Maybe it’s my German/Syrian heritage, but I seem to be drawn toward minefields, not the kind that blow off literal limbs, but the issues that stir up deep feelings and controversy. It’s not that I like conflict. I am far too much a sucker for human admiration to want to needlessly anger people. But I believe that God has a design for the way we should live our lives and interact with our fellow masterpieces of creation. I also believe that Satan, God’s sworn enemy, has his sights on corrupting our behavior in a way that maximizes human suffering and tears our social fabric. I also believe that the way we dress affects our relationships with others and ourselves.
A factor that complicates this issue of dress is that we are sexual beings. God made us in such a way that we can be transformed into creatures that are obsessed with sex. This thing of sexual arousal is quite a fascinating quirk of human nature and an amazing gift. Without the switch that turns us “on” or “off”, think about how different life would be! If we were stuck in the “on” position, normal human interaction would be very difficult, there would be no mental space left to create, or worse, discover new food flavors. We would be restless animal maniacs, always braying, never content. Conversely, if we were stuck in the “off” position, much of the wonder and passion that makes life so thrilling would be never known. So we have this switch, but it gets even more complicated. What turns this switch on and off is different for men and women, not to mention each individual. And the switch being turned on does not always send the same charge.
I want to be clear up front that we are not victims to this switch! We are not animals. God has given us the means to keep our sex drive under control. But at the same time I do not want to downplay how powerful the switch can be. In this article I want to explore whether or not we have any responsibilities to ourselves or those around us in our management of this switch.
What is modesty?
This word has become a loaded gun that can set off sparks of outrage. Some see modesty as oppressive legalism imposed on women because men are too lazy to take responsibility for their sex drive. Others see it as a way for jealous men to control their women. Some see it as a quick way to mark yourself as style-challenged, frumpy, Muslim, or home-schooled. Many take a middle road by being outraged by how scandalously some woman dress while at the same time being outraged at the idea of themselves being asked to dress more modestly.
Is modesty wearing denim skirts instead of pants? Or the broad leaf grass skirt instead of the narrow? I hate to admit this, but what is considered modest is culturally relative. Does this mean it is impossible to find an acceptable standard? “Let’s see, today my standard is the tribes of Papua New Guinea…maybe this outfit is a little excessively modest.” No! But what it does mean is that true modesty requires deference. It is not enough to have “my personal standard.” We need to take into account those around us.
When I talk about dressing modestly I mean several things: Saving aspects of your body that belong to your husband for his eyes only. Dressing to draw attention to your face and eyes which are the portals to meaningful relationships. Dressing to celebrate your delight in the precious womanhood that God gave you. Dressing in a way that is not a stumbling block or needless distraction to your brothers in Christ. (I just raised my arms in self-defense, because I know how loaded that last sentence was!)
Did I just frustrate you by being vague? I’m sorry but if we make the modesty debate about hard and fast rules about inches or dresses and slacks we are begging for contention. It is not a simple issue, but it is a worthy one, because how you dress does make a difference for those around you! I am not just talking to you women but the men as well. It is not fair that women get harped on for modesty while men get to prance around in their little polyester fig leaf, is it? Well part of the reason is that your body is much more interesting and beautiful than ours. It’s just how God made it. God made man first because you always make a rough draft before the final masterpiece. I honestly think that most women have no idea the powerful effect a woman’s body can have on a man. I’m not saying men are helpless, but the design of your body is the wonder of all wonders. One of the supreme gifts a man can receive in this life is the pleasure a woman’s body can bring. But your beauty is just one aspect of your whole package. You are more than your body! Your heart, mind, and emotions are all valuable parts of who you are. Each one is a gift to a man who will treasure all of you.
When a woman’s physical beauty is elevated against the rest of her qualities she ultimately is being degraded. Of all a woman’s attributes, her culturally defined sexual attractiveness is her most fleeting, but only because our culture has defined sexual attractiveness so narrowly as to exclude almost all real women. And the women who do find themselves “lucky” enough to be esteemed “sexy” secretly fear how quickly the natural processes of life will rob them and mar their body. A culture that values only how a woman rates on the “sexy” scale is cruel to women. But the women who are being worshipped as the current sex goddesses enjoy their power so much that they are unaware that when they flaunt their sexuality they are feeding a mindset that will eventually make them feel worthless. If you consider the history of Hollywood starlets, they all go through the same ordeal: Worshipped for as long as they have “it” only to be discarded in favor of the next young nymph when they age.
The truly fulfilled women are those find themselves in a community that values the whole woman and can appreciate the full scope of what a woman contributes throughout her whole life. People who appreciate the beauty of stretch marks and wrinkles as the marks of a kind and sacrificial life.
Men have a flexible standard of beauty. Real men who save their eyes for one woman, who are not comparing their wives to the ever shifting cultural standard, will always be satisfied by their wives’ ever shifting shape. True sexual satisfaction is so much more than the outward shape of the lovers. There is so much sexual dissatisfaction among those who believe the cultural lie that your enjoyment of sex is directly proportionate to how close your partner is to the sexual ideal. It disregards the more important elements of emotional bonding which are based on the inner qualities of selfless servanthood and trust.
When you dress in a way that draws too much attention to your body or the features that the culture considers sexy you are isolating this aspect of your sexuality from the rest of you and making it available to anyone who wants to mentally abuse your beauty for selfish gratification.
“Oh, but men are perverts and will do that no matter what I am wearing!”
