Proverbs 31 is best known for its description of the virtuous woman. Near the end of this description, the author says that “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30, NIV).
So, what is meant by “charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting?” And is this something that is just applicable to women? Or does it have a broader application?
What Is the Pursuit of Charm and Beauty?
Charm and beauty are complimentary words. You might see beauty as referring to physical appearance and charm as outward actions. But, taken together, they constitute the visible expression of a person.
They are what others see, and often judge us by. Many of us live in a culture that places great emphasis on outward appearances. And, as a result, we go to great efforts to enhance that appearance.
According to this website, there was approximately $240 billion spent on advertising in the U.S. in 2019. Of that, nearly $3.9 billion was spent advertising cosmetics. And the cosmetics industry had revenue of $49 billion dollars in 2019.
To put that in perspective, the population of the U.S. in 2019 was 328 million people. That comes to about $150 of cosmetics purchased for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. There was also $840 million spent on advertising for clothing. And, in 2018, $6.5 billion was spent on cosmetic surgery.
Clearly, we spend a significant amount of money to enhance our outward appearances. And, just as clearly, a large industry has developed around providing and advertising those products that are supposed to make us more attractive, or happier, or healthier. Charm and beauty, at least in the U.S., is a big business.
What Does it Mean that Charm is Deceptive and Beauty Fleeting?
But, as the author of this section of Proverbs claims, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting.” Makeup does not last and needs to be reapplied every day. Clothes wear out or go out of style.
Nothing that we buy to improve our outward appearance will last. As we age, our hair will turn gray, our skin will start to sag, and wrinkles will begin to appear. And more and more effort and money are required to continue looking young and attractive.
It has been many years since I have watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But it seems appropriate to this discussion. In this story, a vain queen has a magic mirror that affirms to her that she is the fairest in the land.
But then one day, the mirror tells her something different. Snow White is actually the fairest. This causes the queen to fly into a rage and attempts, unsuccessfully, to kill Show White. So it seems that many of us can be like this queen and cannot stand the thought of others looking better than we do. But rather than kill the competition, we invest even more money in the vain attempt to keep our vanity.
The Blessings of Inner Beauty
But it does not have to be that way. And, in fact, the Bible encourages an alternative. This verse has expressed the transitory nature of charm and beauty. But it also suggests a superior alternative.
What is on the inside is of much greater value than the outward appearance. The passage says that, while the outward window dressing is transitory, the one who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Peter tells us much the same in 1 Peter 3:3-4. In this passage, he tells wives that “your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
Here, he encourages an inner beauty, one that does not fade over time. A gentle and quiet spirit — not submissive — just not a spirit that stirs up strife.
Proverbs and Peter both give their instruction to women. But I believe it is quite applicable to men as well. We are just as guilty of focusing on the exterior. Instead, we should focus on the interior. On the inner man or woman.
What Is Our True Value?
As a believer and follower of the Lord Jesus, I am convinced that all people will one day stand before their creator. And he will not place any value on what is on the outside. Rather, he will judge based on our relationship with him, and who we are on the inside.
The woman, or man, who fears the Lord will receive their reward from him. And, as Peter says, the beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit has great value in God’s sight.
Paul tells Timothy that “physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Physical training is focused on the exterior. And there is some value in maintaining the health of our bodies. But that pales in comparison with godliness.
Someday this body will crumble and decay, regardless of how well I care for it. But the inner person will endure. And if that inner person has been “trained in godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7), it will provide value both in this life and throughout eternity.
As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, what is seen is temporary. But what is unseen is eternal.
All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (v. 15-18).
Charm and beauty are what is seen and are temporary. But what is unseen, our inner beings, are eternal. And so, we should put much more effort into growing and developing as followers of Christ than we do in prettying up our outside appearances.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:25-28).