My decision to bring up the topic of modesty feels a little like wading into a shark pool or striking up a conversation about politics at the Thanksgiving table. Because let’s face it, the subject of modesty riles up a lot of feelings among women.
But perhaps the reason this subject gets our nerves rattling and our hackles up is people misconstrue what modesty really is. Let’s talk about five things women get wrong about modesty.
Modesty isn’t just about what you wear.
Modesty is about not being improper or indecent. And while one manifestation of propriety and decency is what we wear, you could be dressed in a Jedi robe and cloak and still be immodest in your speech and your behavior.
Modesty begins as an attitude and involves all the decisions we make in how we carry ourselves – the impression we leave with others. It comes across in our appearance, our words, our actions.
In 1 Timothy 2, after the apostle Paul says women should be modest in appearance, verse 11 states, “For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do.” Modesty involves being attractive with the good we do in the world—and that flows from a heart devoted to God.
Modesty doesn’t keep men from lusting.
Of course, one of the reasons we should be modest is to help men keep their eyes and minds where they should be focused. We don’t want to don an outfit that would tempt most red-blooded males. But at the same time, we women can’t lust-proof the world, or even our church, by being modest all the time. And sometimes, we leave that impression—that somehow the responsibility for men not lusting is on us and our modesty.
Do the right thing when it comes to modesty, because that’s your way to honor God and respect others. But if a guy chooses to lust, that’s his sin, not yours. We certainly don’t want to put a “stumbling block” before our fellow Christians, but as Galatians 6:5 so clearly says, “For we are each responsible for our own conduct.”
Modesty isn’t a checklist of absolutes.
What’s the right length of skirt? How low can your neckline dip? How much makeup can one wear without looking “trampy”? What are the rules?! I’ve witnessed conversations in which Christians tried to hammer out every detail of a dress code, as if we can come up with a definitive list of to-dos for modesty.
Meanwhile, I’ve known tall girls who simply cannot find shorts that stretch all the way to their knee or big-busted women who would have a peek of cleavage in any shirt but a turtleneck. And we can unwittingly make those Christian ladies feel shame about their bodies or as if they’ll never measure up to our (impossible) standard of godly behavior.
Moreover, you can find a way to follow almost any dress code and still present yourself immodestly. For instance, at my Christian university, I knew a girl (me) who skirted around the no-shorts dress code and wore rather sheer pants (with a long shirt, I promise, Mom), and her legs were as on display as if she were wearing shorts (yes, I regret this choice). But the point is, there’s a way around any list we devise, so let’s stop with the lists and look at the reasoning behind modesty instead.
Modesty isn’t frumpy.
Modesty isn’t hiding your feminine form with baggy clothes or burying every inch of skin underneath generous swaths of fabric. It’s not swearing off all makeup or jewelry (save the wedding ring). It’s not cowering in your seat with your head down so you won’t attract unwanted attention. Modesty isn’t anti-curves, anti-fashion, or anti-beauty.
Psalm 45 is a wedding song, and it describes a bride who puts on a golden gown and beautiful robes, and then this phrase appears: “For your royal husband delights in your beauty” (v. 11). This gal took the time to look good for her husband, and the Bible seems to think that was a good idea. God is well aware that He made you a beautiful woman, and He’s A-okay with you having a feminine form and wanting to look and feel good.
But what about 1 Peter 3:3? “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes.” The part translated “concerned” comes from the Greek word kosmos. Recognize it? We use that same word, spelled cosmos, and it means the whole order or the world. So basically, your world shouldn’t revolve around your appearance. Don’t get obsessed. Go ahead and present yourself as the beautiful woman you are, but spend more time with God than your makeup kit.
Modesty isn’t just a female problem.
Finally, men can immodest too. Their speech, behavior, and appearance can be improper or indecent. They can dress or act in suggestive or sexual ways as well. Living in a highly sexualized world, you don’t have to look far to find examples. (Just walk by an Abercrombie & Fitch poster. Or rather, don’t.)
This verse is commonly used when we talk about modesty: “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). But it was spoken about King David, a man.
When it comes to modesty, let’s do the right thing. But let’s define the right thing correctly. Learn what modesty really is, and then “clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God” (1 Peter 3:4).