I’ve always loved very ugly dogs. Every now and then I will threaten my wife telling her than I’m going to make a unilateral decision to purchase a profoundly ugly animal, something like a Chinese Crested Hairless breed. I like them because their ugliness appeals to me in some strange way. But also, I see my own attraction to a very ugly pet as a loose metaphor for my own understanding of salvation. And, because she will likely read this post, I offer this warning to my wonderful wife: don’t be surprised if some day we own a very ugly dog named Grace.
Christianity sees the love and acceptance of God for people as pre-existent of their worthiness of that love and acceptance. Theologically this is called prevenient grace, and it is one of the most unique and beautiful of the Christian doctrines. Romans chapter 5 spells this out in soaring language:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one would scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5.6-8
But this idea might not be limited to the realm of God’s salvation. It is possible that this is a concept that was created into the fabric of the world by God, not merely one which was injected into it at the Crucifixion (though, without exception, there will never be a rival to the grace shown by Jesus at the cross). Why do we love underdog stories where the weaker strives against the stronger, where the plain is pitted against the lovely, where the broken must navigate against the whole? Could it not be that we are perhaps wired to understand that God has created us this way? To look upon weakness and ugliness and brokenness not as eternal curses, but as redeemable beauties. That is a Christ-like way of thinking isn’t it?
In his book “12 Types,” which is a collection of short biographies, GK Chesterton makes this remarkable observation,
It appears to us that of all the fairytales none contains so vital a moral truth as the old story…of Beauty and the Beast. There is written, with all the authority of a human scripture, the eternal and essential truth that until we love a thing in all its ugliness we cannot make it beautiful.
– GK Chesterton
If Chesterton is right, and I expect that he is, this changes the way that we ought to see life and people and culture and a host of other things. We tend to want to acquire the newest, the shiniest, the loveliest of things because they immediately capture our attention; their shimmer blinds us temporarily to everything else in the world. But this shimmer fades with a fleetness that we are rarely prepared for. However, it is often with those tired and worn out things, and people, that we find ourselves compelled by. It is with those whom we have loved in all of their ugliness, and have been loved by them in all of our own unseemliness, that we find investment. Certainly we are not immune to the flash of someone new, someone who seems to have all of the right looks, stuff and direction. But those flames often burn hot and short.
God pursued the world in its sinfulness. Why? Because He knew everyone would come to Him? Because He knew there wouldn’t be a single person who would reject His love? No. He pursued the world because only in His pursuit of all the brokenness could any of it be made whole.
Who are we passing over? Who are we avoiding? Who are we hesitant to engage with our love, our mercy or our energy? Perhaps those are the very people we must embrace if we want to find the kind of beauty and depth that our own redemption has created in us. God’s grace in us gives us a capacity that cautious and selective love cannot fill. It may be that if we are unwilling to pursue all who are broken we are holding at arm’s length the actual depth that we long for with those we have already embraced.
Could we ever be more like Jesus than when we stoop to accept the adulteress, than when we walk to the well of the outcast, than when we take the hand of the leper, than when we weep with the family of the deceased? Is it not in those ugly moments that love and mercy and grace, invested long before any return is promised, begin to reveal the beauty that hides beneath the surface? Like kinetic energy, we must move toward ugliness with hearts of grace if we are to incite into motion the potential beauty that exists there.
The poet Rainer Rilke drives at this point with these words,
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.