Modesty Misunderstood: What Men and Women Need to Know
“Modesty” must be one of the most abused words in the Christianese dialect.
The idea of modesty has been almost exclusively attached to women’s dress, narrowing in definition to mean “showing less skin and trying to prevent sexual arousal in those looking on.” It has veritably become a subculture in Christendom, spawning a cacophony of bestsellers, brands, seminars, and internet firestorms.
In 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul uses the word kosmios to describe how a woman should present herself, which is translated as “modest” or “respectable.” Kosmios is related to the word cosmos and connotes orderliness and propriety. Paul also uses the same word in 1 Timothy 3:2, which outlines the qualities men need to have to be overseers, and there it is translated as “respectable” (some versions say, “of good behavior”).
Clearly, modesty is not just a woman’s issue, and the Enemy of our souls would delight to see us reduce it to such. Consider how he’s expertly used our largely male-focused exhortations on lust to convince many women to fearfully hide their sin from the exposing light of confession, or to delude them into thinking their hungry, wandering eyes can’t be lust simply because they aren’t men.
Likewise, our stripped-down definition of the weighty and fearsome virtue of modesty gives our Enemy the opportunity to ply the same tired ploy against our brothers. Men have every bit of opportunity to be modest or immodest as their sisters, and that should be both a joy and a warning to them.
Offspring of Humility
Modesty is the offspring of humility. Humility is evaluating ourselves properly, with sober judgment (Romans 12:3). Modesty is behavior that flows out of remembering our true place of service, and does not conceitedly boast about the self, but boasts in God (Philippians 2:3–4; 2 Corinthians [10:17]). Modesty, or the lack thereof, reveals where we’ve placed our identity. Rich women in the ancient world arrogantly declared their high status, their value, their identity with expensive finery. How do we go about boasting in ourselves today?
We live in an identity-addicted society. We strive to put our tastes and acquisitions on display so that everyone knows who we are. We’re told to accentuate our best features, get what we want out of life, stand up for and express ourselves. Social media is often the megaphone we use to herald our personal identity and covertly brag about our smarts, body, sexuality, culture, politics, sports, relationships, family, insecurities, experiences, and possessions.
Modesty Like the Messiah
Conversely, Christians are called to make much of Christ, to make him our identity. Our manner and appearance should be so empty of self that others don’t have to make an effort to forget what we wore, or our particular hairstyle, or what stuff we possess.
It’s easy to see our immodesty when we contrast it with the human life of our Lord and Master. There was no fuss over his physical appearance (Isaiah 53:2). He laid down his life for those less important than him (John [10:11]). He was submissive as a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). And expressed only what his Father instructed (John [12:49]).