In the first part of this series on the Bible and modesty, I first want to say a special thanks to all of the men and women who did the Lord’s work of trying to train me up as a child, a teenager, and a 20-something to walk in the ways of Jesus. In this particular article, I make some references to Sunday school, youth group, church camp, and Bible college in terms of the messages I did (or didn’t) receive about modesty—and I’d like to begin by saying clearly that I’m grateful for all of those people who did their best to give me foundational blocks to step on (even if not always perfect) as I matured into a desire for a fuller understanding of a concept that a younger me probably wouldn’t have totally grasped.
I heard the phrase “modest is hottest!” most often between the ages of 10-18, in the context of places like youth group or church camp, where adults would try to convey some light-heartedness to what felt like an awkward conversation about our bodies and rules about what we could or couldn’t wear. To my memory, it was only ever directed toward girls.
What I don’t remember, however, is that phrase ever being paired with an explanation of why modesty mattered at all. Was the camp rule that girls’ shirts had to have at least 3-inch sleeves actually biblical, or was that some arbitrary standard that somebody made up? Was my Bible college’s guideline that females couldn’t wear leggings in the gym actually making me holier, or just making it hard to find clothes suitable for a workout? Who defines “modesty”…and who cares?
“Who defines ‘modesty’…and who cares?”
That’s what I set out to discover. And since I am a Christian, my foundation for truth comes from the Bible (not from a list of rules, nor from whatever’s “cool”). I decided to see what God’s Word had to say about the matter—meaning that I had to have a willingness to embrace obedience to any restrictions that God asked of me, and embrace openness to any freedom that God offered me.
Here’s what I found:
Modesty is about more than particular clothing.
That’s right, folks. Believe it or not, the Bible’s teaching about modesty does include apparel, but extends far beyond what we choose to wear (or not wear). So if you’re looking for me to defend or destroy anything from turtlenecks to bikinis…you’re not going to find it here. Maybe you’ve read the verse from 1 Samuel 16 that says “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” That is neither a defense for promiscuity nor a weapon against freedom. It’s a clue to where the conversation about modesty actually begins…not with various body parts, but with the heart.
“The Lord looks at the heart…is a clue to where the conversation about modesty actually begins.”
The word “modest” is not prevalent in the Bible (most English versions of the Bible translate the original Greek to “modesty” twice or less!)…but the concept of it is most definitely present. And each time the concept of modesty is taught, the core issue at hand is the posture of a person’s heart—and whether we are oriented first toward ourself, or toward God and others. Modesty and immodesty are outward expressions of our inward posture. Meaning they begin at a heart level.
If our heart’s posture is selfish, attention-seeking, or careless, we will reflect that outwardly. Likewise, if our heart’s posture is humble, service-oriented, and content, that’s what will come across instead. And like I said before…this does include the way we dress, but extends far beyond that. And, in case it needs to be said explicitly: this is for both Christian men and Christian women. Nobody’s off the hook here.
I remember when my dad got a new job when I was in the fourth grade, and our family had a little more income than we had before. Our family was growing, so my mom began to look at other houses to accommodate the need for more space. There was one house that sat on a hill over a pond, with a big yard and beautiful street value in a nice neighborhood. Our family strongly considered purchasing it, but ultimately my mom felt convicted that its outward appearance came across a little too “prestigious.” Would it have been sinful or wrong for our family to move into that house? No. You could probably make the argument that it would have been a good thing! But ultimately, my mom wanted our home to be reflective of our heart…a bit messy, obviously imperfect, but open to all and content as is. It was a choice she made in modesty, from a humble posture.
“If our heart’s posture is selfish, attention-seeking, or careless, we will reflect that outwardly. Likewise, if our heart’s posture is humble, service-oriented, and content, that’s what will come across instead.”
Does that mean that anybody else who buys that house is doing so in “immodesty,” or an attempt to garner attention and approval of others? No. It’s dependent, first and foremost, on what is happening in their heart. Which means it’s also possible for people to do things that may seem traditionally “modest” (like living in a smaller home when they could afford a bigger one, or wearing clothes that are looser and cover more skin, or deflecting compliments from others) in an “immodest way,” if the motivation of their actions is still self-centered or concerned about what others think of them rather than what God thinks of them.
Modesty starts with our heart. Not our clothes.