Modesty is About Pride, Not Sex

Modesty is About Pride, Not Sex October 4, 2022

jewelry in dish

In the church, the term “modesty” is almost always used to mean “not sexually provocative.” We think of modest dress as loose fitting clothes, long skirts, and covered shoulders. And, as that list of things suggests, we generally seem to believe that modesty is a topic that’s mostly applicable to women.

But the Bible sees modesty differently. Neither of the commonly-cited modesty passages in scripture deals with revealing or sexually provocative clothing. Instead, they’re addressing the problem of vanity. And the solution they propose is countering that vanity with a lifestyle that humbly reflects the glory of our savior.

Today, I want to break these ideas down, and demonstrate that modesty is ultimately a heart issue. True modesty is about taking the focus off of ourselves and placing it on our Lord.

Modesty, Fashion, and Wealth

The disconnect between the church’s focus on sexually provocative clothing and the Bible’s focus on pride becomes apparent the instant we start reading about modesty in scripture. In fact, if we turn to 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3 (the two most commonly cited modesty texts), we find that both of them cut against the grain of our usual perspective on modesty.

You see, both of these passages give examples of clothing that’s not modest. And the contents of those lists might surprise you.

In 1 Timothy 2, the dress that Paul contrasts with modesty is “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” And, in 1 Peter 3, Peter contrasts modesty with “the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear.”

Neither of these lists seems to be focusing on revealing clothing or sexually provocative dress! In fact, given the repeated mention of expensive things like gold, pearls, and “costly attire,” Paul and Peter seem to be more concerned about women flaunting their wealth than they are with women flaunting their bodies. And even if we incorporate the mention of “braided hair,” we’re still dealing with a focus on beauty or fashion more than a focus on sexuality.

This should be the first clue that something is wrong with our definition of modesty. Whatever “modest” means, it’s clearly bigger than just avoiding revealing clothes.

Defining Modesty

Look the English word “modest” up in a dictionary, and you’ll find that the primary definition is something like “humble” or “moderate.” If somebody says “oh, you’re just being modest,” they mean that the person in question is being humble—unwilling to brag on themselves. It has nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with pride.

It’s no different in the Bible. In fact, the Greek word translated “modesty” in 1 Timothy 2:9 (“women should adorn themselves… with modesty”) primarily means “a sense of shame.” That doesn’t mean that Paul wants women to be ashamed of how they dress. But it does suggest that modesty, even in the biblical Greek, lies somewhere on the scale of pride, not the scale of sexuality.

This suggests that, by definition, “modesty” is not the opposite of “sexually provocative.” It’s the opposite of vanity.

Where is Your Focus?

Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3 gives us two clues which suggest the solution to this immodesty-as-vanity problem.

First, observe what he says in 1 Peter 3:4.

“But let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”

In this case, Peter is exhorting his readers to be concerned about what is precious in God’s sight, rather than what is praiseworthy in the sight of other people. In other words, he’s saying that we can avoid vanity by caring less about what other people think and caring more about what God thinks.

Second, notice 1 Peter 3:1-3.

“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external…”

In this case, Peter is suggesting that our conduct should draw the attention of others to Jesus and not to us. He’s arguing specifically that godly wives may be able to win their husbands over to the gospel—maybe even without saying a word! In other words, we can avoid vanity by focusing on bringing attention to Jesus rather than bringing attention to ourselves.

Practicing Modesty

The first step in practicing modesty is, therefore, to examine our hearts. It’s to look at our motives. If our primary reason for wearing a particular article of clothing is to attract the attention of others, we’re being immodest. And that’s true regardless of the way in which we’re intending to attract attention.

So, yes, wearing sexually provocative clothing in order to draw attention to our bodies is immodest. But we can be just as immodest wearing the latest designer jeans, or the cool shoes, or whatever else. We can even be immodest (in the vanity sense) by trying to be noticed for our “modesty” (in the not-sexually-provocative sense)!

And note that, while the two passages we’ve discussed today are specifically directed at women, these principles apply to men as well. The young man spending hours in the gym to get raging biceps and six pack abs so that he can get noticed by others is being immodest. So is the man driving the fancy sports car or wearing the latest fashion trends for attention. It’s all vanity!

And none of this means there’s anything inherently wrong with jewelry, or shoes, or working out, or sports cars. It means there’s a problem when we use them to stoke our pride.

Doing the Harder Thing

Jesus once said (quoting Isaiah) “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” When it comes to modesty, I’m afraid the church is in danger of doing something similar. Many of us follow unwritten rules of Christian dress. Sometimes, we implement dress codes. And, sometimes, our young people begrudgingly comply with them.

But, at least in my experience, we rarely talk about the underlying heart issues of vanity. On this issue, I’m afraid Jesus could say that we honor him with our hips, but that our hearts are far from him.

Lists of do’s and don’ts for Christian dress are easy. Dress codes are easy. Breaking out the ruler to ensure technical compliance is easy. But the hard work of identifying our pride, repenting of it, and seeking to point others to Jesus is the way to be truly modest. And so that should be our primary focus.

Further Reading / Share Your Thoughts!

Do you agree with me that true modesty is a heart issue? Got any other questions or thoughts you’d like to pass along? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

Looking for more on this issue? I recommend Meggie Cotonethal’s article Modesty Misunderstood over at Desiring God. I came across her excellent piece in my research, and think it’s well worth giving her credit for influencing my thinking as well as a recommendation!

Finally, consider following me on Twitter if you’d be interested in more discussions of these sorts of issues. I’m thinking, writing, and tweeting regularly about moving past purity culture by rebuilding our understanding of sex and relationships on the story of God and his people as bride and groom.

(Image Credit: Tessa Wilson / Unsplash)

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