A Biblical Perspective on Modesty

In the wake of the recent Overwatch fiasco regarding one of the poses for Tracer, I’ve been contemplating the notion of modesty and how it is addressed in the Bible. As such I’d like to present what I think is a Biblical view on modesty and while it will not directly address the current matter of Tracer’s pose and Blizzard’s response, I hope it will paint a picture for how Christians ought to approach the subject in their own lives. My goal is not to address the issue of modesty directly with some arbitrary list of rules and regulations, but rather to provide a larger framework for placing the wellbeing of others ahead of our own rights on a voluntary, Spirit led basis. Thus the question is not whether others are restricting our freedom, but rather if the exercise of our freedom is creating a barrier between others and Christ.

The Church in Corinth

To begin, let’s look at an example from scripture that illustrates abusing freedom at the expense of other people in a completely different context. In his letter to the church in Corinth the apostle Paul was having to correct the motives of some of the church’s members when they were instructing other believers. Veteran Christians were wielding their knowledge of spiritual matters in a way that was burdensome and even abusive to newer followers of Jesus Christ. Their motive was not love, but rather pride. “This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 8:1b). His admonishment was in reference to the way the church was shaming new converts for still believing that meat sacrificed to idols held weight or meaning because, according to the more “learned” veterans, if there was no other God besides Yahweh, then naturally these sacrifices were meaningless and thus the meat untainted.

Paul’s answer to this situation is to point out that the Corinthians were using their knowledge in a foolish way; as a demonstration of their own “superior” understanding rather than for the edification of others. Instead, Paul prescribes this approach:

But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Paul illustrates a voluntary desire to surrender his own rights in Christ (to eat whatever he wishes) for the sake of the spiritual wellbeing of another follower of Christ. While he understands that “an idol has no real existence” he is less concerned about demonstrating that knowledge than he is mentoring a new follower of Jesus by meeting this man or woman at their current level of understanding and walking with them as they grasp more fully the freedom they have in Christ. This is not the establishment of a specific rule to be followed but rather a conscientious decision to forego his own freedom in Christ out of love for another person.

College Romance

Rather than jumping straight into an example of why I think modest attire is an expression of this principle, I’d like to illustrate what Paul is teaching with two examples from my own life during my college years; one positive and the other negative. The first involves an overt and disproportionate romantic gesture on my part toward a woman I was interested in dating. I say “disproportionate” because while I was interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with an acquaintance, my gesture gave her the impression that I was far more committed to our involvement than I actually was prepared to be. As a result, she tried to move things along more quickly and I bailed out of the relationship all together.

Unfortunately my motives with that “immodest” act (emotionally speaking) were selfish; I was more interested in how she and our mutual friends would perceive me over such a grand gesture rather than considering what message I would be sending to her about how serious I was about the relationship. I didn’t recognize this at the time but in hindsight I see that my motives were self-centered. To make matters worse, I didn’t fess up and explain where I was at in the relationship but instead pulled away all together and ruined a perfectly good friendship.

Later in my college career my roommate and I ran into a couple of freshman women at a hangout on campus who we recognized as being new to the art department. What began as a few games of ping pong turned into an evening of introducing them to the art student’s life on campus—hanging out in the art department after hours, going to the local donut dive, etc. What I failed to recognize right away was that one of them was taking a liking to me. However when I mentioned an interest in my then-friend-now-wife while we were all talking as a group, thus revealing my affections for another woman, I saw a visible shift in her countenance.

Around that same time a Christian professor of mine had offered me the novel advice of “being honest” with women and actually used a very similar example as his illustration. He suggested that rather than dancing around one another with this “does she like me, does she not” cloak and dagger nonsense men and women should be upfront with one another. I took his advice and brought up the situation in private, acknowledging that I wasn’t entirely sure if I had read the situation correctly but that if so, I was sorry for any misleading on my part. At first she was cold toward me and denied my claims but about an hour later we ran into one another once more and she confessed that yes, she had taken a liking to me and was disappointed that I was unavailable. She was grateful though that I had cleared the air and it paved the way for our friendship to continue.

