Article 1 of Life in Godliness
“I am a god / Even though I’m a man of God / My whole life in the hands of God / So y’all better quit playing with God” – Kanye West, “I Am a God”
Every day, the world tells us that we need to stand out from the crowd, that our identity is dependent on how many people notice us. Every day, the media bombards us with flamboyant personalities and celebrities who go to greater and greater lengths to get attention. Every day, countless girls despise their own bodies, driving themselves to starvation for a perfect body that people will notice. Every day, countless guys resort to recklessness and violence in an attempt to prove themselves as men worthy of notice. But Christians can live free from the hopeless images and laws of the world, as we have died and been reborn with our identity in Jesus. Sadly, however, because we live in a fallen world, remnants of our old, sinful identity remain. Thus, we must rely on the constant outpouring of grace from the Holy Spirit. And we must remember that we are not alone. We should surround ourselves with fellow believers who will encourage us to stand strong in the Word of God and keep ourselves modest. And that is why I have written the following essay, to encourage my fellow believers to stay strong in Christ. The following work is the result of years of personal discovery, research, and quite a lot of advice from people older and more spiritually mature than myself. I therefore pray that God will use my words to encourage, convict, and build up other believers to be stronger and bolder in their faith, and to resist the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Before embarking on the main body of this essay, I want to make it clear that as members of God’s New Covenant (better known, perhaps, as the New Testament), we no longer live under a list of rules that if we break, God will be mad at us. Instead, we live under grace, and are slowly being molded by the Holy Spirit to become like Jesus. But this does not mean we can just do whatever we want. According to 1st Peter 2:16, we must be sure that in exercising our Christian liberty, we do not sin. As Christians, we are called to honor God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.(James 2:8) But, unfortunately, we will not be able to live that way one hundred percent of the time until we are in heaven. Until then, we will still struggle with sin. But we need not despair, because as God’s children the Holy Spirit resides in us, convicts us through the Word of God, and purges us more and more so we can be free to follow Christ’s commands. The sinful world will try to enslave us to its false morality, but we are free in Christ. No one can force us to give in to the standards of the world, and we can stand firm in the Word of God and live in the standards of Christ. If we do that, all of the rest will fall into place.
So, with that in mind, what is modesty? In modern usage, the term is usually used to mean sexually provocative dress or actions, but that really is only a small part of the overall meaning. Actually, the term has multiple facets. Modesty is basically the quality of being modest, not having a high opinion of ourselves, not boasting about ourselves or our achievement, being humble. So modesty is more than just not dressing in a provocative way, and it is in fact more than just dress. Modesty is really the behavior and conduct we display in our daily lives. As Christians, we are not to live in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves. Instead, we as Christians are called to live in a way that we draw attention to God.(1st Cor. 6:19-20) How we behave, dress, and talk should make everyone around us think “Wow, what a great God they serve!” A modest lifestyle is one which makes us small, and God great. Basically, being humble and not proud. So really, immodesty is really the same thing as pride, and modesty really is the same thing as being humble. Now, you might notice at this point that really all of the virtues Christians are to pursue end up being the same thing. All end up being summed up by one word: Love. By focusing attention on others and ultimately God, we are being modest, and in doing so are living out love.