But the more you reveal either by bare exposure or clothes that cling, the more you freely give him a gift for him to misuse. It is a red herring to say that men will lust no matter what you wear so it doesn’t matter. The more you leave to his imagination the less it will be YOU he is mentally violating. Let me repeat, your beauty is such a precious gift. Give it to a man who deserves it! The man who values all of you! The man who saves his eyes for you alone! The man who will protect and provide for you! The man who will rub your back while you barf into the toilet with morning sickness! He is the man who deserves the awesome gift of your body! Not the jerk who will treat you like an object of lust!
So please dress modestly to protect yourself from the lustful gaze. Don’t cheapen such a precious gift. If you dress to draw attention to your body you are attracting the man with a wandering eye who has let the culture’s lies make it almost impossible to fully appreciate your beauty.
I want to address a reason for modesty that is often attacked and misunderstood: The idea that a woman should dress modestly to make things easier for the guy not to lust. Most of the hate towards modesty teaching that I have come across is in some way related to this aspect. The response is “men are responsible for their own thoughts and where their eyes go. Women shouldn’t have to worry about it and should be free to dress in whatever way they choose. If a man lusts, it is not a woman’s fault!”
Of course there is much truth in that response and if I was writing strictly to men that would be my message as well! But that is not the end of the story. As Christians we are to be submitted to the lordship of Christ and he commands us “To look out not only for our interests but also the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4 (Paraphrased) What we do has an effect on those around us. Living a life of Christ-like love and deference requires that we be sensitive to the effect our actions are having on those around us. We seek to live for others’ benefit and in so doing benefit ourselves.
Jesus also commands us in 1 Thessalonians 4 to “not defraud our brother or sister” in the area of sexual purity. As a man this means seeking to understand which of our actions make it difficult for our sisters in Christ to guard their hearts and minds. So even though women are responsible for their own thoughts and battles with lust, we purpose to not defraud them or stir up untimely desires. It takes dialogue to understand what might be a stumbling block. For some women it might be a compliment of physical beauty that is too personal. For others, physical affection might be what gets the engine going and prompts that woman to struggle all week trying to figure out if that hug meant more than casual friendship.
It goes back to that switch I talked about it at the beginning, the switch that turns on our God given desire for sexual companionship. These are not dirty desires! They are beautiful and God wants to fulfill them. But they can only be truly fulfilled within His design of lifelong commitment. When we stir up a desire for something that cannot righteously be fulfilled we have contributed to their struggle for sexual purity – the goal of surrendering their desires to their Creator to be met in his perfect time.
Now this is where it gets dicey. To understand, you have to comprehend the powerful effect the female body can have on the male mind. A glimpse of those God-designed curves and a fire is lit. Not always, but when it is, the fire is can be consuming! I’ll never forget as a young man seeing a provocative image and being consumed with desire. I did not want to give in to lust. I remember sitting on the couch in my room vibrating, fighting to not give in. I am not whimpering. I am not a victim to the way a woman dresses. I have a duty to fight and guard my eyes for my wife. It is not always a battle I win, but I refuse to quit fighting because my eyes belong to God first and Heidi second. But I want you to know that being in the presence of a woman dressed immodestly is a struggle. I cannot give that person my full attention because there is a battle raging to look elsewhere. That voice in my head says “don’t look there” I respond “where?” Oh there. And there are other voices saying “For Pete’s sake! Take a little peek!” And the battle continues.
I don’t want to be fighting, especially if this takes place at church. Christian fellowship is supposed to be a place where we can put our shields down and refresh each other. A time to focus on worshipping God. But if there is a woman there who is dressed in a revealing outfit, the distraction is there. It can range either from mild annoyance that there is now a place in the room I can’t look, which means that spot becomes a focal point, or it can set off a raging fire.
I have no right to demand you women dress in a way that helps us. All I can do is appeal to you as a sister in Christ to please be merciful to us brothers. I know so many young men that earnestly want to look at you with wholesome love and purity but your dress is distracting. And it is distracting, not because these men are perverts or weak, but because God made your body to have a powerful effect on a man.
In marriage you will both love this aspect of life. But outside of marriage I plead with both of you, men and women, do all you can do help your brothers and sisters in their fight for purity. That sister that has carelessly dressed in a way you find distracting, do not look down at her with disgust – that is just a pretense for lust. You do not have the right to place any blame on her if you give in to lust! Ask God to give you the grace to overlook her outfit and see her the way He does. Young woman, you are so precious to God, your body is an awe-inspiring sight. Please save it for the man who will cherish you. As a daughter of the king, you deserve nothing less!
Post script: What is “Immodest?”
I really hesitated to address this because a focus on “where’s the line?” distracts from the more important issue of motivation for modesty. Our desire should not to be as close to the line as allowable but to get as close to dressing for God’s glory as we can. However, I think many women are not aware of the effect their dress is having on the guys around them, just as many men may not be aware of the emotional battles they are setting off in the hearts of young women. In order for a guy to understand what is defrauding to a woman, he needs a woman’s perspective! And in the same way I believe the perspective of a guy who can be honest with you and has your best interest at heart will be a huge help in your determining what is modest. And I will also suggest that you try to be aware of how different movements will affect your level of modesty. In one position you will be fine, but in another you might be shocked by how much you are revealing. Being married for almost 8 years has given me a whole new appreciation of the sacrifice that is required to dress modestly, especially in hot weather. I know it can be frustrating too when finding the right outfit is hard enough, even before you consider modesty. But for those of you who are making an effort, I want to thank you so much!