Voluntary Expressions of Love

While neither of these illustrations have to do with modesty as we generally think of it, they are examples from my own life of when I made decisions based on either my own satisfaction and pride or on the wellbeing of another person and our relationship as a whole. For the Christ follower, that is to be the spiritual foundation of all our choices—to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Mathew 22: 40).

This doesn’t mean a Christian will never offend another individual; I’m sure the men and women of the church at Corinth were quite offended when Paul called them out on their arrogance. What it means is that a Christ follower will voluntarily remove every unnecessary offense out of love for another person and will only risk offense when doing so is also rooted in love. And this love must be defined by who God is and what he has revealed about love in the Bible, not by any relativistic human standards. After all, God is love.

What does this all have to do with modesty? Well, for starters, both Christian men and women ought to consider their actions, words, and yes, even how they dress, with regard to the affect these things may have on others. In my experience, men and women use provocative attire, body language, and communication for the sake of manipulating the opposite sex or for inflating their own egos (myself included). In Christ there is great freedom—we are not constrained by laws that demand we dress a certain way or wear our hair in certain styles—and yet we ought not to use that freedom callously or even worse, for deceitful gain.

There’s one other question to be answered here though, and that is what determines “modest” and “immodest,” especially with regard to clothing and body language. The problem here is that modesty has more to do with cultural norms than a specific line drawn in the sand however that only serves to enforce the idea that this is not about law, but love. I’m not arguing modesty as a rule, but rather as a gesture of respect and compassion which first requires an understanding of what makes others uncomfortable which will vary from culture to culture.

Take for example a friend of mine who lived in an Islamic nation for several years. He was invited to the Muslim equivalent of a westerner’s bachelor party, where women were brought in to dance with elbows and ankles exposed as well as having their hair worn down. It may not seem like much if you’re from the west, but to those men it was the equivalent of going to a show in Las Vegas. My friend, wanting to express exactly what I’ve been describing in this post, excused himself on the basis that he was a married man who would not watch other women dancing in that way.

Now, growing up in the west, he did not view any of this as provocative or immodest in the slightest. But out of a love for his friends and a desire to share with them his commitment to Christ he based his choice not on the freedom he has in Christ to innocently view a woman’s elbow, but on a culturally relevant expression of faithfulness to his wife and a respect for women in general. Ultimately this one act became pivotal in changing how this Muslim community viewed the west in general and Christians in particular, an opportunity very few in their region ever have.

Personally, I don’t want to see overly sexualized men or women in the videogames I play, and there are some I’ve avoided all together because it gets to the point of being uncomfortable for me. But I don’t expect businesses to do anything other than what is in their best interests financially, and arguing whether Blizzard was right or wrong isn’t my concern. However I do have a desire for Christian men and women to consider their actions and attire and how these things not only affect other people, but how they reflect the nature of Jesus Christ. Following Christ is a path full of freedom, but that freedom must be used or surrendered voluntarily as a gesture of genuine love for God and other people.

Answered Prayer: Work and the Neighbors

Once again I’d like to share a few of the prayers I’ve seen answered in my life over the past few weeks. In case you missed the initial write up, back in February I wrote about prayer becoming a focal point in my life and what exactly that means for me. I’ve certainly continued to pray regularly and far more often than I use to but it has changed a little during that time. For one, I’ve been using my prayer schedule less and praying more spontaneously throughout the day every day. It’s a result of feeling more confident in approaching the Lord despite not always feeling “worthy” because my confidence is in Christ. And it’s also because I am more mindful of my need for God in all things. However I would like to get back to using my list as well because otherwise I do tend to forget some needs and individuals I would like to be praying for. Regardless of how or when I pray, I am seeing God answer my prayers and it has been remarkably faith building.

Finding Favor in a Difficult Work Situation

A few weeks ago my boss visited one of the stores that I oversee as a regional manager. Her first reaction was not a positive one and as would be expected, I was concerned. I thought things had been going well at that location ever since it became a part of my region and it was really discouraging to be told otherwise. However her visit was not completely over yet and so while on the way home from another one of my stores I began to pray, “God help me to see what I was missing or help my boss to see things differently.”

