I said at the beginning of part 1 that this would be a rule-free zone, because legalism will kill the heart of modesty. But we need to think deeply, and challenge ourselves about the implications of what the Bible is saying. If modesty is the attitude we need to adopt to counter narcissism—the ‘look-at-me’ inclination that defines us as sinners— then there is a series of questions we need to ask ourselves, rather than producing a list of rules. And these are questions not just for women but for men as well!
- Why do we wear what we wear? Why do we adorn ourselves the way we do (hair, make-up, tattoos, piercings)? What is going on in our heart that shapes/forms those decisions? Is my identity bound up in my body image?
- Why do we behave the way we do? How do we grab attention for ourselves? What is it that we do that says to other people, “I want you to notice me; I want your attention”? When Salim Mehajer married in Sydney in 2015, his lavish arrival at the ceremony (filmed for all to see) involved four helicopters, a fighter jet flyover, sports cars worth about $50 million, and a sea plane. Is this not a classic case of ostentatious, bragging narcissism: if-I-have-it-why-not-flaunt-it? We may not go to such lengths, but we still need to confront the smaller ways in which we draw attention to ourselves.
- Do we care more for the external adornment than for the internal adornment? How much effort do we spend on preening ourselves physically compared to working on our godly character?
One thing should be clear: clothes are not irrelevant or pointless. We know that clothes are important, because God clothes us. The Bible does not say that the quality of clothes is insignificant (i.e. that it is more godly to wear the cheapest, plainest clothes we can find, with no other adornment). There are lots of references to the wearing of beautiful clothes, and to adorning oneself (e.g. the Proverbs 31 woman adorns herself in fine linen and purple; see also Gen 24:52-53). BUT the clear emphasis is on the thinking behind the choice of those clothes, and the crucial difference between the external and the internal.
There is a lot of room for creativity in design and colour—they are God’s good gifts to us. Our God loves colour and design. The physical is not unappreciated by him or his people. Claire O’Neill says: “I think the love of creativity, colour, design and beauty is a part of our makeup. We choose clothes we like the look of, plants for their look and fragrance, cars for their colour… I think our love of art, design and beauty is an indicator that every human being is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). God is creative. He’s made the best, not only functional but aesthetically diverse and beautiful things. We couldn’t beat the world and universe he’s created if we tried.”
So the Bible is not saying that wearing long brown skirts and oversized t-shirts with your hair in a bun is the godlier thing to do. But it is saying: think about what is of first importance and get that right first.
- Are we aware of the cultural shift that is always ‘squeezing’ us as Christians?
In her book The Body Project, Joan Jacobs Brumberg chronicles a century’s worth of changes in how girls view themselves. She contrasts the diary of an adolescent in 1892 with that of a girl in the 1982. The girl in 1892 wrote, “Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.” The girl in 1982 wrote, “I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and baby-sitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.”
That was 20 years ago. Teenage girls today have moved even further away from the 1892 teenager. The book’s back cover summarizes what was true a century ago: “The ideal of the day… was inner beauty: a focus on good deeds and a pure heart. In contrast, the environment for girls today is ‘a new world’ of sexual freedom and consumerism—a world in which the body is their primary project.”
There has been a huge cultural shift—from good works to good looks. Women who are professing Christians must be discerning enough to see the shift, resist and reject it.
- Who do we wear clothes for? Ourselves—to feel good about who we are? Other women (men, read ‘men’ here)—in a game of one-upmanship, to compete with them, to make them feel jealous or envious? To make an impression on the opposite sex—to sexually attract them? Or do we wear clothes for our heavenly Father as an acknowledgement of our sin and our inability to expunge the shame of our rebellion?
- How much do we spend on clothes, accessories, cosmetics, hair styling? We may not wear sexually provocative clothing, but it may still be immodest if our goal in excessive spending is to say “Look at me!”
- How many of our posts on Facebook and other social media platforms are driven by a desire to put ourselves in the spotlight, to be the focus of attention—albeit for ‘worthy’ reasons? Is the following a fair quote about our favourite social networking service? “Facebook—helping narcissists share purposely vague cries for attention since 2004!”
