“When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
– 1 Cor. 8:12-13

Over the years I have developed a strong dislike towards summer. As the weather climbs to the mid-90’s and winter layers are shed like old skin, like clockwork, one subject that is always brought up in female circles is the dreaded “m” word: modesty. In a conversation with a friend a while back we briefly discussed the topic of modesty, and she noted that – among Godly young women – you can rebuke them for any number of sins and, for the most part, they’ll acknowledge that they’re in the wrong and in need of forgiveness and work toward change. However, once you breech the topic of how they dress, it suddenly becomes more personal and all the defenses immediately go up. Who does she think she is? Um, look at how she dresses? She’s probably jealous of how I look. There’s nothing wrong with the way I dress! I dress pretty modest, thanks much.

When I was younger, modesty talks didn’t really bother me. My wardrobe was pretty much free t-shirts and basketball shorts – I didn’t exactly fit that demographic most modesty talks were geared toward. Fast forward a few years and suddenly modesty talks are an annoying formality. None of the information was ever new, and not to mention enforcement (at church/church functions) was sketchy at best. The rules were only ever enforced upon those who looked like they needed that enforcement. And so for years I skated through church life never bothering to think that modesty applied to me until one day, while I was out running, I suddenly realized that what I was wearing was… pretty immodest.

I wasn’t exactly thinking about modesty at the time either. I just happened to be paying attention to the cars that were driving past me along the road, when suddenly I realized that if anyone from church saw me at that moment I would probably feel really embarrassed. But why would I feel embarrassed? I wasn’t at church, and I wasn’t explicitly going out of my way to make someone stumble. I was just wearing what was comfortable for the activity that I was doing. Deciding then to take more back streets than not, I struggled with that thought for the rest of my run.

What IS modesty?

Sure, I know what modesty is supposed to “look” like: shorts past the fingertips, no bra-straps showing, no more than a hand’s width of skin showing between your collar bone and the neck of your shirt, can’t see your stomach when you raise your hands or bend over, not too tight, not too see through, not too short, no gaps, no this, no that, watch out for this that and the other thing – yeah, I get that, cool. But what does that mean for me?

At the time, I started off with a question to which I knew I would probably get an answer I liked:

“When are the modesty rules applicable?”

This was generally more bluntly phrased as:

“DO I HAVE TO BE MODEST ALL THE TIME? ALLLLL THE TIME?! D;”

Survey says: No, but think about your brothers.

Thanks, brothers.

Coin flip – GO!

I counseled at a high school camp a few years back. Did the spiel to the girls about dressing modestly, called some of my girls back when they were wearing things that were a little too short or a little too tight, but the ONE camper that gave me issues over modesty was not one of my high school girls, it was one of the high school guys. No, he wasn’t walking around in a Speedo, but most days he wore these cut-off tanks with deep armholes that, well, showed off his figure more or less. So for the first couple days I told him to go back to his cabin and change because I found it inappropriate. And then halfway through the week I saw one of the male counselors wearing the same type of tank. It bothered me for a little bit, but because I’m too chicken to tell a fellow counselor, “Yo, your shirt makes me stumble, go change,” I just dropped the issue and focused on the girls.

There was no main point for that little story. I just thought I’d present it for your contemplation.

Even though the survey answer was technically what I wanted to hear (don’t have to be modest all the time? Sweet), my conscience couldn’t sit with that answer. Such a double standard! If it’s not all the time, then why even have these stupid rules? It doesn’t matter what I wear then, so long as I don’t get caught.

“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
-1 Peter 3:3-4

Why do I even wear clothes? Well, firstly because I don’t want to be naked, and secondly because how I dress helps convey who I am, where my values lie: I wear sporty clothing because I want to be seen as athletic; I wear certain brands or styles because I want to at least pretend I’m trendy. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t covet the complement of, “You look really nice today!” When I make clothing and what I wear all about me, it doesn’t always leave much room for modesty. Secondhand information, but it proves a point: a mother once complained about modesty at church and in school in that she didn’t want her kids to “look like squares.”

When looked at from the angle of self, modesty becomes an endless questioning of when I have to be modest, where I have to be modest, and with whom do I have to be modest. It becomes an issue of toeing the line and “how far is too far?” type of deal. However, when looked at from the angle of holiness, and giving glory to God – not even thinking about the purity of the brothers or anyone else – the issue becomes much clearer: modesty comes from living up to the perfection to which God has called me as a redeemed woman.

 “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
– Proverbs 31:30

What is the praise of man and that elusive feeling of “I look HOT today” compared to the endless joy that is found in pursuing and being pursued by Christ? In walking with Him and being perfected by Him? Sure, sometimes – from my human perspective – it totally sucks and is ridiculously painful. Sure sometimes what He calls me to do leaves me looking frumpy and square-ish. But what does it matter if the jar is boring clay when the treasure inside shines brighter than the purest gold? Trying to be modest just for myself will only make me frustrated and angry. Cultivating modesty through walking with God will leave me with a desire to guard the purity of my brothers through my dress as well as give me the humility to change the way I dress should I be  rebuked by a fellow sister or brother regarding my clothing (lovingly or not).

I was talking that last bit out with one of the ladies from my church. We went out to dinner and she was wearing the ever controversial “leggings as pants.” According to some modesty-type articles I’ve read, this type of dress is mostly a no-go. As such, I asked her about it. Her response was, “Oh, sorry! Does it bother you? You should have asked me to change!” Used to more callous responses, I was kind of surprised. We discussed modesty a bit more, but the idea that stood out to me the most was: there is a general criterion for modesty, but there is no one set of rules. What’s more important is that women be humble enough to change their attire if it is causing even just one person to stumble.

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” –Matthew 6:28-33

I feel like this is kind of a catch-all verse, but it’s not wrong. I, for one, worry about many things, when in reality all I need to do is worry about one thing – and it’s not really even a worry. Clothing, dress, appearances – it’s all superficial, nothing that will carry over into eternity, so why worry about it? Now does that mean, “Screw the rules! I’m not dressing up for nobody!” No! If the body is God’s temple, is it be acceptable to let it fall into disarray (1 Cor 3:16)? If the Church is the radiant bride of Christ, should she show up to her wedding unkempt and uncaring (Eph 5:25-27)? Rather, I would think that it is appropriate to physically reflect the grace and the cleansing that we have been shown by whatever means God has given us. Not necessarily that we be physically attractive (Is 53:2), but that a respectful stewardship, or care, of the body is shown – and that includes modesty.

It’s taken me a full year to write this post, and even now I don’t really think I fully understand modesty. Fortunately John Piper does. I think that podcast was the main reason I could actually finish writing this. If modesty is something on your mind, I’d really suggest listening to that. It’s only about 9 minutes long, so you’re not losing too much of your life if you really don’t agree with him.

I guess this post is simply a plea to all my sisters in Christ to pray about how they view modesty in their lives. Especially with all these summer activities coming up, my prayer is that all the reminders about modesty won’t simply go in one ear and out the other, and that we would all be humble enough to accept correction if and when we receive it.

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