Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once proclaimed, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” Americans in particular have a fascinating attraction to beauty (or, more accurately, to the beautiful). Consider this simple factoid: Vogue magazine has nearly three times the readership of Sports Illustrated—and Sports Illustrated’s most successful issue is the annual swimsuit edition! Beautiful women get our attention.
The quest for beauty is not lost on the church in America. Sanctuaries and lobbies are often decorated by women with a feminine perspective of beauty: flowers and pastels rule the day. Not long ago, I visited a church which was intentionally “masculine” in its décor: rocks, stones, steel, and brown. Mundane. Bland. Yet very sturdy and forceful was the building. Which is the more biblical approach to building décor? That is a great question to which I do not know the answer. I do know, however, that we have a problem when it comes to communicating Jesus.
The biblical record is quite plain: Jesus isn’t pretty. Jesus is ugly. We tend to feminize Jesus—painting Him in accord with our lobbies—in pastels and flowers. He is rarely forceful. And never ugly. Yet, in the Bible, He is unattractive. Consider the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53:
…He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Contrast the passage above, which the New Testament affirms is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, with the popular presentation of Jesus in our churches. Typically, Jesus is promoted as the antidote to whatever is your Kryptonite. Are you weak and in need of power to perform? Get Jesus. Are you depressed and in need of a super-sized, pick-me-up? Get Jesus. Are you suffering from a rotten life and in need of a better life now? Get Jesus. Does your marriage suck? Get Jesus. Financial woes? Jesus. No matter what brings you down, Jesus lifts you up.
Jesus has been tamed into a prophetic panacea, a Self-help Savior. He is no more threatening than “Mr. Rogers with a beard.” And he is typically portrayed as being at least as attractive as Brad Pitt—but even more popular. The musical group Down Here gets to the point in their song “The Real Jesus:”
Jesus on the radio, Jesus on a late night show
Jesus in a dream, looking all serene
Jesus on a steeple, Jesus in the Gallup poll
Jesus has His very own brand of rock and roll
Watched Him on the silver screen
Bought the action figurine
But Jesus is the only name that makes you flinch
Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus?
Oh, let Your love unveil the mystery of the real Jesus
The real Jesus has scars. He is cursed by God, hanged on a tree. He is forsaken by men who mock him, ridicule him, and slander him falsely. So
hideous were his final hours that his closest companions denied they ever knew him. When he died, he had no crowd. Even after his post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus had only 120 following him (Acts 1:15). His ministry would not be lauded by anyone taking score with any human measure of efficiency. Jesus proved not to be much of a leader (by our typical leadership measures).
There was nothing in His appearance to draw us to Him. In fact, He had the kind of life—and the kind of appearance—that would make us turn away from Him. The real Jesus turns out to be ugly, unattractive, and downright distasteful. He proves to be the kind of man rejected by almost everyone.
So, why would anyone follow such a man? The real ugly truth about Jesus is that His ugly appearance reveals our own sinful nature. He condemns publicly the sin that ruins us privately. He reveals to us the life that swallows our own deserved death. He reveals the purity that washes away our vanity. But vanity, sin, and death are not easily dismissed. The remedy for such horrendous maladies is unapproachable apart from suffering. And suffering God’s curse is an ugly affair. Christ came as a suffering servant for us.
If we see our own sin as ugly before the holiness of God, then we might begin to see the loveliness of a suffering Savior. The one reason to follow Jesus is to be reconciled to God forever. And, for us who are being saved, ugly has never been as lovely as it is in Jesus Christ.
 Leo Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata.
 See Acts 8:34-35; Matthew 8:17.
 Phrase used by John Eldrige in Wild at Heart.
- In disfigured man, Pope Francis saw Jesus (washingtonpost.com)
- Thomas’ Confession (matthewayars.wordpress.com)