On lust, modesty and why we’re all called to the same thing really

I am loath to address anything of this order – particularly when it is tweeted by Owen Strachan – but here goes anyway. If you have been around Twitter, or you follow his podcast, you will have discovered he recently had this to say:

Now, what are we to make of this?

Let’s begin with where he is definitely right. Men are called to repent of their ungodly lusts. Indeed, he does the inverse of what many believe about him, and here lets women off the hook a bit easily. Far from putting upon women things that are not in the Bible, here he says men must ‘kill their lusts’ whilst not calling women – who are definitely included – to do the same. Every Christian, whatever their gender, is called to turn away from sinful lusts.

He is half right when he says women are called to modesty. However, in line with what many think about him, he lets the dudes off the hook here too. Blokes are called to be modest as well. Indeed, Peter gives instructions first to elders, then to younger folks in the church, and then to everyone says ‘Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility [or, modesty] toward one another’. Everyone in the church is called to be clothed modestly.

Where Strachan is wrong is in linking this modesty to sexual attractiveness. Almost every usage of the term modesty, as it pertains to clothing at all, is either linked to a general attitude of humility or to – as Peter alludes elsewhere – gold, jewels and finery. The issue of clothing, so far as it is in view at all, tends to relate to ornate and ostentatious clothing. The modesty to which believers are called is the kind of humility that would not lead them to wear expensive clothes for the sake of showing off. It is the kind of modesty and humility that is concerned more with character than, ironically, the particular clothes one might be wearing at all.

It bears saying, I am not even convinced Peter is saying ‘don’t wear nice clothes’. Rather, he seems to be saying that we should not be seeking to show off, but instead marked by an attitude of humility and modesty. Such as our specific clothing is in view, leggings seem a very odd example to land on given they are specifically not very expensive at all and – as far as I’m aware – are not really a form of clothing that many people are wowed by as being particularly opulent. Interestingly, are clearer example would be blokes in expensive suits and ladies wearing ostentatious ball gowns (or something). But again, I don’t think Peter is specifically suggesting it is a problem to wear nice things. Rather, he is saying that we ought not to be wearing things in order to show off (particularly our wealth and opulence) but should be characterised by a modesty that does not seek to make much of oneself.

But let’s return to the key point here. Both men and women are called to modesty and to put to death the lusts of the flesh. Which means that attempting to outlaw particular types of clothing is silly inasmuch as the issue is not to do with what one wears per se, but why one is wearing it. When men begin to dictate what women ought to wear, they are usually giving away that they have failed to address the lusts of the flesh that they rightly know ought to be put to death. They are shifting the blame for their own sin onto their sisters in Christ.

That doesn’t mean women (and also men) should not think about what they are wearing. But the issue is to do with why they are choosing to wear what they do. Is it designed to cause people to look at them and present a particular image of themselves, or generate particular reactions, rather than reflecting the modesty to which we are all called? And when we focus on that question – rather than biblically spurious lists of what is verboten – we will realise that two people could wear exactly the same thing, one doing so modestly and the other not. Two people may look on at the same two people, one thinking lustfully and the other not. The issue is not so much about the specific clothes, but what ultimately lies behind our own personal reasons for wearing them. Which means there is not an outward, objective measure of these things but is a matter of genuinely discerning our own hearts on the matter.

The problem with getting into lists of acceptable and unacceptable clothing – aside from missing the fundamental point – is that any man may lustfully look on a woman wearing anything. This is precisely what leads many of our Muslim friends to insist on burqas, niqabs and women praying in different rooms altogether so as not to distract the men. But for a people who are imbued with the very Spirit of God dwelling in them, these things should not be such an issue. Our thoughts out to be increasingly conforming to those of Christ. It is possible for us not to dwell on the lustful thoughts and inclinations that Jesus tells us to put to death.

Similarly, it puts an unbearable and intolerable burden on our Christian sisters. They must spend their lives second-guessing what any Christian brother might think – an impossible task by any measure. Worse, it forces them to think about something they cannot possibly know (how will every Christian brother respond in their thought life to this item of clothing) to the detriment of what the bible actually calls them to do. They, like the blokes, are to be modest. But this very emphasis on appropriate clothing – specifically centred around a pornified male view of women’s bodies – makes it virtually impossible for them to think less of themselves and their own motivations for so choosing whatever they do, and instead forces them to focus on how other people might perceive them, makes the male gaze the measure of modesty and forces them into a self-reflection that borders on the narcissistic. The very opposite of what women (and men) are called to do. And this is not their fault, but the culture many have created for them by insisting that ‘modesty’ is fundamentally about avoiding sexual perversion.

We would do well to recognise that we are all called to modesty and we are all called to put to death the lusts of the flesh. Men will have lustful thoughts they shouldn’t and so will women. Both need to kill those. And it bears saying those lusts of the flesh are not exclusively sexual, but cover all manner of sinful thoughts and inclinations. We can lust after all sorts of things. Likewise, modesty is not fundamentally about clothing, but humility. It is about not seeking to show off and make much of ourselves. Both men and women are called to this. One of the applications the Bible makes for this kind of immodesty is about ostentatious and expensive clothing. But the principle is clearly about showing off and making much of ourselves. Whilst that rightly does include male and female clothing, it extends well beyond these things too. All of us need to think about these things, but they are not determined by the gaze of others. Each of us is responsible for our own sinful thoughts and inclinations; we are not responsible for the sinful thoughts and actions of those who may be looking on. It is, after all, before our own master we stand or fall.