Over the course of church history, there have arisen numerous hot-button issues within Christian theology and practice which have provoked widespread disagreement and often intense controversy among believers—issues like the two natures of Christ, the function of the Eucharist, the character of the atonement, the baptism of covenant children, the form of church music, and bikinis.
Hold on, play that back again. Now zoom in on the last part. Enhance image. Enhance!
One of these things is not like the others.
If there is one thing to be said about the current state of discourse concerning women’s modesty and men’s lust, it is that people are indignant. They are simply outraged by their respective opponents’ positions. Of those who write on the topic, many are happy to wear their ire on their sleeves; and even the relatively civil takes on the issue are invariably met with derision and vitriol in the comments. It seems for every “How dare you leave the house in that, you brazen hussy!” there is a “How dare you saddle a woman with guilt like that, you chauvinist cur!” (And then of course the Christian nudist chimes in: “Hey guys, how about we all just get naked at all of our get-togethers? Problem solved!”)
Now, the interesting pattern I have observed repeatedly in the modesty/lust dialogue is that an overwhelming number of interlocutors seem principally concerned with the question of assigning blame. When a man lusts (or is tempted to lust) after a woman and cites her attire as a contributing factor, who is at fault? Who is the real source of the problem? Who gets the blame? In the worst cases, this line of thinking essentially becomes the entire argument: “Hey you [men / women]: Take the blame!” “Don’t look at us; they’re the ones who [crave our flesh like ravenous sex fiends / parade their flesh like licentious sex fiends]!” (Of course, if you clicked on the links above, you have also seen the ostensibly nobler but equally simplistic variant wherein a member of one sex will try to exonerate the other by throwing his/her own kind under the bus, i.e., “Don’t look at them; we’re the ones…” It is a nice gesture, even if not exactly helpful.)
And so, in a curious turn, the prevailing question of the day regarding modesty and lust is not so much “What should be done?” but “Who should be blamed?” This phenomenon can be attributed, I believe, to a pair of faulty mental moves. First, there is a fatalistic resignation to the pervasiveness of the problem, whereby we tend to disbelieve that any real growth or progress in the situation is possible. (“Men are going to ogle women no matter what they wear!” “It’s just not possible to dress consistently in a way that meets your archaic, Pharisaical standards!”)
Second, there is an ever-increasing emphasis in our culture on people’s self-perceptions, as though making sure that everyone feels appropriately good or bad about his or her role in the predicament were in fact more important than actually seeking to reduce or eliminate the predicament. And please do remember, reader, that the predicament is sin—sin against the Most High God.
Yes, as in all other issues, affairs, matters, and concerns, God is the most important factor in the modesty/lust discussion. Yet how infrequently do our vociferous debaters bring the Scriptures to bear on their arguments, or at least show their claims to be derived from explicitly biblical principles? Psychological arguments, social arguments, historical arguments, emotional arguments, and the like are often fine as far as they go; but presenting these without a diligent examination of God’s Word is like lending someone a car with no engine, or selling him an empty bun and calling it a Good Burger. Talk about a waste of eight bucks.
So what does the Bible say regarding modesty and lust? Obviously, there are numerous places we could turn. Indeed, for many of us, such passages are quite familiar, and most of what we lack is not the ability to understand them but the courage and humility to face them in earnest. But for our present purposes, there is one verse in particular which calls for our attention today.
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
That is it. Outdo one another in showing honor.
When you see people throughout your day who are dressed in potentially provocative ways, they may very well be dishonoring you; but outdo them in showing honor by refusing to lust after them anyway. Avert your gaze, and maybe have a mental foxhole on retainer that you can always jump down at a moment’s notice—whether that be a Scripture passage, a show tune, or a mental playthrough of your favorite level from Super Mario World. Whatever. Be creative. You may not be able to control what sights are brought before you, but nothing and no one can ever force you to lust.
When you are selecting clothes at the store or on a website or at your dresser, and you feel constrained to dress a little less comfortably or attractively than you would like to because of the sinful proclivities of all the people who will see you throughout your day, they may very well be dishonoring you; but outdo them in showing honor by refusing to contribute anyway. Think things through carefully, and seek the counsel of godly men and women who can help you evaluate options and make informed decisions. Be creative. You may not be able to dictate the thoughts of others, but nothing and no one can ever force you to dress provocatively.
And when you are debating the merits of the bikini, and your opponents make outrageous claims that only seem to exacerbate the problem, they may very well be dishonoring you; but outdo them in showing honor by speaking fairly and courteously anyway. Strive to understand their concerns; be charitable; and build your case on the basis of what the Scriptures clearly teach. You can be persuasive and winsome at the same time! Be creative. You may not be able to evoke decency from others, but nothing and no one can ever force you to argue like a jerk.
In every situation, be willing to make the hard decision for the sake of the weak and vulnerable; for whatever honor you show unto the least of these, you show unto Christ.
So then, should the modesty/lust issue be a contest? Absolutely—but not the self-serving blame game we are playing right now. The love of God compels us to fight for the increase of each other’s purity and honor, rather than fighting simply to vindicate our own behaviors as pure; and in this competition to bless one another, we shall truly find our way forward, glorifying God through loving obedience and enjoying unhindered fellowship together in Christ.