Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Have We Failed in our Discussions on Modesty?

Contrary to popular belief, men are not animals. The Christian blogosphere seems to be full of posts on modesty that are...well, disappointing. I am thankful for the balance and wisdom of certain writers such as this one. But far too often men are portrayed as animalistic creatures that have no capacity to control their lustful thoughts. If you follow through with this line of thinking, you have to ask, how much does a woman have to cover up in order to prevent every last man from having a lustful thought? This is especially disconcerting considering that even in Muslim countries where burqas are the norm, men still lust.

Can Modesty Stop Lust?

My husband recently preached on Genesis 12 and I was struck by that fact that Sarai’s beauty caused more than one man to sin. She was so beautiful, in fact, that Abram was afraid that the Pharaoh would kill him in order to have his wife. So Abram told Sarai to lie and say she was his sister. Pharaoh did as Abram predicted and took her for a wife. Was this Sarai’s fault? Was she not modest enough? Well, no. Sarah is lifted up as an example of modesty in 1 Peter 3. Sarah’s example points us to the fact that modesty, in and of itself, cannot stop lust.

We live in a sexually-charged, body-obsessed culture. May I suggest that it is not helpful to encourage women to think about and analyze men’s lust for their bodies? Many women are already thinking about their body too much. Our culture preaches that a woman’s worth is defined by how “hot” her body is. “Hot” women are worthy of more praise and attention than those who are not. This causes many women to have their fair share of insecurities and fears. 

Will I lose my man’s attention? Am I worth much? Will another woman will outshine me? Will modesty make me nearly disappear? Will I ever snag a man’s attention? Christianity offers a better alternative to this woman -- an identity apart from “hotness.”  But too often we add to the pressure by suggesting that women need to be attractive enough to keep their husband’s interest, but not attractive enough to not cause another man to lust. With all this push and pull, women are left to walk a fine line. 

Nevertheless, Philippians 2:4 says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” There is something noble and good about trying to help a brother in his battle with lust. But lets be clear about whether we are asking women to help or cure the problem of lust. Because the first we can do imperfectly and the second we cannot do at all.

1 Timothy 2:8-9 and Our Motivation for Modesty

Paul says, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that 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.”

Paul seems to be encouraging women to avoid a general showy-ness. She should not flaunt her wealth, status, style or sexuality in order to bring attention to herself. It speaks to more than women’s clothing, but not less. Modesty is a matter of the heart expressed in clothing, demeanour and conversations. It is an outward expression of who you are.

I do think women who dress modestly make it easier for men to see their personhood rather than their parts. However, stopping lust cannot be the number one driving motivation for modesty. It places an unfair burden on women to save men from their sins. A role that only Jesus Christ can fulfill. 

A more prominent motivation for modesty should be a desire to glorify God in the gospel. The gospel confronts the attention-getting self-focus of our natural self. When we respond in faith to God’s offer of salvation, we are transformed into a new person with new desires and motivations. We desire God’s glory more than our own. We are disillusioned with our greatness and find more enjoyment in God’s holiness and beauty. He is the one worthy of attention, not us. At times we struggle to remember who we are in Christ, but as we grow in our communion with God, our desires become more and more in line with His.

Modest people may look quite different from each other depending on their culture, context and personality. Modesty is a matter of the heart first and foremost. In light of 1 Timothy 2:9, we should ask ourselves whether we are more defined by wealth, beauty and sexuality or by good works? Although these things are not mutually exclusive, your kindness should leave a stronger impression than your Prada purse.

Banishing Fear

When we remember who we are in Christ, we will feel free to give up our spotlight for the sake of another. Femininity is beautiful and so is modesty. They are both God’s ideas. Women don’t need to hide or be ashamed, but our clothing and demeanor should reflect a humble heart -- a serene heart -- a heart that confidently trusts in the sovereignty and goodness of God. When we begin to comprehend how much we are loved and accepted by God, we won’t crave the attention of people to the same degree or severity. God defines our worth, not people. As we grow in communion with him, a miraculous thing happens: our fears are cast out by His love (1 John 4:18).

(My very favourite book on modesty is Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel by R.W. Glenn and Tim Challies. Unfortunately, I lost my book in the flood last year so I can’t quote you from their book. But if you are trying to think through this topic in your own life, I highly recommend that get the book and read it.)

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