When I was young, I was trained to present the gospel in basic terms: all it took was a napkin and a black pen! A doodled stick figure at the edge of a cliff faced an impassable canyon of sin, with God on the other side. Christ’s cross was the solution to the dilemma, scrawled on the napkin to bridge the chasm between God and man, providing for a restored relationship and eternal life.

This simple explanation represents well the key elements of the gospel message: our sin, Christ’s death and resurrection, grace, and eternal life. But what do we lose if that’s all we see, if we live mostly by this transactional gospel? I believe that, like that ink-drawn napkin, we end up living a black and white faith. What if the gospel is inviting us, instead, into a vibrant, full-color life of faith?

Beautiful Orthodoxy

At Christianity Today, we are championing a cause we call Beautiful Orthodoxy. We aim to communicate the depth and breadth of the true, good, and beautiful gospel.

In Scripture and in Christ himself, we come to know theological truth. We are called to embody God’s goodness. And through his grace and glory, we’re invited to experience and share God’s beauty. When we view life through the gospel-lens, our eyes are opened to its vibrant color—to beauty in the arts, in God’s created world, and in every human person. Indeed these three strands of truth, goodness, and beauty are the essential elements weaving through a gospel-shaped life.

Yet often we emphasize one of these threads to the neglect of the others (and to our own detriment). For example, a truth-heavy Christian life, full of good theology, may yet make us prideful and devoid of joy. A goodness-focused Christian life may cultivate a works-driven mentality, diminishing our grasp of grace. A beauty-focused gospel can easily become wispy and sentimental.

The Playground

Many cultural critics complain that Christianity is nothing but rules; we naturally protest, No, it’s about grace! Yet grace and “rules” work in tandem to form a beautiful, gospel-shaped life. Jesus welcomes us in grace and calls us into obedience; the commands of God are not so much rules as pathways to freedom, wholeness, and joy. G. K. Chesterton once compared this idea to children playing on a hilltop edged by a dangerous cliff. A fence, Chesterton explained, surrounded the children in order to protect them. “Doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground,” Chesterton asserted. Without the fence, the children are in danger of “the naked peril of the precipice”; but within the boundary, they can play exuberantly.

“In the spiritual life only one thing will produce genuine joy, and that is obedience,” wrote Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. Rather than the bars of a jail cell, the truths of Christian doctrine and God’s commands in Scripture serve to mark out for us a spacious “playground” in which we can live and play, whole and joyful, truly free. It is this life-giving and unchanging orthodoxy—right doctrine and godly living grounded in Christian spirituality—that we champion.

Light in the Dark

But what if we feel anything but whole and joyful? Beautiful Orthodoxy isn’t about a sentimentalized, saccharine version of Christian faith or a pop-psychology message about staying positive and upbeat. That flimsy version of faith is easily knocked over by the first gust of hardship that blows into our lives.

Indeed, we suffer. Sin taints our human relationships; tragedy and heartache infuse our world; temptation and weakness haunt us. So where is “beauty” then?

Strangely, it’s found in squarely acknowledging the pain and heartache. As biblical commentator William Temple said, “The Christian joy and hope do not arise from an ignoring of the evil in the world, but from facing it at its worst. The light that shines forever in the Church breaks out of the veriest pit of gloom.” For even in that pit, there resonates the truth that God is yet present. The psalmist put it like this:

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.
(Psalm 23:4, 6)

So confident was he, even in the midst of his suffering, he could proclaim:

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.
(Psalm 23:4, 6)

Life Is Beautiful

Jesus beckons us into the “rich and satisfying life” of joy (John 10:10; 17:13). To me, this is another way of talking about a beautiful life. As we live in his grace and follow him in obedience, we are changed and ever changing. “We are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him” (2 Corinthians 3:18, The Message). Truth, goodness, and beauty all in one.

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“If we miss the joy in Christianity, we are missing the point,” says James Martin, SJ. I’d add that if we miss the beauty of Christianity, we are indeed missing the point. To me, joy and beauty go hand in hand.

That’s why I like how Julian of Norwich put it: “It is God’s will that we have true delight with God in our salvation and that we be mightily comforted and strengthened. And so God wants our souls to be occupied joyfully with God’s grace. For we are God’s bliss, for God delights in us without end, and so, by God’s grace, will we delight in God.”