Last month The Book Club at Desiring Virtue read Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel by Tim Challies and R.W. Glenn. Toward the end of the month I asked you, the readers of Desiring Virtue, to share your questions on modesty (either from the book or on the topic of modesty in general). I sent five of these questions off to Tim who was kind enough to reply to each of them.
I would like to thank everyone who submitted questions (you made it really hard to choose just five!) and also of course thank Tim for taking the time out of his busy schedule to address Desiring Virtue’s readers. So, without further ado, here are your questions and Tim Challies’ answers…
Q: I really liked how, in the book Modest, you discussed modesty as a heart issue, rather than simply giving a list of dos and don’ts. I could tell from the tone of the book that you were trying very hard to avoid making legalistic statements, but I was left wondering–how would you describe a modest heart? -Amy
A: Thanks for the kind words, Amy. It has been interesting to me that one of the most common critiques of the book is that we did not provide that tear-out list of do’s and don’ts that could be taped to the mirror or stuck to the fridge. Somewhere in all of us is the lazy legalist that really just wants to cut to the chase and deal with rules.
The heart of modesty is being known for those characteristics that are distinctly related to Christian character and, in that way, modesty allows us all to draw other people’s hearts and minds to the Lord. Therefore the modest heart is the heart that longs for this very thing. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being known or noticed, provided that the things you are known and noticed for are things that are God-exalting. A modest heart will long to be known for these traits and, in that way, it will bring glory to God.
Q: As I was thinking about modesty in areas other than the way we dress, I began thinking about how modesty fleshes itself out in the local church. So, my question is: How can women show modesty in the way they serve? For instance how do we modestly lead a Bible study, sing a song in service, or organize a baby shower, etc? -Katie D.
A: Perhaps it is easiest to turn the question around and to ask whether there are ways that immodesty can be displayed in service, whether through leading a Bible study, through participating in leading worship or through organizing a baby shower. I think it is clear that this is possible.
The immodest Bible study leader may want to reveal the depth of her knowledge and make that a priority in place of being loving toward those who know less. The immodest worship leader may want to be seen for what she is wearing (or not wearing!) or for the freedom she feels in worship, even in a church where most people are reserved. The immodest baby shower planner may want to invite people to her home so they can see her wealth or see her tasteful decorating. In each of these three cases, modesty would have served others by directing attention away from self and toward the Lord. If the heart is the heart of the issue (and isn’t it always?), then immodesty can rear its ugly head in any situation.
Q: In the book Modest, you make the point that context greatly influences the amount of clothing a modest woman wears (i.e. a swimsuit may be modest at the beach, but wouldn’t be modest at a church service) and also differentiated between the virtues of modesty and chastity. This seems like a difficult line to draw at times. For instance: At one point you said that a g-string bathing suit would definitely be crossing the line (in terms of chastity) because it causes most men to be sexually aroused, but couldn’t this be true of a one-piece swimsuit as well? Is there any way we can make decisions about swimwear without being arbitrary, since some men might be aroused by even a comparatively modest one-piece?” -Emily
A: It is when we come to measuring by inches that we encounter the most difficulty and that we tend to construct a list of rules to guard us. “You can wear a one-piece but not a two-piece. The bottom of the skirt needs to come to at least this point.” We can all agree that wearing a burlap sack at the beach would head off all cries of immodest dress. We can all agree that wearing nothing at all would create unanimous cries of immodest dress. So we are left somewhere between the two, wondering just how much burlap we can remove before we have crossed the line. Undeniably, that line will vary significantly from culture-to-culture. In one culture exposing an ankle is shocking and immodest and in others it would not even register. I remember as a teen reading a lascivious description of a man studying a woman’s ankles and finding there an opportunity to lust. But surely we cannot cede to every person’s lust.
The fact is, the Bible simply does not give us the rigid guidelines to the way we dress in every situation. God, in his wisdom, has allowed us to decide these things on our own. When it comes to decisions related to dress, we need to keep an eye on cultural norms and we also need to keep an eye on conscience. As we dress, we know there are certain broad guidelines that represent what is definitely forbidden. But within those guidelines God gives us freedom. However, this is not freedom to flaunt our liberty before others, but freedom to serve one another.
Q: What is our responsibility when fellowshipping with other believers who love the Lord, and have not divorced the modesty issue from the Gospel, but may have appropriated a standard for themselves, their immediate family, community that is strict and potentially legalistic-appearing? -Ruth
A: Romans 14 is a powerful passage that addresses Christian freedom. It warns us that when it comes to disputable issues like modest dress, there will always be two camps and that each of them will face specific temptations. Paul distinguishes between two types of Christians, the strong and the weak. In this passage he tells them how they are to not only tolerate one another but how they are to love and accept one another. Weak and strong do not indicate good Christians and bad Christians, but Christians who have not yet worked out all of the implications of the gospel and those who have worked out the implications to a greater extent.
Paul warns that the temptation of the strong will be to despise the weak Christian while the particular temptation of the weak will be to condemn the strong. The strong is prone to see the weak as being ensnared by legalism or immaturity and may grow impatient with him. This will lead to outright hatred and even mockery as he despises his brother and looks down on him. The weak will see the strong as going far beyond what the Lord allows and will condemn him for lawless behavior. He will be prone to wonder, “Can he even be a Christian when he behaves like that?” In the end, each will run away from the other, destroying the unity that ought to exist between Christians, and especially Christians in the same local church.
If you find yourself in the stronger camp here, feeling greater freedom, you will need to guard yourself against despising and mocking your weaker brother and sister. The Lord would call you to love those people all the more, despite what appears to be (and what actually may be) legalism. Every man (and woman) must stand before the Lord.
Q: My husband and I don’t have children yet, but, I have often wondered how I would protect my children in such a highly sexualized culture. What advice would the you give in regards to raising young boys and girls in this culture? How do you train young children to think about these things early in life and explain modesty to them in a way that makes sense to them? For instance, how do you protect and train a little boy who is not necessarily tempted to sin by seeing a scantily clad cheerleader on television or a Victoria’s Secret window display in the mall? -Katie G.
A: There was a time when there was a scarcity of erotic and near-naked images. Those who wanted to see such things had to invest a lot of effort in finding them. Today we have to put far more effort into avoiding them. There is no doubt that this is a time of excessive immodesty.
At this point my oldest child is thirteen and my oldest daughter is just ten, so I cannot speak to your question with a lot of authority. However, Aileen and I have asked godly older couples to guide us here and there are a few things we have learned.
We want our girls to be aware of the danger of immodesty but not in such a way that they regard their bodies as the problem. We want them to be confident in who they are (which is to say, in who the Lord has made them to be) and not to somehow believe that their bodies are a curse or a shame. We want them to be modest in their dress and yet, when they are married some day, to feel free freedom before their husbands. So as we discuss issues related to modesty, we want to be sure to express that their bodies are not the issue, but rather, their hearts and the hearts of other people. We want them to know that modesty is, essentially (to borrow C.J. Mahaney’s phrase) humility expressed in dress. Already my ten-year-old is aware of the power of what she wears and already we see her trying to dress in clothes that are cute but also modest. Of course the teenage years and all of their pressures still await us.
As for my son, I have been speaking to him for several years now about the reality that he will see many images in his life that he really has no right to see. I regard even pornography as a matter of “when” more than “if” (though certainly I pray that he will never encounter it). My desire for him is to help him treasure character instead of being distracted by what is outside. But again, he is only just thirteen years old and the most difficult years are still ahead.