Modesty is a matter of pride, not sex

In the church, the term “modesty” is almost always used to mean “not sexually provocative.” We think modest dress like loose clothing, long skirts and covered shoulders. And, as this list of things suggests, we generally seem to believe that modesty is a topic that applies primarily to women.

But the Bible sees modesty differently. None of the commonly quoted modesty passages in scripture deal with revealing or sexually provocative clothing. Instead, they tackle the problem of vanity. And the solution they propose is to counter this vanity with a lifestyle that humbly reflects the glory of our Savior.

Today I want to break down these ideas and demonstrate that modesty is ultimately a matter of the heart. True modesty consists in turning the attention away from ourselves and placing it on our Lord.

Modesty, fashion and wealth

The disconnect between the church’s emphasis on sexually provocative clothing and the Bible’s emphasis on pride becomes apparent the moment we begin to read about modesty in scripture. In fact, if we turn to 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 (the two most frequently quoted texts on modesty), we find that both run counter to our usual perspective on modesty.

You see, these two passages give examples of clothes that are not modest. And the contents of these lists might surprise you.

In 1 Timothy 2, Paul’s dress against modesty is “plaited hair and gold or pearls or expensive garments.” And, in 1 Peter 3, Peter contrasts modesty with “the braiding of hair and the wearing of gold jewelry, or the garments that you wear.”

None of these lists seem to focus on revealing clothes or sexually provocative outfits! In fact, given the repeated mention of expensive things like gold, pearls, and “expensive clothes,” Paul and Peter seem to be more concerned about women flaunting their wealth than they are with women flaunting their body. And even if we incorporate the mention of “braided hair”, we are still dealing with an emphasis on beauty or fashion more than an emphasis on sexuality.

This should be the first clue that something is wrong with our definition of modesty. Whatever “modest” means, it’s clearly more important than avoiding revealing clothes.

Defining modesty

Look up the English word ‘modest’ in a dictionary and you’ll find that the main definition is something like ‘humble’ or ‘moderate’. If someone says, “Oh, you’re just modest,” that person is humble and doesn’t want to brag about themselves. It has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with pride.

It is no different in the Bible. In fact, the Greek word translated “modesty” in 1 Timothy 2:9 (“women should adorn themselves…with modesty”) primarily means “a sense of shame.” This does not mean that Paul wants women to be ashamed of the way they dress. But it does suggest that modesty, even in biblical Greek, is somewhere on the scale of pride, not the scale of sexuality.

This suggests that, by definition, “modesty” is not the opposite of “sexually provocative”. It’s the opposite of vanity.

Where is your goal?

Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3 gives us two clues that suggest the solution to this problem of shamelessness as vanity.

First, notice what he says in 1 Peter 3:4.

“But let your adornment be the hidden person of the heart with the undying beauty of a gentle and calm spirit, which in the eyes of God is very precious.”

In this case, Peter urges his readers to be concerned with what is precious in the eyes of God, rather than what is praiseworthy in the eyes of others. In other words, he says we can avoid vanity by caring less about what other people think and caring more about what God thinks.

Second, notice 1 Peter 3:1-3.

“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they can be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Don’t let your adornment be outward…”

In this case, Peter is suggesting that our conduct should draw the attention of others to Jesus and not to us. He specifically argues that godly wives may be able to win their husbands to the gospel—perhaps without saying a word! In other words, we can avoid vanity by focusing on drawing attention to Jesus rather than ourselves.

practice modesty

So the first step in practicing modesty is to examine our hearts. It is to look at our motivations. If our main reason for wearing a particular item of clothing is to attract the attention of others, we are immodest. And this is true regardless of how we intend to attract attention.

So yes, wearing sexually provocative clothes to draw attention to our bodies is immodest. But we can be just as shameless wearing the latest designer jeans, or the cool shoes, or whatever. One can even be immodest (in the conceited sense) by trying to be noticed for his “modesty” (in the non-sexually provocative sense)!

And note that while the two passages we have discussed today are specifically directed to women, these principles apply equally to men. The young man who spends hours in the gym to get raging biceps and six-pack abs so he can get noticed by others is shameless. The same goes for the man who drives the fancy sports car or wears the latest fashion trends to grab attention. It’s all vanity!

And none of that means there’s anything inherently wrong with jewelry, shoes, working out, or sports cars. This means there is a problem when we use them to fuel our pride.

Do the hardest thing

Jesus once said (quoting Isaiah) “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. When it comes to modesty, I’m afraid the church is in danger of doing something similar. Many of us follow the unspoken rules of Christian dress. Sometimes we implement dress codes. And sometimes our young people reluctantly comply.

But, at least in my experience, we rarely talk about the underlying heart issues of vanity. On this subject, I am afraid that Jesus might say that we honor him with our hips, but our hearts are far from him.

Christian clothing do’s and don’ts lists are easy. Dress codes are easy. Pulling out the ruler to ensure technical compliance is easy. But the hard work of identifying our pride, repenting of it, and seeking to point others to Jesus is the way to be truly humble. And so that should be our primary focus.

Further reading / Share your thoughts!

Do you agree with me that true modesty is a matter of the heart? Do you have any other questions or thoughts that you would like to pass on? Please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Want to know more about this issue? I recommend Meggie Cotonethal Modesty Misunderstood’s article on Desiring God. I came across his excellent article in my research, and I think it’s worth giving him credit for influencing my thinking as well as a recommendation!

Finally, consider follow me on twitter if you would be interested in more discussions on these kinds of issues. I think, write and tweet regularly about moving beyond the culture of purity by reconstructing our understanding of sex and relationships on the story of God and his people as married people.

(Image credit: Tessa Wilson/Unsplash)

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