Imagine this conversation . . .
Eve! You’re naked!” Adam said harshly, as if she hadn’t noticed it herself.
“Adam, don’t pretend as though you’re not naked,” Eve replied offensively.
“Here, grab this fig leaf and stitch it with . . . ” His voice trailed off while he looked around. “ . . . this other fig leaf.”
The first man and the first woman hid in their classy fig-leaf attire—the latest fashion in the Garden of Eden.
It wasn’t long before they heard a familiar voice in the garden. “Where are you?” the voice asked.
“Did you hear that?” Adam whispered to Eve.
“Shh! He might hear us,” Eve commanded, still trying to stitch her leaves.
Finally Adam got the courage to speak up. “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3:10).
The familiar voice belonged to their Creator: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (verse 11).
Adam blames Eve, and she blames the serpent.
God curses the serpent, the woman, and Adam. But God is not done speaking. Jehovah-jireh—God our provider—makes clothes for Adam and his wife. And so it is that in Genesis 3 we learn about the first time humanity tries to solve a problem by fixing the symptoms and not the cause. Their problem, sin; their symptom, their shameful nakedness; their solution, fig leaves. God is well aware that they are hopeless without Him, so He does what God does best: He provides for them even when they don’t know what they need.
Modesty is about more than just clothes.
When people discuss modesty, they tend to place the emphasis on women’s clothes. They delve no further. The conversation can usually be summarized in a statement such as “If women dressed appropriately, men wouldn’t lust over them”-—as if men’s sin is someone else’s fault. This type of notion is both unwisely narrow and fraught with error. How modest or immodest a woman’s clothing is can definitely be an issue but isn’t the only place where a problem exists. It’s also not the only place modesty concerns pop up.
The clothes that we wear are important aspects of modesty. Christians should be good stewards of their appearance, but clothes are not the only component, and they certainly are not the root of the problem. What a person looks like on the outside reflects who they are on the inside.
If you were to see a woman with a white coat and a stethoscope around her neck, you probably wouldn’t think she is a teacher. It would be safe to assume that the woman is a doctor or that she works in the medical field. What if she showed up at your first appointment wearing a faded T-shirt, workout pants, a baseball cap, and flip-flops? Would that make you feel as though she was the person you wanted to talk to about your allergic reaction to penicillin? Probably not.
Of course, the mere fact that she is dressed as a doctor doesn’t mean that you’d let her do surgery on you. You would make sure that she is a board-certified surgeon who has a good reputation at the hospital.
A doctor doesn’t wear a white coat to be a doctor; they do it because they are a doctor. A Christian doesn’t do things to be a Christian; they do it because they are a Christian. Paul’s message in Romans 14, while not about modesty per se, is about being a Christian, head to toe, in thought and action—and doing things for the sake of others. “Modesty,” as Peter Chin writes,“is not a rejection of the beauty of body, nor is it a judgment on the moral weakness of others—it is the loving prerogative of the strong. . . . Modesty is best understood not as a compulsory act motivated by hate or blame, but a conscious decision based on strength and love.”
In her presentation “The Evolution of the Swimsuit,” Jessica Rey, a woman who started her own swimsuit line to provide women with modest swimwear, comments on a study that showed how most men think of women as objects when they see them meagerly dressed.2 If a woman really wants to be “in control,” she should pick something to wear that will make men react in an appropriate way. In the context of clothes, according to Rey, for a woman to get her “power back” means being intelligent about her wardrobe.
In reference to Rey’s presentation, Christianity Today’s article “Don’t Blame the Bikini, Blame the Bikini Culture”3 emphasizes the need for men to view women as people, not objects—and certainly not as sexual objects. Men and women were designed to reflect the image of God (see Gen. 1:26). It was never God’s intention for women to be placed in a lower or lesser status. Ellen G. White puts it this way: “Eve was created from a rib taken from the side of Adam, signifying that she was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal, to be loved and protected by him.”4
That ideal, of being equals who love and protect each other, goes hand-in-hand with modesty. Modesty is an attitude of letting go of pride, being other-centered, loving and protecting—putting God and our neighbors before personal display—and acting in a way that does not draw inappropriate attention. It is not just about the clothes we wear—male or female. Modesty is about allowing God’s character to shine through our own.
As the apostle Paul puts it: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Modesty does not need to make anybody feel repressed or be boring—an argument I’ve heard plenty of times.Modesty begins with understanding and accepting God’s love for us and, in response, showing our love for God and our desire to give Him all the glory.
In his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul points out that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). His words about spiritual righteousness and redemption very much apply to modesty. For true modesty is grounded in a person’s relationship with Jesus; and it comes as a result of one’s spiritual journey. Christians’ physical and spiritual lives are synchronized—Christians don’t live them separately. Christians think of earth in terms of heaven. And men and women need course correction when it comes to modesty.
What if Patricia, for example, were to say, “I love God with all my heart. My relationship with Him is between Him and me. Why can’t I just wear whatever I like?”
Albert Smith,5 who is 26 years old, responds to such a remark by saying, “Men are much more visual than women realize. The first thing I notice about a girl is what she looks like. . . . Cleavage can either motivate me to talk to a girl or intimidate me. I may think she’s too good for me physically. Once I see it, I check out the rest of the girl.”
What Albert says is probably what most men think but would reluctantly admit, or would altogether keep to themselves. “Men—especially conservative Adventist men—won’t admit the things I’ve said because they don’t want to appear as though they are objectifying women,” says Albert.
He continues: “Why would you do something to attract attention and then expect people to ignore it? [A girl’s] makeup and clothing can do the same thing. It is wishful thinking to believe that men can avoid looking at cleavage.”
