Recently, I chaperoned two hours of karaoke at a middle school event. This kind of task promotes the contemplation of deep mysteries (like the mystery that listening to girls scream-sing Taylor Swift is, indeed, part of God’s good plan for my life). Existential concerns aside, I learned a lot about what my younger students are listening to; my job was to vet the requested songs and decide yea or nay. Among the nays was “Beautiful Things” by Benson Boone. Though I vetoed it for an allusion to premarital sex, the lyrics caught my interest, being partly addressed as a prayer to God. Given that the song peaked at #2 on U.S. pop charts, Boone’s theology is worth a few moments of our time.

“Beautiful Things” starts with the speaker counting his blessings. Having struggled through a rough patch, he now “sees his family every month,” is “finding [his] faith,” and has “a girl [his] parents love.” Nevertheless, as he holds her at night and thanks God for his many gifts, he is struck with terror at the thought of losing everything. The chorus, partly addressed to the girl and partly to the Lord, runs, “I want you, I need you. Oh God, don’t take these beautiful things that I’ve got.”

This is God as we often imagine Him: an arbitrary giver and taker of gifts. It seems grimly natural to imagine such a God in a consumer culture. Here, Boone’s speaker watches His hovering hand with suspicion, trying to guard whatever happiness he has—to dash off with it, to stash it under the mattress—as if he received such benefits through a clerical error that is bound to be corrected.

Who among us has not tried to wrench something away from God? It was the original sin. We attempt to steal what is His alone, and strangely enough, we also try to steal what He gives us, to make it ours alone. Of course, the latter is impossible, because no one can “steal” gifts. Imagine your reaction if a friend opened a present and exclaimed, “Ha! You’ll never get it back now!” You would not yank it away, most likely. You would only be sad and confused as you Googled the nearest psychiatric services. Peter Kreeft explains sin in two words: “We’re crazy.”

At the heart of this attempted theft, and at the heart of “Beautiful Things,” is the overwhelming desire to grab what we can and convince God to leave us alone. I know how deeply the wish echoes in my own soul. That echo is my personal proof of original sin, in case I ever doubt the doctrine; it is simply an anti-communion with God. It is also the most nonsensical idea possible for a human being: “Just let me be happy without You.” In other words, to “be” without Being. And yet, as the countless times I have thought this way indicate, the absurdity is not so funny.

We cannot knowingly talk nonsense without an undercurrent of dread. Boone’s song reveals the looming truth we frequently forget: that stealing from God is the surest way to lose what we love. When we cling to “beautiful things,” God is perverted in our minds from a giver into an imminent enemy. He becomes the all-knowing one who alone reads our hearts’ desires and who alone, in His power, can prevent their satisfaction. At least when another person betrays us, some sliver of our soul still remains hidden, out of human reach. When we feel betrayed by God, it is always a unique and ultimate betrayal, for He must know with supernatural precision how much it will hurt.

Then comes the greatest irony. Our gifts, held so close, are perverted too. They become constant reminders of our theft, of our rejection of His will, of the uselessness of that theft and rejection, of the inevitability of their failure. The joy we steal is crushed beneath our fear of its Owner’s rightful claim.

God must spare us often from such a fate without our knowing it. I wonder how many beautiful things He holds back simply to preserve their beauty (and the humanity of the one who would try to possess them). It seems He would rather we be poor men than rich wraiths, wrinkled Gollums, childless Midases in desolate chambers of gold.

We should finish in the Book of Job, where my mind went first after reading these lyrics. Indeed, Boone goes there himself when he sings, “I know the things He gives me, He can take away” (cf. Jb 1:21).

Like many, I have long been disturbed by the testing of Job. An omniscient God needs no proof of faith, and I doubt the devil needs or deserves it, either. Perhaps God lets Job lose everything in order to heal some defect in the man himself, but that defect is never specified. Boone’s song was helpful in discerning such a possibility.

Maybe, pre-dunghill, Job prayed somewhat like the speaker in “Beautiful Things.” Did he sense his faith would be rattled if he faced disaster? Did he lie awake at night wondering how he could kiss the King’s hand if it took away his earthly blessings? Did this good servant fear having to love with a bitter man’s love? Did he pray he would never have to try?

That is one of the worst fears when God takes something or someone—the fear that we cannot still love Him. To realize we no longer want to love Him is more frightening than whatever loss brought about the crisis. We grasp our gifts hard; He loosens our grip and eases away the contents; we stare wide-eyed at our empty hands; we try again to work out who we are and who He is.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone who covets his own gifts will inevitably lose all he has in this life and end up sitting on Job’s dunghill. Boone’s speaker may not need to lose his beautiful things in order to learn his lesson. God alone knows who would grow from such a disaster, and who would be utterly crushed. But even without disaster, everyone must come to terms with the fact that his earthly blessings come from God and are owed to the Father. Such a surrender can provoke a deep spiritual turmoil even while outer circumstances remain the same. In his song, Boone never gets past the first stage, his fists still closed tight around his blessings. I wish he had gotten to the rest, to the part where we weave our fingers together in prayer, caging the emptiness between them and offering it to God. The part where we ask Him to help us do a seemingly impossible, seemingly undesirable thing: to love Him when there’s only Him left.

When I whittle it down to that phrasing, though, this revised song sounds suspiciously close to the Beatific Vision.

Image Credit: Titian, “Saint Catherine of Alexandria at Prayer” (circa 1567) via Wikimedia Commons

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