Question: "When does hygiene cross the line and become vanity?"
Answer: Body image and health are huge topics of discussion in our culture, and it can be difficult to know how to care for our bodies without allowing them to become our idols. The most important thing to remember is that the body of a Christian is God’s temple; His Holy Spirit dwells within us. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20). Earlier, he wrote, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
Clearly, we are called to care for our physical bodies. We were physically created by God and called to honor Him physically. That being said, our hygiene is important to God. The Old Testament is filled with references to hand-washing and foot-washing, washing clothing, washing before eating, etc. Ritual washings were to remind the people that they were not to come into God’s presence without washing the dust and dirt of the world from their bodies. The tabernacle in the wilderness included a basin for the priests to wash themselves before serving the Lord (Exodus 30:18). Even Jesus washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, although this was more a comment on servanthood than on cleanliness.
Washing is used in the New Testament to signify a spiritual cleansing of sin available only through Christ. Ephesians 5:26 tells us that Christ cleansed the church—all those who believe in Him for salvation—by “washing with water through the word.” Here we see the picture of the internal spiritual cleansing the Word of God provides for us. The rebirth all Christians experience is pictured as a washing and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). So it’s clear that inward washing and cleansing are important themes in the Bible.
But what about washing and hygiene as a physical, rather than spiritual, act? There is a line between hygiene and vanity that can be easily blurred, especially in a culture so motivated by visual beauty. How do we steward our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit without becoming vain? The most important thing is to monitor the condition of the heart. If we see our value in terms of physical beauty, we are missing the point. Our value lies in what God has done for us, cleansing us inwardly from sin, not in how much we clean and wash our outer selves. Our hearts reflect the person we have become—new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s important to remember that man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” God is not condemning beauty or caring for the body but simply saying that the body (or worldly beauty) is not the most important thing. We are to care for our bodies to keep them in good shape so we can be of value to God and His people, and this certainly includes hygiene. But 1 Timothy 4:8 reminds us, “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.”
As with many things in life, practicing hygiene while avoiding vanity is something that requires prayer and perhaps daily conscious effort. If our hearts are focused on God, we can’t go wrong. We should seek Him; trust Him for our needs; delight in the inward beauty He has given us; and steward our bodies as His servants, not as if they were our own. When we seek God first and abide in Him, we will learn to listen to Him and obey Him. In doing this, we will care for the bodies He has given us without allowing our bodies to rule over us.