- How much do we insist on our freedom to wear what we like? What other considerations come into our decisions? For example, when we move and work in Muslim communities, where much of our clothing is modest to us but not to them, will our love for them provoke us to cover our upper arms and shoulders, or will we insist on our freedom to dress as we like? When I went on a mission trip to the Solomon Islands, we women needed to jettison our normal summer wear—shorts, pants, jeans—and we needed to wear skirts instead.
A similar thing is going on with that other motive for modesty that I spoke about in the first post: being considerate of our Christian brothers. Now before I get howled down, let me give an illustration.
Imagine I have a friend who has joined Weight Watchers because she is struggling with her weight. She is determined to exercise a measure of self-control: she doesn’t buy chocolate any more; she has cut down on her portion sizes; she doesn’t buy take-away, but packs a healthy salad lunch each morning. I invite her over for dinner and despite knowing her resolve, I serve pizza with no salad, and then I crack open a box of chocolates after our dessert of salted caramel layer cake and ice cream.
If you were to say to me, “Is that really helpful for your friend?” I could answer, “She needs to get a grip on herself. She just needs to say ‘no’. She has to have self-control.”
Yes, it is her choice whether she gets sucked into eating that food. She ought to be able to say ‘no’. I also have freedom to serve what I want and eat what I want—but I don’t have the self-control problem of my friend. Does that make a difference? Are there other considerations here—for example, love for my friend?
Yes, we have the freedom to wear clothing we like. But if we know that our Christian brothers have a problem with self-control in the area of sexually provocative images, then can we just say, “Get a grip on yourself; get your lustful thoughts under control—it’s your problem, not ours”?
The grace of God makes us willing to give up our rights for the sake of weaker members of the body of Christ. Knowing how much grace you have received, and at what cost, makes you willing to extend that grace to other people.
If you are a parent or youth leader…
Are you dealing with teenage girls in youth group? Or are you a parent trying desperately to navigate your daughter through a highly sexualised social minefield?
Wendy Squires wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2014:
All those too-tight, too-short and too-low dresses aren’t, as I once thought, what girls wear to appear fashionable to their female peers. They wear them, I’m informed, to look sexy to men.
“I don’t really care what my friends wear out,” one young lady told me, “unless it makes them look hotter than I do.”
“You have to be hot to attract a guy,” another 16-year-old girl asserted. “If you don’t look sexy, then they won’t think you are interested in them.”
And once you attract said guy? “You need to have sex with them. If you don’t, they’ll just go with someone who will.”
Do you just let your daughter decide what she wears? No, you are the parent. I think you need to offer wise, mature, sensible guidance. That’s why you sit with your 16- and 17-year-old kids for 120 hours while they learn to drive—they need the voice of sense and wisdom in their ear. You wouldn’t dream of sending them out on the roads without those 120 hours of conversation. It’s the same with clothes and modesty. BUT I think you need to go to the heart of modesty first: the motivation. Talk to them about their identity in Christ, about their bodies not being their own (1 Cor 6:19-20); tell them that God clothes them for a reason; talk to them about not dressing to attract guys, because they’ll attract the wrong sort of guy. But also recognise that the need for your daughters to fit in with peers is very strong; there may need to be some concessions as you negotiate.
And as we talk to our sons about negotiating the tricky terrain of adolescence, will we set before them the virtue of self-control? The Bible talks a lot about self-control—especially for men. Paul tells Titus to urge the younger men in only one thing: self-control! (Titus 2:6)
Grabbing glory for ourselves is our default position as sinners; being modest is the godly response to the grace shown to us at the cross. May our heavenly Father have all the glory!
Lesley Ramsay has been in local church ministry with her husband, Jim, for 47 years. After university she trained as a teacher and then raised four children. Over the past 30 years she has worked as a Bible teacher and evangelist across Australia and overseas. She has written and edited several books and training packages that are sold and used internationally. She now works at Moore College in Sydney, in pastoral care to the students. To relax, she enjoys a good coffee and a good book and hanging out with her grandchildren.
 Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Vintage, New York, 1998, p. xxi.
 Taken from a viral meme.