Sometimes I really hate reading modesty blog posts and the inevitable ensuing fracas. No, most times I really hate reading them – and it frequently doesn’t matter which side of the issue is being argued. No matter how kind or how rude the original post, no matter if it is an urge to cover up more or loosen up more, everyone seems to take sides, get cranky, feel judged or feel judgey . . . all in all, a real win for Christian charity in all directions.
So with that said, here I go with a modesty blog post. This isn’t about specifics though, so don’t panic – this is just a general observation. Of late there seems to be a lot of discussion amongst the womenfolk pointing out that the men are responsible for their own hearts and their own lust problems. The burden (it is argued) is on the men to keep their hearts pure, not on the women to keep them from ever being tempted.
Here is how it generally seems to break out. Advocates of traditional modesty (the ones who would want to stay away from bikinis etc.) have sometimes made their argument this way: Women! Be modest or else you will cause all the men around you to fall into the grip of lust! Stop forcing my husband and my sons to stumble! Get behind me Satan!
Then there are the women with looser standards of modesty (the ones who would tend to be on board with bikinis) who point out that men can have a lust problem even if all of the women are wearing burkas and snowpants . . . and the issue isn’t the women’s skin, it’s the mens’ hearts. Therefore, it is argued, dress however you please, keep your own heart pure, and God will be happy with you.
(Obviously I’m painting with broad strokes here – there are plenty of nuances and gradations and varying perspectives . . . but let’s just keep it simple for the moment, and for the purposes of argument divide the opinions into the above two camps.)
Here’s my trouble. I would usually tend to agree with the first group on the practical application – but I think they have often done a really lousy job in arguing for it, and it frequently seems to be motivated by fear rather than obedience. Fear of other, more attractive women, fear that their husbands will be stumbled, fear that their sons will be led astray, often just fear of sexuality in general. But the very same passage which commands “modesty” also commands that women “not be afraid with any terror.” What good is it to be all buttoned up and correct on the outside but disobedient on the inside?
And frankly, the second group is dead right that the men are responsible for their own hearts. If they have a lust problem, that’s their problem and they can’t blame others for it. They have a responsibility to be pure before God regardless of what the women are wearing. God has commanded them not to lust, therefore they need to not.
But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If the men are responsible to obey God regardless of the current fashions which surround them, the same goes for the women. We have to obey God regardless of the current fashions which surround us. God has commanded us to be outwardly as well as inwardly modest . . . and he actually never said that it’s because of the men. Frankly, that may not be the point at all – think of that very odd verse which tells us to wear our hair a certain way “because of the angels.” We may not actually be as in-the-know as we think we are regarding God’s greater purposes. God never gave us a “here’s why” argument on the modesty question – he just gave us a command. We don’t need to be modest “so that the men won’t sin” – we need to be modest so that WE’RE not in sin. We don’t need to be modest to please the Christian men (or women), we need to be modest to please God.
I think that by filling in the “here’s why,” the modesty advocates have really clouded the issue. Sure, there’s a side benefit to a community of modest women, and that’s the fact that the men in that community who are actively pursuing godliness will have an easier time of it than they would if they were to find themselves on an Italian beach. But by making that the main issue, modesty advocates have really made the whole topic very lopsided. Imagine if one of the Israelites in the time of Moses made a really big deal about keeping all the holiness codes “because of the health benefits.” There actually are a number of health benefits, but of course God was making a much bigger point than that. It’s kinda neat to notice some of the healthy side effects of the Old Testament laws . . . but if you were to make that the main point it would really mean that you had actually missed the whole point. On the other hand, if yet another (more enlightened) Israelite was to take issue with the first one, and claim that the health benefits weren’t really all that, and you can be perfectly healthy while living like a Philistine and therefore we shouldn’t bother with the commandments at all . . . this person would also have missed the bigger point.
And I think the same thing is true with the modesty topic. Making life easier for the Christian men is a benefit – but a minor one at best. Because to be honest, if I see a woman who is clearly, unarguably, beyond any shadows of doubts, adulteress-in-Proverbs level immodest . . . the heart I would be the most concerned about in that situation would be hers, not the men who chanced to see her. They may fall into sin, but she definitely has.
So I think that as we pursue modesty, the biggest question should be whether God is pleased with our outfit, not whether we will cause anyone to stumble, or whose fault it will be if they do. The question is whether or not we are being faithful with what God has asked of us.