The question of how suffering could be beautiful given the relation of beauty to God is really a very strange question. It betrays a very strange conception of God. God is love, and mercy, and grace, and peace; but God is not only these things. God is also just, the defender of the stranger and the poor, the avenger, the holy one. These things are not at odds: God’s justice is merciful, but his mercy is therefore also just. He loves savagely: that is, his love defends the weak by chastening the strong, and in so doing shows that only by chastening the strong can he really love the strong. God is not safe, because God is good, and we are not. A good and holy God can never be safe for an unholy people.
I have been long concerned with questions of beauty, in particular how beauty is to be understood with relation to God. There are big questions about Beauty itself, and how to understand that as a characteristic of God, and of course that interests me greatly. But there is the more domestic (though no less deep) question of my own experience of beauty. For the power of those moments when I am captivated by beauty drives me fiercely away from the notion that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, that my sense of beauty is entirely private and in no way related to anyone else’s, except perhaps accidentally (we happen to both find this thing beautiful). And so even my sense of beauty, demonstrably incomplete, impure, and backward as it is, must in some way be related to God the ground of beauty.
The answer is as simple as it is profound: I find beautiful that which reminds me of God. This grounds an objective (or even public, if you will) dimension to my experiences of beauty without eclipsing a subjective, private dimension, precisely because I am reminded of God as I know God, which is imperfectly, disobediently, and sinfully, but also fundamentally, inescapably, and truly enough to make me culpable of failing to act on this knowledge. And so I sometimes find the ugly beautiful because my conception of God is blasphemous, and I attribute to God things that are in no way to be attributed to him. But I also really know true things about God from creation, and I have met him truly in the person of Jesus, and so I also see and love true beauties.
A People Who Sit in Darkness
And yet we are a people who sit in darkness. Indeed, even those of us who have seen the Great Light remain after the encounter sitters-in-darkness. We have not escaped it, we have only seen the direction of escape and begun to move towards it. This is confirmed in our daily experience of sorrow, grief, and rejection, and in our daily actions of oppression, neglect, hatred, greed, lust, and so on. All of this works in us guilt, shame, frustration, and despair. And so what is done to us, what we do, and what we feel, all these things form the darkness in which we sit, nearly helpless to make any progress towards the light.
So here is where things get interesting, and potentially confusing. We see beauty in the darkness. Now, this is to be taken in two senses: in the first sense, we see beauty in the darkness in spite of the darkness. There are beams of light skewering our prison, messengers from a better world with the power to cast our minds in the direction of that world, if we will only follow the beams back to their source. The world is not only evil, it is not only fallen: it is still a world made very good by God, and though it groans and its character as image of God is shattered, it is not erased.