Now, as I indicated in the beginning of this article, the world is immodest. The world pressures us to draw attention to ourselves. So, when we don’t draw attention to ourselves and instead live in a way which points to God, the world will notice. And that’s where we as Christians need to watch out for the trap: In being modest, we must not pride ourselves on how modest we are, and if people notice, we shouldn’t explain how much better we are then them. Instead, we simply humble ourselves before God and remember that all our conduct is for His glory. If anyone notices, it is not us they should notice, but the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of us. Now, for me at least, avoiding the pitfall of pride is a huge uphill struggle, and I fail miserably, but each step I take is one step closer to God. I must admit that much too often, He seems far too distant and my sin to deep for Him to forgive. So I must continually force myself to remember that as a believer, His Spirit is dwelling within me, working for my sanctification and the completion of my faith.(Philip. 2:12-13) If you are a believer, then you too can have comfort and peace in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit lives inside you, and that He is transforming you from glory to greater glory. (2 Cor 3:18)
So, to ask again, what is modesty? Pointing attention away from ourselves and toward God. And how can we be modest? In the same way, by focusing ourselves toward God. Now, practically, there are specific actions we can take to be modest, but the whole point of modesty is our attitude. To reiterate again, Christians, as followers of God’s New Covenant, do not live by a list of rules governing our actions, but under the Spirit of grace governing our hearts.(See 2nd Cor. 6) What is important is that we act right on the inside, as well as on the outside. By having a right attitude toward God, by putting Him first, everyone else second, and ourselves last, we will automatically be modest. There is no list of clothes and mannerisms that the New Testament describes as modest. Rather, our dress and conduct will automatically fall in place when our hearts pursue modesty. You see, in my experience (though it is very limited I admit), too often Christians ask “what is modest?” when what they really mean is “does this cross the line?” I wish I could remember the site I found it on, but on the internet I found this great statement that could be paraphrased as “Don’t ask, ‘how close can I get to the line?’ Instead ask ‘how close can I get to being holy?’” Instead of comparing our dress and conduct to what is wrong, try to imagine what is most holy and choose that.
There is no exact “you shall not do this” line in the sand, rather, the line that must not be crossed is the point where you start wondering if you are crossing it.(Romans 14:23) Instead of conforming to the world’s mode of dress, we should be conformed to the image of Christ. Philippians 4:8 gives a very good explanation: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” Whatever is pure, lovely, and good, we should think on that, and modesty will follow.
Now, practically, there are certain actions that we can take in being modest, and as we learn from Jesus in Matthew 12:34, our attitude will manifest itself by our actions. Now, being as modesty crosses over with humility, there is way too much subject matter to cover in just one essay, so I will focus mainly what is most familiar in a discussion of modesty, that of clothing and dress. Because we are not to conform to the mold of society but unto the mold of Christ, we are to flee the appearance of evil.(1st Thes. 5:22) And as explained in 1st Corinthians 8:9, we must be careful not to cause someone who is spiritually weaker to sin. If my dress or conduct will cause someone else to behave in a manner that will violate their conscience, then no matter how pure our own motives may be, we should walk away from such dress or behavior. Even when among Christians, though we have liberty in Christ, we must remember that we live in an ungodly society, and its corrupting influence is very powerful, and our Christian brothers or sisters may be tempted to sin by our conduct or dress, no matter how innocent it may be to us. Remember, just because we don’t have a long list of how to dress and conduct ourselves, and just because we as Christians are free in Christ, does not mean that modesty is relative. Christians will want to be modest just as Christ was modest.
What behavior and dress is considered modest varies from culture to culture. For example, in America the practice of coming in to a job interview and boldly stating how qualified one is for the job might come across as overly boastful in many Eastern cultures. As another example, in many places in India, it is perfectly acceptable, even proper, for women to have a bare midriff, while in Western culture, a women baring her midriff, while certainly acceptable, has sexual connotations to it. That is why it is important to hone our insights into our own culture. Just because the world views something as acceptable, does not make it right at all. What we must do as Christians is see whether or not certain dress or conduct will provoke sinfulness, whether that sinfulness is acceptable or not by the world.
Basically, we should examine ourselves to find if any of our behavior, no matter how innocent, will appear proud, sensuous, or sinful in any other way, according to the standards of the society around us. We must ask if our behavior or dress will cause others, believers or otherwise, to think sinfully. Our conduct should point others to the saving grace of Christ, and we should strive at all costs not to cause others to stumble into sin. And we must be extremely careful not to knowingly act in a way that can cause others to sin, because if that person who sins is an unbeliever, and is in danger of Hellfire. Therefore, in all seriousness, to act in a way which we know will be seen as sinful by unbelievers, we are basically saying, “to Hell with whoever thinks the way I act is immodest.” We are in the midst of a spiritual battle, with permanent consequences, and modesty, just like every other aspect of Christian living, is a very serious task.