In the end, I received both answers to that prayer. Shortly after I prayed and once her visit had concluded I was able to talk with my boss over the phone. Her response was very different from the first one I received, far more positive and encouraging. Most notably, she had taken the time to look at things more closely and to realize that a) some of the problems I was facing at that location were quite difficult to solve, so much so that even she after going over options for a half hour came to no viable solutions and b) there was actually a lot going well with that store and employee.

This past week I was able to visit that location myself and execute some of the plans my boss had made as well as problem solve quite a few new ones that had come up. It was a long week and physically exhausting work to get everything in order, but along the way I prayed daily for wisdom and each day that prayer was answered. When I left I was really happy about the solutions we had come up with, including those areas my boss had struggled to resolve. Employees from another department commented on the vast improvements as well, nothing that the store looked better than it had since it was opened. In the end I found both the understanding I had hoped for from my boss as well as an opportunity to get better at my job.

A Change of Plans

My daughter is going to be in an Easter play at our church next week on Palm Sunday. She loves acting and has been really excited about this play, even going so far as to running rehearsals with one of the neighbor girls who’s in the play as well. Unfortunately, I had assumed the play would be on Easter Sunday and did not realize there would be a conflict with my work schedule until a week ago. I had a flight at 7am that Sunday and I was going to miss the play. When I emailed the woman in charge, her response was that I could contact the airlines myself to make the change and that I would have to pay a $200 fee. I was discouraged and did not know what to do so I began to pray.

The next morning on my way to work I continued to pray. I thought maybe a voucher I had with the airlines might work as one possible solution. Another thought I had was to simply pay the fee and trust in the Lord to provide the finances. Two hundred dollars is a lot of money for us, but to God it is nothing and if he was giving me an opportunity to show my daughter just how much I loved her then I was going to take it. Two minutes after I concluded my prayer I received a text from the same woman who had told me the night before it was up to me to make the change. She was contacting me so that I could pick from two later flights that would allow me to make my daughter’s show. Not only had she done the work of finding a different flight for me, but she ended up paying the fee as well. It was completely unexpected but I am so grateful that now I get to see my daughter’s play.

Bringing the Neighborhood

I’ve been praying for the kids in our neighborhood a lot lately, especially a boy and a girl next door who’ve had a difficult home life this past year. The two kids and their dad live with his parents, our neighbors, and the mother is pretty much out of the picture. Specifically I was praying that they would start coming to church with us. Eventually they did but before that happened, one of the other neighbor kids spent the night with my daughter and went to church with my wife and kids the next day (I was out of town). When the neighbor girl and Sophie were talking about it later that week the two that I had been praying for overhead and wanted to go as well. My wife told me this on Saturday that week when I got home which is when I shared with her my prayers.

The next morning we received a call from the grandparents wondering about church that morning for their grandkids. Even though my wife hadn’t actually invited them, the kids had wanted to go so badly they told their family that we had. Knowing that this was an answer to what I had been praying for (and probably noting the grin on my face while she was on the phone) my wife officially extended the invitation. They’ve come with us for two Sunday now along with the other neighbor girl and I hope they will all continue to come every Sunday.

Sick Rats and Dog Bites (Cont.)

Remember the older man I met a couple of weeks ago, the one whose dog bit my son? I ended up inviting him to church that following Sunday after we had a brief conversation about God in the emergency room lobby. That Saturday I gave him a call to give him the address and the time when the service would start and he still seemed genuinely interested in coming along with his wife. Sunday morning came and the time I told him to arrive past and still I did not see them. Ten minutes later the service began and my wife and I took our seats (along with half our neighborhood…) I kept looking to the back, praying they would come and despite the late time was still anticipating their arrival. Sure enough they showed up, and the smile on my son’s face made me so happy. He understood that even though something scary had happened to him, God had used it for good.

Embracing Diversity with Love

For a couple of months now I’ve taken over the responsibility of teaching my kids history (they are homeschooled) and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to spend meaningful time with them. We’ve been working our way through the middle ages including the rise of Islam and just this week reached the crusades. In so doing I’m just now realizing what an important point in history this is because it closely parallels the modern day relationship between westerners and Muslims. As a Christian father it’s important to me that my children learn the importance of being able to love those you fundamentally disagree with on core beliefs and studying the crusades provides opportunity for this.

