Modesty, Lust, & My Responsibility
This piece was originally published with Prodigal Magazine.
I grew up in a conservative home, in a conservative church, and in conservative social circles. And hear me correctly, being conservative isn’t the problem. The lies I believed from my culture are the problem, and lies can come from any background.
It’s been an intense process over the last two years as I’ve become aware of my many distorted views from my past, but in the midst of it, I’m seeing God more clearly.
In the culture I was raised in, there were constant discussions about modesty. Not the “oh, hey, don’t be a rude show off, because that’s rude” kind of modesty conversations, but the rulers and rulebooks of big time Modesty. If you’ve experienced it, you’re probably nodding or cringing, and if you’ve never encountered it, well, use your imagination.
Though the trappings varied, the lectures and conversations were always essentially the same: people talked about what girls were wearing and how the act of putting on clothes in the morning could radically change what boys were thinking.
There were endless options for violations and validations in Modesty-land, depending on the exact situation and circumstances. It didn’t take long for me to absorb the idea that I wasn’t a person with a body, I was an outfit with the power to control the morality of men.
I believed the lie that I was responsible for everyone else.
There was always a part of me that was desperate for a way out of the burden of over-responsibility, but my diligent self just kept trying to shoulder the shame and paranoia of the Modesty Rules, because I thought they were God’s plan for me.
In the last few years, though, I am learning a subtle difference in responsibility. I have learned that, yes, people should be responsible, but not to me. God created each person with a level of autonomy and responsibility tied directly to Him. If you’re exhausted by managing other people, let me assure you that responsibility to or for everyone else is something you were never meant to hold. If you try to carry it, let alone enforce it, it will cripple you and destroy genuine relationships. I know this firsthand.
Because of a lack of boundaries and the constant pressure of my culture’s Modesty Rules, my relationship with my body has been disjointed at best, my interactions with men were stunted, and my friendships with other women have been filled with jealousy and judgment.
Many of the discussions of The Modesty Rules relate clothing choices to lust, but I think that’s a mistake. Let me explain: I propose that we’ve lost sight of what lust actually is.
In fact, we have confused biological sexual attraction with lust and called it sin.
This is one reason why shame is so rampant in Christian circles, why we hide rather than confess our reality, why we try to control rather than offer each other the open love and freedom of Christ: we have made into sin something that is not sin.
God created you to desire another person for affection, intimacy, and relationship! Being physically attracted to someone is not lust. Wanting to kiss someone is not lust. Enjoying kissing someone is not lust. Those desires can be a catalyst for lust, but in themselves, they are morally-neutral, God-created, biological and chemical reactions.
Your body recognizing sexual compatibility with another person is not inherently evil.
Don’t get me wrong. Lust is serious and lust is a sin. But lust is about control, not just sex. Lust is dehumanizes a person in your own heart and mind. It is the ritual taking, obsessing, and using someone else for your own benefit rather than valuing that person as an equal image-bearer of God.
Lust is forming people in your own image, for your own purposes, whether for sexual pleasure, emotional security, or moral superiority. In lusting, you are creating a world where every other person exists for your approval or dismissal. Lust reduces the complexity of each individual and their story to something you get to manage. Lust certainly can have a sexual component, but when we reduce it merely to sexual reactions, we miss out on God’s heart for all people: infinite value.
In the book of Matthew, when Jesus said “if you even look at a woman with lust…” he wasn’t condemning a physical sexual response as sinful, he was lifting up the inherent value of all women and men. The Sermon on the Mount repeatedly describes the worth of each person, no matter their circumstances.
I don’t think you dressing according to a set of modesty rules will ever stop another person from lusting.
In fact, nothing you do or do not do can influence lust in someone else. Only Jesus can lovingly confront and heal a lustful heart through the working of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change anyone, control anyone, make someone sin or not sin, and you’re only responsible for taking your own heart to Jesus.
I’m asking you to pause and think about this about this issue differently than you may have encountered it before, especially if you grew up with the Modesty Rules on your side. If anyone tells you that you are responsible for the hearts or minds or actions of any men or women, particularly with your clothing choices, don’t accept it! If anyone uses Bible verses as weapons of condemnation and shame instead of building faith in the working of the Holy Spirit, don’t believe it.
Real freedom comes from accepting the life of Christ as your own, which doesn’t mean lawlessness. It means love.
Expecting others to live by your Modesty Rules strips them of value in a way that revealing clothing never can.
Thinking you are responsible for everyone causes more damage than wearing a deep-v shirt ever did.
Before you start assuming I think people should be walking around naked, let me say this: I would absolutely encourage men and women to dress in a socially acceptable manner, but not because they are responsible for other people’s reactions. And certainly not because one way of dressing is more “godly” than another! Clothing choices have and will always be culturally relative decisions.
Please, make good choices for yourself, whatever those are! Live in the culture God put you in, but live there in complete freedom that Christ’s resurrection glory, not your hemline or your judgment of her hemline, makes you holy.