It seems that whenever modesty is exhorted, self-control is used as an excuse; and whenever self-control is exhorted, modesty is used as an excuse. The result is that both modesty and self-control are disregarded by those who need to pay attention the most.
That’s why I decided to address the issue two different times–once for men, and once for women. Ladies, this one’s for you. To my male readers, read on if you want, but I addressed you specifically last time. I’ve nothing to offer you in this one, and it’s not written with your concerns in mind.
All that said, there’s one more audience issue to clear up: This is for Christian women–specifically, those who truly believe Jesus when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
To be clear, “keep” doesn’t mean “obey flawlessly.” If it did, we’d all be in trouble. Here, “to keep” means “to treasure” (as in, “The king kept his gold in the castle’s keep.”) Treasuring instructions encompasses obedience, but it neither begins nor ends with it. This article is for women who want to treasure Christ’s instructions but struggle with modesty being counted among them.
But to those who insist on your right to despise Christ’s commands, I have nothing for you on this subject. The way you dress or behave is irrelevant next to the fact that you aren’t Christian. To you, I can only proclaim that God has sent His only Son to die for your sins. In Jesus Christ, you will find the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation freely offered to all who believe. Once you believe what Christ has done for you, then we can talk about His instructions.
Now, on to modesty.
All of us have parts of the Bible we don’t like. As sinners, it would be far stranger if we did agree with God on everything. The challenge is to let our faith seek understanding so that we can appreciate even what we’re inclined against.
Part of that journey is realizing why we feel that way about His Word. So why does talk of modesty raise many women’s hackles the way it does? Now, there are many answers to that. But given what the usual objections have in common, I suspect there are some common reasons as well. Here are a few of those to consider:
Modesty is framed as mere assistance to “weak” men
That is, after all, what usually triggers this debate. A man complains about women these days showing too much skin and causing their brothers in Christ to stumble in that ongoing battle against lust you hear so much about. A woman’s modesty is then proclaimed as the solution to a man’s problem. And to make matters worse, it’s an alien problem to boot. Sex is precisely where men and women are the most different, and men struggle with their lust differently than women do with their own. There’s no direct experience to make his struggle more tangible.
But while that may be what the modesty *debate* is about, it’s not what *modesty* is about. In other words, while immodesty really does hurt men, the meaning and purpose behind your modesty isn’t helping men be chaste–that’s just a good and righteous side-effect.
When the Bible teaches women about modesty, it’s always as a fundamental part of feminine beauty. In 1 Timothy, Paul says, “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness–with good works.” Peter says essentially the same thing: “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”
Did you catch the implication in these? Modesty isn’t just a way that you adorn yourselves. Modesty is something that you adorn yourselves with. It is itself a facet of your beauty–not a restriction on it or a restraint of it, but woven into its very nature.
The same can be seen when Scripture approaches it from the other direction and addresses immodesty. In Proverbs 7, Solomon describes a women dressed like a prostitute, and her immodest outward appearance hides death and decay just beneath the surface. He puts it more succinctly in Proverbs 11: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion.” Your beauty is as precious gold, but putting it on the pig doesn’t make the pig better; it just makes the gold worse.
The point is that a woman’s beauty is precious in God’s sight. But that also means it’s too valuable to spread about indiscriminately. When beauty is treated that way, it ceases to be beautiful. When one is a child, she wishes every day were Christmas. When one raises a child, she teaches them that celebrating Christmas everyday would strip it of what makes the celebration special. Immodesty debases feminine beauty in a similar way.
And this, by the way, is not a result of the Fall, but part of God’s perfect design from before sin or clothes ever existed. Physically speaking, modesty is apparent in the differences between men and women of which neither were ashamed in the beginning. Likewise, when Paul talks about long hair on women, he calls it both their glory and a covering in the same breath. This he attributes to “nature itself,” not to sin or depravity.
At its core, modesty is respect for your own God-given beauty. Yes, it also helps men remain chaste, and that should concern you–read Luke 17 and consider whether you really want to be on the wrong end of Jesus’ words. Even so, modesty remains the beating heart of the imperishable beauty with which God designed you in the first place.
No woman likes men telling her how to dress
There’s an important distinction here that men and women alike overlook: the difference between telling a woman to be modest and teaching a woman how to be modest. Men assume they’re doing the former, but women often assume he’s doing the latter. That’s a problem because men can’t really do the latter.