Coincidentally, we watched the movie Zootopia before we got into our school work this weekend. In fact, my plan had been to get all our work done first then go to the movie but I’m glad it ended up being the reverse because the movie proved to be an excellent illustration of what was happening during the crusades as well as today. In the film, animals live together in a large metropolis where there is relative peace among the species but still an obvious class discrepancy between the “predators” and the “prey.” Sure, they aren’t the hunter and hunted anymore but there’s obvious prejudice going on.

(Spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned!) Central to the plot is the sudden and inexplicable reversion of predators to their natural state of instinctual violence. As the story progresses it’s revealed that an unknown individual is causing the reversion in order to create fear between the two groups of animals and reverse the class structure. Now, the plot does not parallel the relationship between westerners and Muslims perfectly, but it does illustrate the point that fear and misunderstanding can lead to violence between different people groups.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” Matthew 5:43-38.

If Christ has asked that his followers love their enemies and pray for those who mistreat them, how much more ought they to love those who simply hold to a different world view and set of traditions? Despite the past and present history of violence between western and Muslim peoples, the greatest threat to peace among these diverse groups is the fear and misinformation between the two. For anyone interested in a tangible example of this, I would strongly urge you to listen to the second season of Serial which illustrates both the legitimate aggression between both sides as well as the fear and hatred that have undercut attempts at diplomacy.

These larger, world events matter because they color the way we think about people. If the primary story you and I have heard about Muslims involves acts of terror, then we will be afraid. If you are living in a Muslim nation and the only story you have heard about westerners is of their terrifying displays of immorality (some all too real, others only perceived) and their invasion of your homeland or that of a neighboring Islamic nation, then you too will be afraid for your safety and way of life. And in the midst of all of this the church is called to love and pray for both the violent minority and the peaceful majority of Muslims.

The crusades and many reactions within the church today toward Muslim people illustrate a wide scale failure to do exactly that. And while the United States may have a policy of separating church and state, to the average Muslim in the Middle East that concept is lost, and it is both Christianity and western civilization that is threatening their way of life. For most churches and individual Christians in the United States there’s not a lot that can be done to correct the beliefs of an entire nation, but there is opportunity to pray for and love Muslims in the States without fear or mistrust. That’s the worldview I want my children to have, I want them to embrace their Muslim neighbors in love.

However there is more to loving one’s neighbor than simply being kind; more to following the teachings of Jesus than praying for those whose beliefs may be so radically different from the Christian worldview that they would persecute his people. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” John 14: 6, 7. Jesus made it very clear that who he was and who the Father (God) was, was the same person. If you want to know the character of God, observe the character of Jesus in the New Testament. Any conflicting views about God are inherently false, and passively watching another individual or people group believe in a destructive lie is not love.

This is where Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes unpopular, because while Jesus loved and teaches love of all peoples, he also draws a hard line between what is true and what is false. His very existence gives a definitive name to God, his life a concrete illustration of God’s nature, truth, and will. Perhaps it’s putting the cart before the horse to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the only way to be reconciled to God without explaining the difference between his teachings and that of Muhammad, but know that they are different and it does matter. And loving those outside the church means clarifying this point, with gentleness and understanding.

Jesus had some of his own disciples walk away from his ministry over the matter of his life and death being the only means of reconciliation with God. After this may of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?” John 6:66, 67. The response of Simon Peter is similar to my own, and one I hope my children will claim as their own as well, not because they heard it from their dad, but because they have experienced the truthfulness of the claim themselves. “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’” John 6:68, 69.

My prayer for my kids and for myself is twofold, that we would cultivate within ourselves by the grace of God and through the power of his Spirit a sincere love and kindness towards all people of different worldviews than our own, especially those of the Muslim community, and that we would love people enough to be gentle and firm in our speech about the love of Christ and the power of his resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and peace with God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” Ephesians 2:8, 9.