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Modesty Reconsidered

By Jesse Jost

Until women stop having curves and men stop having libidos, I doubt the modesty issue will go away quietly.

Women have many reasons for what they wear and evaluations of those reasons have been discussed at length elsewhere. What I want to explore now is the effect some kinds of modesty teaching have on the male brain.

I have grown up in circles with a pretty clear understanding that women should dress modestly so that they are not “defrauding” or a “stumbling block” to men and boys. It is common to hear that men have enough trouble with the battle for purity without Christian women adding to men’s distraction with careless dress. I was also raised to avert my eyes away from a woman who dressed “immodestly.”

The ideas behind guarding your eyes are admirable:

– Look away before arousal kicks in and you find yourself being led astray by the deceptive passion of lust.

– It’s a fact that what we fixate on sexually retrains our sexual taste, and if we are lustfully gazing on porn or other women, then we could become less satisfied with the wife that God has given us. And worse, if a wife knows her husband has a wandering eye, his comparing her to other women can make her feel an increasing sense of inadequacy.

– The two best reasons to guard your eyes are 1) the example of Job who “made a covenant with his eyes to not look lustfully on a young woman,” and 2) the teaching of Jesus who said that “looking lustfully” at a woman is the equivalent of mental adultery.

Modesty teaching has some worthy elements (you can read my previous thoughts on modesty here and the importance of guarding your eyes here). But lately I have been realizing that there are some ways that Satan twists these ideas and they can become destructive forces in the battle for purity, the most destructive of which is this: the way to combat men’s lust is through “modesty.”

Our first problem: it is impossible to objectively define what is “modest.” If you ask an individual male, “what makes an outfit immodest?” he would probably be able to come up with a quick and specific idea: “I’m okay with shorts to the knee anything higher is immodest, and I’m okay with sleeveless but no visible cleavage. And clothes need to be made from a thicker fabric and not too clingy.”

Okay, that sounds good, but why should this man’s opinion become the standard? What about the men who used to find exposed ankles immodest and a distraction? One man may be fine with sleeveless, while another will be driven mad over those tan exposed arms.

When “immodest” is defined as the point of undress when a man is tempted to lust, modesty becomes a hopeless ideal to pursue. Don’t misunderstand me. There is a cultural but movable line when an outfit becomes more daring than the rest and that will be a distraction and a lust inciter. This isn’t mere conservative propaganda; this is a cultural fact that advertisements and filmmakers have been exploiting for years.

I’m not saying there is never a place for evaluating modest or immodest. I’m simply pointing out how ridiculous it is for a man to expect a woman to dress modestly to protect his purity. Because while a certain outfit will be deemed modest and acceptable to one man, another will judge it immodest and a distraction.

I want to figure out what godly purity looks like for a guy in a world where a lot of women are dressing in a way that one might consider “immodest.”

If I am honest with myself, I have my own cultural conditioning about when a style of dress becomes immodest and a distraction. I won’t get into specifics, but I can pretty clearly tell you that ankles are not distracting to me.

However, I hate it when the thought crosses my mind, “that woman is immodest.” This private judgement of mine does nothing to help me win the battle with lust. In fact it can make it worse. It only opens the door to condescending tongue clicking and condemnation and a focus on the wrong area. It is to my burning shame to admit the thoughts I have had when I see friends’ posts on social media: “She is wearing that? She should know better.” Now before you all go and un-friend me, I admit this is wrong and I am seeking to grow in this area.

I read a blog post recently where the female author said she hated it when she could tell that her male friends were “fighting” not to lust after her. In her mind, a man should simply be able to look at a woman regardless of how she is dressed, say, “she is beautiful,” and move on. She has obviously never been a testosterone driven man.

I wish it was that easy. She went on to say she feels objectified when men have to avert their eyes from her because of her outfit. Her observations perfectly sum up the battle a man faces when he sees a woman who is showing more skin than he is culturally comfortable with:

On the one hand, should he just say, “lucky me,” and give into lust by giving her the slow once over? This is clearly reducing the woman to a piece of meat and is cruel objectification.

On the other hand, the alternative of saying, “immodest woman!” and looking away, can also be objectifying as the woman is reduced to an item that can’t be looked at for fear of lust, instead of being viewed as a daughter of God who needs to be loved.

A lot of modesty and purity teaching would leave us with only these two options: Lust or look away. For much of my life, I have lived as if these were my only options. The problem I see now is that both of these are self-centered views of the situation. Do I look and pleasure MY self? Or do I look away and maintain MY purity? Neither option truly honours or cherishes the woman.

I see now that the imitation of Christ leads me to a third option: looking with genuine selfless love; putting my need for pleasure or purity second to the needs of the woman. I should not be asking myself, “is she modest or not?” or, “should I look or look away?” But rather, “am I looking at her selfishly or selflessly?” What does she need in the moment? Does she need a listening hear, a word of affirmation, an act of service?

I want pure eyes that honour God and are faithful to my beautiful wife. But I also want eyes that display the love of Christ, not the self-righteous “purity” of the Pharisee. I want to look at a woman, regardless of the way she is dressed, so that if she could read my mind, she would not feel judged, condemned, lusted after, or critiqued.

I want her to feel safe and protected, but even more, I want her to feel cared about and valued. I want to have eyes that reflect back to her the tremendous worth she has, not because of her shape or social status, but because she is a daughter of God, and supremely loved.

I also know that being able to look at women like this in public, requires diligently fighting the battle for how you look at women in private in pictures or on the screen. When you know that woman can’t see you lusting it is easier to give in. But those private battles will determine the way you treat and think about women.

“God, I can’t do this alone. You know my thoughts and propensities, you know my weakness and how often I fail. Please fill me with your love and power so that I can love the way that you love!”


The Modesty Talk For Men

In Defense of Modesty

  • Keturah Lamb

    This is REALLY good – on so many levels. We each have our part – and that is serving God selflessly, whether man or woman.

  • Michelle

    Yes. As a woman I was taught to look at my clothes or another woman’s clothes and do exactly what you spoke about – judge for immodesty. Also that I was in the wrong if I wore something that may cause another man to stumble – I seduced him with my clothing (like you said – every man has a different line). It put so much emphasis on the clothes, the inches, the material, etc. And nothing on the heart of a woman and the heart of a man focused only on striving to honor each other in any situation. Men should have a focus of honoring women. Women should have a focus of honoring men. It ceases to train the brain to look for immodesty and have the focus constantly on that instead of the person.

  • David Ronsick

    Great article! I just wrote a similar article on this topic, in which you make some of the points I did – albeit yours was more eloquent 😉
    Check it out!

  • Nancy

    Wow, Jesse! Well done. It seems like I’m always saying this, but it’s true! God sees the heart, and we must imitate Him by His power and grace, and stop making it, yet again, about ourselves!

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