almost anything that doesn’t yield a product. We are not inclined to celebrate time spent watching the sunset or gazing at the stars. Why? Because there is no quantifiable output. Our estimation of value has been reduced to that which we deem “useful.”
In a World of Busy
This explains much of the world around us today. Business schools at universities receive more applicants than the humanities. Learning how the markets work is considered more worthwhile than studying a dead language. Of what use are Greek and Latin, anyway? Bookstores are overflowing with volumes that teach time-management skills; marginalized are those books whose contents prompt me simply to ponder. Why read Augustine when I could learn another work hack?
In like manner, the daily schedule enshrines productivity. We prioritize emails, meetings, and other such labors because their outcome is often easy to measure. We neglect opportunities to think, to contemplate, and to wonder. Rarely will these feature on the to-do list. In short, our understanding of value is anchored securely to the notion of utility.
Again, the busyness of daily life is not inherently sinful. We rightly value productivity. Christians should be among the foremost contributors to society. I remind myself of the importance of responding to emails. However, by attributing so much worth to that which produces an output, we often fail to acknowledge a different type of value. We miss an outworking of worth that is entirely unrelated to productivity — one that is central to our abounding in Christ.
Plato, Winged Horses, and Beauty
Around the same time Plato wrote his Republic, he wrote another work, less well known, called Phaedrus. In it, Plato ponders the immortality of our souls and how we may nourish them. He creates a metaphor wherein he depicts the soul as a charioteer with two horses. Frequently, Plato writes, the soul is anchored to the earth. It has a diet distinctly lacking in glory, and thus, the horses plod around in the dirt. However, on occasion, the soul sees objects of beauty. Their inherent worth is self-evident. They have an enigmatic quality that echoes of a beauty in the heavens. Gazing upon this worth, the horses begin to soar heavenward. Seeing beauty, the soul grows wings.
Plato’s metaphor is compelling. Who doesn’t want to fly? But was he right to afford such prominence to the notion of beauty? Can it really raise us up from the mire of daily life, propelling our souls toward greater realities?
In short, the answer is yes. The Ancients understood beauty far better than many do today, and they perceived its transcendent worth. True beauty, they teach us, whispers of the majesty that we observe in the skies. It pushes our thoughts toward expressions of glory, greater than those that are immediately before us. This is why we are captivated by the rolling waves of the ocean or snowy mountain peaks. Their self-evident beauty takes hold of the soul and asks us to think great thoughts. Their majesty prompts us to consider an even greater glory in the heavens.
The theological reason for this relationship is simple. All beauty issues from God himself. He is the most glorious, majestic being in the universe. Thus, when we perceive expressions of beauty on earth — the infant’s hand on the ultrasound screen, a hummingbird hovering, deer galloping in the forest — we are looking at mere streams and currents, which sit downstream from the source. Such beauty is real, but it is not ultimate. It whispers of God’s beauty. In the child, bird, or deer, we sense his fingerprints. And so, if we who have eyes to see ponder these expressions of beauty long enough, they beckon our hearts to journey upstream, toward the fount. They direct our minds heavenward. Seeing beauty, the soul grows wings.
Behold Beauty in the Face of Christ
Turning to Scripture, we find that it too testifies to this relationship. The biblical authors frequently show how our gazing upon glory pulls us from the pit. Indeed, when we behold ultimate beauty in the face of Christ, spiritual malaise can become spiritual triumph. When Isaiah the prophet saw the glory of the Lord, he grasped the depths of his sin (Isaiah 6:5). He looked upon the face of Christ (John 12:41), and his soul resonated with the song of the seraphim.
When Stephen gazed at the Son of Man’s majesty, he was strong in the face of persecution (Acts 7:56, 59–60). He trusted the Lord, and his soul was at peace. And as Paul taught about the riches of the new covenant, he testified to the power of beholding Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Looking upon his beauty, we ourselves are transformed into his image.
Returning then to our original concern: How can I avoid spiritual stagnation via endless emails and a never-ending to-do list? We do so, in part, by understanding that such uses of our time offer limited value. Productivity is good, but our souls long for something greater — something that comes from a deliberate, intentional pursuit of beauty. Carve out time to watch the sunrise. Gaze intently at the Milky Way. See the beauty that surrounds you every day. Your heart will begin to sing as you pursue value apart from productivity.
Finally, the surest antidote is to behold Christ. Read God’s word and fix your mind upon his majesty. Meditate upon Scripture and drink of his glory. Pray diligently that the Lord would show you more of his beauty. In so doing, you will flourish. Your spirit will abound. When your soul sees beauty, it grows wings.