My daughter is precious beyond belief. An exploding barrel of gunpowder, rainbow sprinkles, unicorns, and sarcastic Barbie Dolls is probably the best description of her personality. She’s a caring and compassionate soul who melts my heart with a funny phrase or hint of a smile. And, I want her to become a confident woman who leads with her personality, glorifies God, and demands the right attention with the right motivation. This message, however, is potentially contrary to what she will be hearing. Modesty is often taught to motivate not “offending others.” But I want my daughter to be compelled towards modesty for more than that.
Certainly, helping to keep men from the temptation to lust is noble. But whenever modesty is just about managing uncovered skin, there is generally a failure to address the heart and soul of the person beneath the skin. As Christians, we are called to aim for more than behavior modification. Proper motivation for modesty is a heart that has been captivated by Jesus.
A Christian view of modesty starts with the gospel—that, amazingly, we are connected to Christ in His death and resurrection (Gal. 2:20) and adopted into God’s family completely by His grace (Eph. 2:8-9). After this inner transformation occurs, we are called to good works that show the reality of Christ’s life within us (Eph. 2:10). Among these good works are:
1) We deny ourselves, just as Christ did (Matthew 16:24-26).
2) We “glory in Christ Jesus,” worshiping Him above all else (Phil. 3:3).
3) We put off that old self as we put on the new (Eph. 4:17-32).
These actions all flow from God’s gospel work in us. The gospel isn’t that somehow we earn right standing with God through modesty, or anything else. Only Christ’s sin-bearing work on the cross gives us peace with God (Rom. 5:1). The measure of true obedience (according to Jesus in Matthew 15:8) is that it arises from a heart at peace with and enthralled by God. Modesty grounded upon man-made rules yields nothing more than the appearance of godliness. Shocking as it may sound, unless one’s entire reason for modesty is worship of the living God, then God isn’t glorified by that person’s modesty.
Furthermore, the subtle message that women receive when they’re told to cover up is that not covering up is a sure way to gain attention. That’s why we often see some in our churches who we might claim “have been taught right” wind up turning to immodesty and inappropriate dress. They love attracting those long stares because their hearts were never rescued in the first place from the false worship that is self-idolatry.
But, strange as it seems, self-idolatry can even be manifest in one who is caught up in rules-oriented modesty. Remember, it was a rules-oriented life that caused Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees. They used their external obedience to the law as a pathway to bring attention to themselves. Only God can know the heart, but if a woman finds herself loving the praise she gets for being modest and that becomes the only motivation, what will she do when praise for modesty dries up? Truly, the heart is a never-ending factory of idols. Only God’s grace can rescue us from ourselves.
When a person’s concept of modesty is just about the prevention of lust, then simply “covering up” becomes a sufficient standard. But Scripture teaches that a woman’s “adorning is to be the hidden person of the heart, imperishable beauty with a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:3-4). These characteristics are similar to what Galatians says will be produced in the life of a believer (Gal. 5:22-23). And the most magnificent thing about the characteristics of inner beauty described in 1Peter 3 is that they are precious in God’s sight! How amazing it is that the gospel power which transforms the heart actually produces the soul-satisfying attention that so many pursue through immodesty.
Modesty isn’t about just minimizing lust by adhering to someone’s set of rules. Right motivation matters. Immodesty is obviously a tool for self-idolatry, but modesty for the wrong reasons is self-idolatry as well. The real issue when it comes to the Christian life is always the heart. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,” (1 Samuel 16:7). A woman’s heart can only be healed when she receives this kind of God-centered care and teaching.
Women and teenage girls don’t need a Band-Aid of external rules. They need Christ’s gospel applied to their hearts. Only He can change them from within and then rightly motivate His daughters to dress for their Father’s glory, their own good, and for the good of others.
Jared Rankin serves Executive Pastor and Discipleship Pastor at Community Bible Church in Nashville, TN. He’s passionate about applying the gospel to everyday church and family.