There are men in your life who have every right to pass on God’s commands to be modest to you. Some men, like your father, your pastor, or your husband have a responsibility to do so. They would be negligent if they remained silent.
At the same time, men can’t really teach you how to do this. This isn’t because we’re not allowed, but because we’re not competent. We don’t understand women’s fashion and we don’t want to understand it. Practically speaking, men can only point out times when lines of modesty are crossed. But telling someone how not to do something, isn’t the same as telling them how. It’s profoundly frustrating when mere restrictions are delivered as though they were sufficient instruction.
But the primary failure here doesn’t actually belong to men. It belongs to older Christian women. In Titus 2:3-5, Paul writes: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”
I think it’s safe to say that this hasn’t been happening a whole lot in the West over the past few generations. Sometimes older women refused to teach these skills because Satan deceived them into thinking they were oppressive. Sometimes young women refused to listen and grew up to be older women who couldn’t teach. The results are generations severed from one-another and precious experience and practical wisdom lying in a ditch along the way.
But if that’s the problem, what is the solution? Well, practical wisdom didn’t just drop from the sky–it was cultivated by women over time. That means women need to re-cultivate it over time and rediscover the practicalities of being modest. That said, women will need to work *with* men on this, because while “that’s too far” isn’t super helpful, it’s often still valid.
Which leads to another reason God’s call to modesty can be so grating…
How are women supposed to be both modest and feminine/attractive at the same time?
This is more fallout from that lack of know-how from the previous point. And while the issue doesn’t seem as common as the previous two, I’m mentioning it because I’ve heard it expressed by women from time to time. To be sure, women certainly don’t only (or maybe even often) dress with men in mind. But sometimes they do–particularly during stages of life when you’re trying to be attractive for a potential or current spouse. Sometimes this issue is going to matter.
Once again, men can’t really teach any know-how or practical wisdom on this one. Nevertheless, I’m addressing it because men have sometimes muddied the waters by expressing some unclear, conflicting, and confusing expectations. So I do want to try to offer a little clarity.
First off, Western men aren’t Muslim. We don’t want burqas, and that’s not what modesty brings to mind. It is not wrong to wear clothes that let people know you are shaped like a woman. But we live in a society which (falsely) teaches that men and women are identical except for biology. Accordingly, many women think–whether consciously or unconsciously–that they need to put as much biology on display as possible to make their femininity apparent. Popular style follows suit.
That’s not the case–from a male perspective, anyway. To be blunt, long hair and dresses demonstrate femininity to men more effectively than displaying deep cleavage of one kind or another. The latter might be more expedient for arousal, but since this is for Christian women, you know you should reserve being deliberately arousing for your husbands. You know the various terms for women who do otherwise, and so does any man worth marrying. Don’t be that.
As far as being attractive to a potential husband is concerned, the note you’re trying to hit is making him interested in finding out more. It shouldn’t be putting everything on display so he can decide if he wants to help himself.
Now, all this is very subjective. And its’ not like men even agree on things like knee-length vs ankle-length, how tight is too tight, etc. So while ignoring men’s complaints altogether isn’t the right path, neither can you follow them all.
That’s why, again, those details are the things women will need to relearn from collective experience. What results in godly attention/relationships? What doesn’t? That’s a messy process fraught with mistakes. But you are free to make those kinds of mistakes because God’s call to modesty remains, and there’s nothing for it but to do your best and lean on Christ’s forgiveness.
That’s really what the ethical matter comes down to. Yes, God has given us good rules to instruct and guide our lives. But he has not given us flowcharts which replace all the day-to-day decision-making that putting His Word into practice requires. Faithful Christians will use the wisdom God has given us to pursue righteousness in those actions and decisions. We do so even knowing we will often stumble because we have already received the true righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith rather than works.
But reacting to calls for modesty like Dracula reacting to garlic doesn’t suggest that kind of good-faith effort. Asserting that God’s word has no claim on how you dress doesn’t suggest a good-faith effort. Completely disregarding your effect on the struggles of your fellow Christians doesn’t suggest a good-faith effort. If your frustrations have led you away from Christ’s commandments, then it is time to repent.
God has not given you modesty as a burden, but as a crown. Stay away from false teachers who would try to steal it from you. Question the culture which tells you its tarnished. And have patience with those who aren’t gentle in the way they handle it. There is nothing we have lost that God cannot restore as our faith seeks to understand what He has declared to us.