Patricia’s ideology has its roots in feminism: women should wear whatever they like because
men and women are equal. It is true that women are entitled to make their own choices. The problem is that some women forget that dressing immodestly is enabling men to have wandering thoughts.
Albert’s remarks may sound shallow; but most people will first evaluate
each other by their looks, not their personality.
Women can be a stumbling block for men. In “wearing whatever we want” we might be enabling them to sin. The apostle Paul warns us to “be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9).
Ellen White offers a specific statement that embraces the same principle and highlights the need for behavioral modesty:
“I write with a distressed heart that the women in this age, both married and unmarried, too frequently do not maintain the reserve that is necessary. They act like coquettes. They encourage the attentions of single and married men, and those who are weak in moral power will be ensnared. These things, if allowed, deaden the moral senses and blind the mind so that crime does not appear sinful. Thoughts are awakened that would not have been if woman had kept her place in all modesty and sobriety. She may have had no unlawful purpose or motive herself, but she has given encouragement to men who are tempted, and who need all the help they can get from those associated with them. By being circumspect, reserved, taking no liberties, receiving no unwarrantable attentions, but preserving a high moral tone and becoming dignity, much evil might be avoided.”6
Comments regarding modesty often suggest that women have to hide themselves in order to be modest. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a woman; the essence of a woman is not found in covering herself from head to toe. Modesty isn’t about what percentage of a woman’s skin is showing. As mentioned before, it’s a matter of letting her inner beauty—God’s character in her—define what she looks like.
If our Creator did not value beauty, He wouldn’t have made a variety of flowers. If God did not treasure creativity, He would not have made butterflies with different designs. Physical beauty is important, but beauty that lasts is found in a close relationship with Christ, the Master Designer—and the one who wants to re-create His children into His image.
In our sinful world we sometimes misinterpret beauty. One of the purest ways of expressing beauty is through a Christlike character. Proverbs 31:10-31 describes a woman of “noble character.” Among other things, this woman is hardworking, trustworthy, selfless, and vigorous. Verse 25 says that “she is clothed with strength and dignity.” All of these qualities are a result of the character that defines her looks.
Immodesty can come from a lack of humility. Pride, boastfulness, flamboyancy can creep into men—and women—who fail to understand that modesty is about appropriateness. In fact, the Greek translation of modesty (kosmios, derived from kosmos, which is the universe) signifies orderliness, properness, self-control. Men can be immodest when they are not humble—about themselves, their qualities, and their accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with being proficient, but when a man constantly talks about his awards, how much money he makes, or the expensive car that he just bought, he is not being modest. The same goes for a woman who does this. A flaunting attitude is not a modest one.
Immodest men who know they are good-looking will exhibit a cocky attitude. In so doing, they can be encouraging an escalation of bad behaviors, or lead some women into thinking that they are interested in pursuing a relationship with them.
Scripture seems to highlight lust as a male problem. It is certainly not only men’s problem, but several verses in Scripture point out that men are more prone to having intense sexual feelings toward a woman by just looking at her than vice versa (see Ex. 20:17; Matt. 5:28; Prov. 5:15-20; 6:27-32). Notice that these verses do not blame women for men’s sin—men should take ownership of their thoughts.
Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, and especially Matthew 5 emphasize the fact that coveting begins in the heart. In ancient times “most codes went no further than the deed, and a few took speech into account, but none proposed to regulate the thoughts.”7 It comes as no surprise that the wisest man who ever lived says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it”(Prov. 4:23).
An example: If James notices that his friend John has bought a new car and thinks, Wow! That’s a nice car. He finally got the car of his dreams! Good for him! That wouldn’t be a sin. But if James thinks, Wow! John got the 2014 BMW 3 Series 328i xDrive AWD that I want! I can’t believe I’m still driving this old thing, James is already coveting his neighbor’s car.
If a man notices a beautiful woman, he is not sinning; coveting her is a sin.
It is apparent that modesty isn’t just about clothing, but it does seem to be the major area in which we Christians can falter. Thus, Policy 103.1 of the Seventh-day Adventist Modesty Handbook: “A woman’s skirt should fall at least four inches below her knees. Long sleeves are prefered, three-quarter length are acceptable during the summer. When in public, ankles should be covered at all times regardless of the season . . . ”
If there were such a thing as a Modesty Handbook, it might make things simpler; using it would be an easy way to measure everyone with the same standard. But anyone who has ever gone shopping with a woman—young or old—knows that women’s proportions make it difficult even to say what size of clothes they wear. More important, God made us different one from another. He made each of us special and with the ability to make our own decisions. He wants us to make our own choices.
How can Christian women be accepted by society, not thought of as old-fashioned, and be modest at the same time? The issue can be resolved if a woman answers these five questions:
And what if men follow similar advice in regard to what they wear—apparel or accoutrements?
When Jesus comes to take the redeemed home, He will stand at the gate of the city “with outstretched arms to receive the father of our race—the being whom He created, who sinned against his Maker, and for whose sin the marks of the crucifixion are borne upon the Savior’s form.” Adam will recognize Jesus and fall at His feet. He will not run and hide to wear fig leaves; He will be dressed in Christ’s righteousness alone.8 In order to wear Christ’s righteousness in heaven, the church needs to wear it here on earth. In the Garden of Eden our Provider gave Adam and Eve appropriate clothing and promised a solution to humanity’s biggest problem—sin. He is still offering us that today. We can find salvation, modesty, and a Christlike character only in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jehovah-jireh is looking for us, calling our name. Are we going to run and hide, or are we going to embrace Him and accept His gift?