Modesty, Part 3: Every Parent and Church Leader’s Battle
Today I wrap up my series on modesty. My first post was a brief introduction to what I’ve observed as at least a version of what I have seen as a pretty common stance taken by churches over the last couple decades (my time in ministry). The very unintended, but very real consequences of that hyper-modesty movement have been 1) to alleviate men of their own guilt and responsibility in allowing themselves to objectify and lust after women and 2) to heap guilt and shame on women for “causing” men to do so. The second post in the series outline what has become a pretty common reaction against hyper-modesty. This camp has (rightfully) decried the negative effects that recent modesty-speak has had on young women in particular; has (rightfully) advocated for church leaders and parents to honor and build up young women in their created beauty; and has suggested that men are the sole carriers of their own guilt and sin around lust and sex.
I will take a shot at a better way forward here. I promise that it will be imperfect, but I think the conversation is absolutely crucial. Neither will it be exhaustive. For one, I would like people to read the whole thing. I also have more thinking to do on the subject myself, so I’ll put the things I’m most OK with here, and we’ll all keep working toward a better conversation. As mentioned in those previous posts, I have a teenage son and daughter and I’ve worked with teens in church settings for nearly 20 years – I am thoroughly invested in doing this as well as possible. Here goes…
On the Bible and Modesty and My Daughter
As outlined in the first post of the series, the Bible is not talking about how much skin women should be showing when it refers to modesty in places like 1 Timothy 2:9-10. We should not pretend that it does. However, we should not be too quick to throw them away, either. Here’s the that text, just so we’re all on the same page:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
While this is not a passage about women impressing men with their bodies, it is a passage about women attempting to impress others with items exterior to themselves, rather than interior. Modesty is still a thing. It’s still a conversation to have with my daughters. This conversation centers on her inherent value, beauty and worth as God’s good creation. It drives at the value she adds to the world by living into who God created her to be, rather than the potential “stumbling block” she is to men. I want to help her understand that nothing of any real value comes from worrying about who she is impressing with anything outside of herself. Of course, she wants to dress in ways that catch people’s attention (at least at times), but I want her to see hear that voice in her head and be equipped to evaluate what’s behind it and decide whether whatever is there is a healthy and worth going in for.
But the modesty passages are only one stream of biblical input that I find crucial to this conversation. Another is loving our neighbor well.
While I will fight with ferocity against my daughter’s feeling guilt over her own body, I am still not convinced that she, nor I, nor any other Christian person can ever fully be excused from considering the effects of what we wear on others. Timothy was charged to teach the women of Ephesus that there are times and spaces where it is not appropriate to wear certain things because it will be distracting both to themselves and others. I think I’m obligated to have the same conversation with my daughter. She is not responsible for the eyes of young men, but she should care about the hearts of the young men she is around. She should thoughtfully consider whether 1) she is really dressing to impress, or even distract, them or 2) she knows that dressing a particular way in a given setting may, in fact, be a problem for other people.
I know, I know this is slippery ground – probably even more so when spoken of in generalities instead of specific moments in life. Stay with me though. When I go to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to see my friends who work with homeless teens there, those friends have told me that it is detrimental to wear “nice clothes” because the people we are interacting with see it as vanity flaunting wealth, causing them to immediately pull back from any relationship or interaction we may have. Loving my neighbor well in that environment means intentionally “dressing down”. Of course, I have the right to wear whatever clothes I want to, but I give up that right in order to build bridges with other people. In that environment, with those particular people, loving them means changing my wardrobe. The same conversation has to be on the table with my daughter. There may in fact be environments and populations which call for longer shorts. And, this is the rub…keeping the baby of neighbor-loving-clothing, while throwing out the your-body-is-a-stumbling-lock bathwater. It’s a tension. I guarantee we get it wrong on both sides at times. But, I don’t think we let go of it just because it’s difficult to hold.
Discussing modesty is about both protecting and training my daughter’s heart. The length of her skirt, width of her tank top straps, and every other decision she makes about her body and how she covers it are entirely secondary to why she wears them and how she understands herself as God’s creation and daughter.
On My Son and His Eyes and Women
Like I said in my first modesty post, I really do believe there is a space for behavior-modifying actions when it comes to the eyes of our sons. Neuroscience has shown us that when a man’s gaze lingers on an object of attraction for more than just a moment, chemicals are released and mental images are captured that can very easily catapult him down the slippery slope of lust. And that’s what I really want to get at with my son…lust.
Lust is the opposite of love.
Love appreciates and builds up. Lust uses and discards.
Love comes to know and value. Lust objectifies and dehumanizes.
Love seeks the flourishing of others. Lust seeks self-gratification at the expense of others.
Love honors the children of God. Lust treats them as something much less.
So, we’re back to loving our neighbor again.
I try to help my son train his eyes to bounce away from lust triggers, not because it’s bad behavior (which it is), but because it’s bad for his heart. It trains his heart to tear down love in the world. Instead, I want him to be the man who young women are comfortable around – even more, they feel good about themselves when they’re around him. I want him to think of ways to build young women up, not through empty flattery, but by acknowledging and naming their value as image-bearers half of the very pinnacle of God’s creative work in the world. I am committed to never speaking with him about avoiding lust without emphasizing his heart and his role in the flourishing of the young women in his life.
Rules Are Easy…
Rules are easy. You decide on them. You post/publish/announce them. They’re black and white. The problem with rules is that, by their nature, they encourage a kind of radicalization. You’re in or you’re out. You obey or rebel. And, in the hearts of teenagers in particular, they easily become battlefields and proving grounds. Of course, as a youth minister, summer camp board member, and father I fully realize that anarchy is no great solution either. Young people need some structure to thrive. But, part of the reason our dialogue on modesty is in such dire need of repair is that we thought it could be handled with a good solid list of rules. I’ve made them. I’ve sat through board and parent meetings trying to hone them. I still have them, though a lot fewer than I used to.
…But They Shouldn’t Be
I’m about to pull modesty train into the station, I promise. My final thought is this: Those of us who are wiser and more mature in our faith probably have to make rules for our children at times – even about clothing.
Whatever rules we land on should be held somewhat loosely and kept entirely secondary to helping our kids evaluate, tend to, and guard their hearts. Let’s be real…this is thoroughly exhausting. It’s nebulous. Sometimes there are tears and angry words. Sometimes we get the rules wrong or we don’t have the heart conversation right. But we try. We do not punt to either posted dress codes or the anarchy of how a 12-year-old feels at any given moment. We dig in and do the work of tending to the hearts of our sons and daughters. We teach them their own unspeakable value, as well as their call to work toward the flourishing of the people around them. When modesty became something we thought we could put on paper, we lost. When we reclaim modesty as a heart-centered, ongoing conversation with real people in real time, I think we have a chance.
What do you think?
I’m tired of talking about modesty now. Something else coming up next.