Modesty matters

And the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed. —Genesis 2:25

In 2000 a young feminist named Wendy Shalit published A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Why,” asks Shalit, “is sexual modesty so threatening to some that they can only respond to it with charges of abuse or delusion?”

Kirkus Review said of the book, that she argues modesty “puts women in control of access to their bodies, allows them to preserve the beauty of their romantic aspirations, compels men to invest themselves in relationships, and enhances the erotic potential of eventual intimacy.”

It struck a cord, and she launched a blog, And she followed it up with a book in 2005, The Good Girl Revolution: Young Rebels with Self-Esteem and High Standards.

The books are not from a Christian perspective. In fact, in A Return to Modesty, she spends more time examining the issue from Jewish and Islamic traditions. But modesty is certainly something we ought to talk about often and loudly, to both men and women. Young men are often immodest in their dress as well.

But a biblical response goes deeper. Modesty is not about women’s self esteem, although that’s affected without a doubt. And it’s not about being in control, although that is important.

It is about God’s purpose and design, and ultimately about his glory.

In Piper’s book, This Momentary Marriage: A Parable of Permanence(which I am still reading and recommending) he posits that Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves because they were no longer able to be “naked and not ashamed.”

Before the fall, they were not ashamed because they were able to trust each other. After the fall, they were not. They were vulnerable and exposed, not only physically but emotionally. How could Eve trust Adam, who had failed to protect her from the Serpent’s lies? How could he trust her, when she had herself tempted him to evil?

God responds by making them better clothes, not to conceal their failure but to confess it. And he does this with the skin of animals, requiring the blood of sacrifice, pointing to the sacrifice of His own Son to restore our relationship with Him and with each other.

Properly understood, marriage allows us to return as much as possible to a relationship where over time we can be naked and not ashamed. But the real issue with immodesty is that it leaves us vulnerable again, unable to trust each other, always making comparisons and imagining more or less than might be true. This doesn’t require air-brushed models; we compare ourselves (or our spouses) whenever we focus on how others dress, and though we are not naked we are often ashamed.

But taking our clothes off, or wearing low cut blouses or too tight pants, is not the only way we create this problem. Using clothes to get attention or to leverage our power and prestige in such a way as to diminish others is equally dangerous. That’s why, Piper points out, God’s answer is simplicity and, well, modesty. (See 1 Timothy 2:9-10 or 1 Peter 3:4-5.)

Here’s how Piper concludes his short discussion of modesty:

Clothes are not meant to make people think about what is under the clothes. Clothes are meant to draw attention to what is not under them: merciful hands that serve others in the name of Christ, beautiful feet that carry the gospel where it is needed, and the brightness of a face that has beheld the glory of Jesus.

Go ahead. Buy the book.

6 thoughts on “Modesty matters”

  1. Great blog! I am reminded of a recent TV commercial on weight loss where a woman shares because she has lost weight she is no longer embarrassed to go to the beach….she says this while wearing a skimpy swimsuit walking on a beach. It struck me how confused we have become about embarrassment.

  2. Kudos Dr. Metts on a beautifully written and compelling post. The subject of modesty gets thorough treatment in my sex-ed workshops for parents. It is disturbing to see so many Christian parents unable (or unwilling) to broach biblical modesty with their children. This will be a crucial sub-topic in my Sex-ed Homestyle book (As you know, the book proposal for this manuscript is my Capstone Portfolio project.)

    John Piper’s quote about the purpose of clothing was stunning to me. I’d never heard anything like it before. Thank you for including it. . . I’m now counting my pocket change to see if I can buy his book a.s.a.p.

  3. But modesty in dress is a subset of modesty as a virtue. Modesty comes from humility, and immodesty is attracting undue attention and speaks of a need or desire for the attentions of others. This is a symptom of our human corruption, evidence of a broken view of the self, and of God.

    Our tack with our kids is to speak of modesty in this way, while teaching and attempting to model it. Boasting is immodest, as is seeking praise, and showing off. If they understand the virtue of modesty, and recognize the lack of it in all areas of life, the way they dress will be naturally modest, both in style and cut. But more importantly, they have that confidence that comes from a clear understanding of who they are, being “created in the image of God”. We pray…

    1. I appreciate the truth you’ve noted that modesty in dress is only a subset of a larger virtue. And I think you are on the right course with your kids.

      I was responding mostly to the book, which is mostly about dress. But there is a larger virtue at stake, which I hope I’ve at least suggested in the ways I addressed the dangers of dressing immodestly.

      Again, thanks.

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