God’s Design for True Modesty
A few months ago I found myself at one of my favorite second-hand clothing stores, specifically for the purpose of updating my maternity wardrobe after finding out another little one was on the way. (After three pregnancies, let’s just say my closet was quite in need of a refresh!) After browsing for a while, I headed to the dressing room with an armful of clothing.
After trying everything on, I ended up with a few things that were definite keepers, but I was on the edge about one pair of pants. They fit really nicely at that moment, but I felt a little twinge as I looked at myself in the mirror. I knew that a few months down the road as the pregnancy progressed, they would be a little tighter than what I felt would be okay. So, I had a decision to make: Would I choose to buy these, knowing that I would be going against what I knew the Lord was prompting in my conscience, or would I choose to put the pants back on the hanger, swallow my pride, and choose a larger size?
I’ve learned from past experience that going with what I know to be right is always better, even if I have to live with looser pants than I would have preferred for a couple of months. So I walked out of the store that day with a size up and a clear heart.
I have talked with many Christian women, young and old, who have grown up with a misguided understanding of what modesty really means. Many have only ever heard it presented as a legalistic, oppressive set of rules that keeps them from dressing how they would like to — so they reject the idea totally. And there are others who are so concerned about being modest that it becomes something that is joyless. Neither of these extremes are God’s design for modesty — so, what is true modesty, and where does it begin?
Simply put, true modesty is an outflow from a heart that loves God. In 1 Timothy 2, one of the core passages that speaks of modesty says, “…women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty…” (v.9 ESV). Do you see how the word “modesty” is used here? It isn’t actually describing the clothing, but the attitude that should accompany the clothing. Some translations use the word “reverence,” and in Greek it also can be a word used to describe having an awe of God. This is where modesty starts. Every piece of clothing we choose to put on should come from a deliberate choice to honor the Lord — not as a choice stemming from either selfishness or self-righteousness.
Scripture doesn’t give a long list of “dos and don’ts” in regards to what we should or shouldn’t wear. It gives principles to follow, but most of the practicals are left to us. However, it does tell us that women who truly love God and obey Him will honor Him in their outward appearance. I’ve heard a common argument which claims that covering our bodies means that we are ashamed of them. This, however, is not the case according to Scripture. In fact, it’s the opposite! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the analogy of a human body in talking about the Church. He says, “and those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it” (v. 23-24). By covering certain parts of our body, we are actually honoring them! This is God’s heart behind modesty and why it is so important that we, as women, understand and embrace His design.
In God’s command for us to dress in an appropriate way, He is actually elevating our worth beyond our bodies, shifting the focus to our character. In a world that objectifies women’s bodies, following God’s way in how we present ourselves places value on the whole of who He created us to be. And when we embrace this, our eyes are also shifted off of ourselves and onto Jesus. It diminishes the distraction and self-consciousness that comes from trying to look like the world or how the world says our bodies should be, and frees us to be delighted in living for His glory in every aspect of our lives, including our clothing choices.
Does this mean we have to dress in frumpy, tasteless clothing? Absolutely not! The word “respectable” used in 1 Timothy 2:9 means well-arranged. Proverbs 31 says, in speaking of the virtuous woman, “Her clothing is fine linen and purple” (v. 22). God is the Creator of beauty, and he has created us to appreciate it too. So when a woman is wholly given to glorifying the Lord, His beauty is displayed in her both inwardly and outwardly. This doesn’t mean excessiveness, which can be a distraction to ourselves and to others. (See 1 Timothy 2:9.) Every piece of clothing or accessory we put on should be in alignment with the fact that we are women who “profess godliness” (1 Tim. 2:10).
The temptation to be accepted by or attractive to others can sneak its way into our minds and hearts in very subtle ways. That is why it is so important that we are continually looking to Jesus and finding our worth in Him. When we are secure and satisfied in our identity in Jesus, we will not crave attention or find our value in the opinions of others, which can never fully satisfy us anyway. When we walk in obedience to Jesus, keeping our eyes fixed upon Him, all else becomes “strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Here are some ways that each of us can grow in our understanding and obedience of God’s design for modesty.
Look to Him
If you are struggling with grasping God’s heart for modesty, there is no better place to start than by spending time sitting at His feet, learning from Him. If we look to the world or any other source that isn’t grounded in Scripture we will be easily confused, and even deceived, in our understanding of true modesty. Start by going to His Word. Study the passages that speak specifically to, or about, women — not just in their way of dressing, but also their character. Look at how godly and ungodly women are described. And as you study, ask Him for the wisdom He delights to give! (See James 1:5.)
Here are some passages to start with in your study: Proverbs 7:10-11; Proverbs 31:10-31; Titus 2:3-5; 1 Peter 3:4.
I would also encourage you to seek the advice of older women who are examples of godly character. They will be able to encourage you and offer wise counsel and perspective as you seek God’s heart in this area.
Examine Your Motives
One good way of knowing whether you are walking in obedience to the Lord in the way you choose to dress is by testing your motives. Ask yourself: Is my motive for wearing this out of love for God and others, or something else? Is it for any other reason than as an outflow of my desire to honor God and those around me? If so, then that’s a good indication that something needs to change. Sometimes that will mean a wardrobe as well as a heart change if you’ve been wearing things that draw inappropriate attention to yourself and cause others to stumble. Other times, it’s not the clothing that is the problem, but simply our hearts. Is there pride or self-righteousness behind the “respectable apparel” you’re wearing? That needs to be repented of. Ask the Lord to change your heart and to give you a greater love for Him and desire to walk in obedience in this area. Then dressing with modesty will not be a burden, but a joy.
One Sunday not long ago, my husband and I met a couple that was visiting our church. We invited them over for lunch at our house after the service, and when we asked them what had stood out to them during their visit, they both had the same surprising answer. They were most impacted by the modesty of the women — and that it was carried out in a tasteful and beautiful way. We were rather taken aback by their response to our question. Modesty isn’t something that is brought up on a regular basis in our church services or by our church leadership, and there are no practical rules in our church that dictate clothing styles. However, what is emphasized over and over again is that Jesus must be more important than anything, and that if we truly love Him, it will be displayed by our obedience in every aspect of our lives. It was a precious thing to hear that this visiting couple saw love for Christ displayed in joyful, beautiful modesty among the women of our church.
When our hearts are set on loving and obeying Jesus, obedience to Him will not be just a list of rules to follow because we “have to.” Rather, it will be our deepest joy and longing to lift Him high in every way, whether that be in our clothing choices or something else. May we be women who show this world that living for Jesus is the most glorious privilege we could ever have!