But in our zeal to flee from even the appearance of sin, we must be careful not to impose the culturally constructed ideas of our society onto another. To make a real life example, there was a missionary who went to teach the Gospel to tribal cultures in New Guinea. But he was shocked to find that even during church services, many women would sit topless to breastfeed their children, and even young pigs. Because of his background in Western culture, he gave the women shirts to wear, only to find that they would cut two holes in strategic areas! Now, this seems amusing and even shocking to those of us who come from a Western cultural background, but in their culture, it was perfectly acceptable, and it would be a grave disservice to the truth and liberty of the Gospel to impose our Western standards of modesty on a non-Western culture. Some African societies might see nothing wrong with a topless woman, while other cultures would consider it wrong for even a man to go topless. Some Africans would be shocked to see Western women baring their legs, as Western society itself saw this not to long ago. My point is that we must be careful that in our zeal to be modest and appear godly, we should not be legalistic and treat the standards of our society as a universal code to how to dress or behave.
Another good example is in 1st Corinthians 11. In 1st Corinthians, Paul is discussing Christian liberty, and in chapter 11 he mentions that men should have short hair and uncover their heads in church, while women should have long hair. But what does that have to with Christian liberty? Isn’t this the opposite of liberty? The key is in verse 16: “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the churches of God.” While Paul has been highlighting the difference in proper conduct between men and women in the Church, he stresses that the example he has been making is a cultural custom in Corinth, and Christians as a whole are not bound to it. The Corinthians had specific gender customs which they based off Scripture, and Paul tells them that this is something they must carefully think about and discuss as a Church. But, if the issue causes division in the church, the members should remember that other churches do not have that gender custom.
Now, I am assuming that most of those who are reading this are from a Western background, and it is with that background I am writing the following. Those of us in the West live in a highly sexualized and hedonistic society, where you are looked upon strange if you don’t dress and act in a way that is provocative, proud, and that draws attention to yourself sexually, and as such, modesty has a great deal to do with being sexually pure. Our patriarchal Western society often turns women into super-charged sex objects, and men into hyper-sexual conquerors. It so often tells women that ultimate beauty is to be sexually alluring and provocative, and men that the ultimate honor is how many women they can bed. Every day the media displays images of scantily clad women, and we consider it normal for a woman to go to the beach wearing less than her underwear would cover. Every day songs play on the radio in which male rappers brag their sexual prowess, and we shrug off leering male gazes as “boys being boys.” It is against this that we Christians must fight, against this that we must show an alternative. Sadly, it seems that we as Christians place too much emphasis on women, holding them to a standard which men are not held to. Modesty is just as important for men as for women.
I will say this for women though: as a young man who is struggling, and so often failing, to keep his heart pure I would encourage women to pay attention to how tight and their clothing is, to be aware of how they are perceived by men when they show a bit of cleavage or expose their midriff, or examine themselves as to just why they are putting on makeup. Men aren’t off the hook either, though for us the difficulty often is more in behavior than in dress. We are told to encourage women to behave sensually and wear skimpy clothing and swimsuits, that we should pursue a woman for her physical beauty and sexuality, not for her mind and her purity. But we must watch our behavior and dress as well. Think about you motivations when you work on getting those beefy biceps, or be pay attention to how women look at you when you take off your shirt. And certainly, whatever you do, don’t go to the beach in Speedo briefs. Trust me, no one wants to see that!
Seriously though, all joking aside, I want to be clear that the above are just some ideas to provoke some thought about motives, and to encourage my fellow believers to really examine how their behavior and choice of clothing will be seen by the world. What I do not want us to do is fall into the trap of legalism and rattle off a list of “Thou shalt nots,” as then I am no better than the Pharisees in Christ’s day. While I wish to stress quite strongly that we should conduct ourselves modestly, to not appear boastful, proud, or sexually provocative, and to help our fellow Christians achieve this conduct as well, I also heavily stress that it is important that we avoid being legalistic, and should instead be focused on Jesus. As Christians, we should not appear modest, but should be modest, with a pure heart pointed toward God, and with the wisdom that comes through the grace and inward working of the Holy Spirit.
We need to remember that even if we dress in a “modest” way, if our actions and attitudes to not line up, than we are in reality not being modest at all. And if we are become legalistic and judgmental in our zeal to help our Christian brethren to be modest, we are becoming immodest ourselves, as we are exhibiting pride by taking the place of Christ as the Judge of the world. Of course, it takes a great effort to remain humble and not show off and draw attention to ourselves, and to avoid being legalistic, but we should find encouragement in Philippians 4:13, that we can do all through Christ who strengthens us.