Modesty is a bit of a hot topic in Christian circles. For years, Christian leaders have encouraged Christian women to dress modestly. A reason commonly cited for dressing modestly is that women should help the Christian men in their lives avoid lusting after them. Rather than attracting men through alluring dress, women are instructed to make themselves attractive by demonstrating the beauty of modesty and godly character.
Yet some women have responded critically to this sort of instruction. Some women have said that years of being told they needed to cover their bodies in order to keep men from lusting caused them to be ashamed of their bodies. In response, a movement has developed in which women say that men should take responsibility for their lustful thoughts regardless of what a woman is wearing and that women should be free from expectation to dress modestly.
Within these two perspectives we can find two extremes of what to teach about modesty: (1) Women must always dress modestly because, if they don’t, they’re wronging men by encouraging them to lust. (2) Women aren’t responsible for what a man thinks about them regardless of what they’re wearing and it’s wrong to tell women they’re supposed to dress a particular way, including modestly.
Neither of these perspectives on modesty are sound because neither of them points us to the biblically proper motivation for modesty.
A Note On Stereotypes
Before I share the proper motivation for modesty, I want to mention the reality that, in the few paragraphs above, there are many stereotypes. See, modesty is typically viewed as being a woman’s thing. This perspective is both a stereotype and false. I’ve already explained in my post Modesty Is For Men that men also have a responsibility to practice modesty in the way they dress. So when I talk in this post about the responsibility that’s historically been given to women to be modest, understand that I do so because that’s the historical reality, not because it’s the way we should think into the future. Part of our movement toward the proper motivation for modesty is realizing that this principle rightly extends to and should be practiced by both men and women together. So please bear in mind that the biblical principle that properly motivates modesty is something that should be practiced by both men and women.
The Proper Motivation For Modesty
What is the proper motivation for modesty?
It’s that simple. But understand that when I say love, I don’t mean romance or affection. No, I’m talking about that deep, abiding, caring, fierce, sacrificial, unrelenting love that is the essence of the very nature of God (1 John 4:8). The biblical ethic for all behavior is the ethic of love. Jesus taught us this when he said the all-encompassing moral principles by which we should live are that we love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). As followers of Jesus, we are called to practice love for God and our neighbor in all our behavior, including how we dress. So how do we practice love by dressing modestly?
In the beginning, God created humanity, including our bodies. He created us to be embodied, beautiful, attractive, sexual creatures. These things are all good. So the biblical perspective we should have toward our bodies, men and women alike, is that our bodies are attractive, sexual, and beautiful. We should view all of these things as good. And if we were perfect people, we would be able to enjoy the beauty, attractiveness, and sexiness of each of our neighbors in pure holiness, just as Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden but not ashamed (Genesis 2:25).
But we’re not perfect people. Sin has corrupted humanity, including how we perceive the beauty of our neighbors’ bodies. Rather than being able to look on the sexually attractive form of our neighbor with holiness, we’re liable to look on our neighbor with lust instead. In a metaphor, because our hearts have been darkened by sinfulness, we’re no longer able to look on the radiance of our neighbor’s bodily beauty with complete holiness. We can no longer bear the brilliant light of the fullness of our neighbor’s bodily and sexual beauty because our eyes have been weakened by the corruption of sin. This is where love begins to manifest itself in modesty.
Because we’re all sinful humans that face the weakness of the temptation of our sinful desires, we all can appreciate the struggle our neighbor might face if he or she looks at us and feels the temptation to lust after us. Knowing our neighbor shares our weakness, how should we behave in light of it? What does love do in this situation? When love knows one’s neighbor is struggling with a weakness, love says, “I love you. I care about you. I want to do what I can to lend you strength in the weakness you face. I want to help rather than hinder you in the difficulty.” When we connect this perspective of love with the reality that dressing modestly can greatly aid our neighbor in looking on us rightly, we recognize that the proper motivation for dressing modestly is love for our neighbor.
Why The Bad Teachings?
So if the proper motivation for modesty is so simple, why have the perspectives on modesty gotten so out of hand? Well, whenever we try to teach something, we face the risk of teaching it poorly. When we tell women they should dress modestly so they don’t tempt men to lust, we’re usually trying to tell them to love their neighbors. But expressing a good message in a bad way can end up communicating a bad message.
As many women have expressed, hearing a message of “dress modestly or else you’re wronging your neighbor” too easily results in a motivation from fear rather than love. When women hear that message enough, modesty can become motivated by the fear of being guilty of making a man stumble rather than from sincere love. The difference may be subtle, but it’s huge. The motivation from fear can lead to shame and bondage. But the motivation from love leads to joy and peace.
Similarly, some women who have felt the shame and bondage that comes from fear have responded by saying that women shouldn’t be taught messages that can usher them into fear. They correctly recognized it wasn’t right to live in fear and shame, but that response can easily become an over-correction. If we eradicate all messages that describe the goodness of modesty and why we should practice it, then we’ll end up eradicating the good message of love in modesty along with the bad messages of fear.
So how do we overcome both of these errors? Simply by practicing that which we should have practiced from the beginning: sincerely loving our neighbor, including in the way we dress. When we aim for this biblical, uplifting principle, we naturally miss the errors that lie on other side. So rather than think about how we can avoid errors, let’s think about how we can love our neighbors in how we dress. Instead of pointing our fingers at others and saying, “this is how you’ve wronged men,” or, “this is how you’ve wronged women,” let’s point our fingers at ourselves and say, “this is how I’m going to love my neighbor in the way I dress.”
What do you think? What has your experience in practicing modesty been like? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
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