Merely Outward

When I was in middle school, I thought that the worst thing someone could say to me was, “What are you wearing?” Because when a middle school girl asks this question, she is not really inquiring about your outfit. Unlike on the red carpet (where the question is actually “Who are you wearing?”), the tone here actually implies, “What possessed you to put that strange collection of clothing on your body this morning?”

But then I got to high school and realized it was MUCH worse to hear the polite, “Would you like to borrow my cardigan?” which is church-code for, “What you are wearing is highly inappropriate. Seriously, please cover up before you make someone sin.”

I am not proud to admit that I’ve worn a few borrowed cardigans in my day. They always itch (Why does the modesty police only own itchy sweaters?) and hang heavy like a scarlet letter draped over my shoulders. And while I can now appreciate the sentiment behind the suggestion, the truth is that a woman’s motivation in what she wears can be complicated by body image issues, art, cultural norms, or just plain ignorance.

Over the years, I have really struggled with how to think about modesty. I have pondered the argument about respecting and helping my brothers in Christ (and the reverse argument—men should be told to “get it together”), and though I think some very helpful points are made in these kinds of conversations, I find that they don’t go deeply enough into the heart behind how we dress.

Instead, I think we can engage in a more helpful dialogue surrounding the charge of 1 Peter 3:3-4:

“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.” *

That is to say, the whole question of dressing modestly really goes back to how we adorn ourselves. What investment am I making in my own adornment? And more importantly, why?

It is helpful to note the cultural context of Peter’s specific examples of adornment here. For his audience, elaborate hair-braiding wasn’t for the savvy YouTube-tutorial pinner, it was a marker of lewdness, just as wearing gold jewelry would indicate vanity and excessiveness. The principle behind his fashion critique is this: a Christian woman should dress in a way that reflects her heart. It doesn’t make sense for her to emulate the wicked, the exhibitionist, or the elite in the way she presents herself physically, lest she be mistaken for one of them.

The exhortation in Romans 12:2 applies here:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The more concerned I become with the will of God in my life, the less likely I am to dress for the sake of seducing, impressing, belittling, or otherwise hurting those around me.

Instead, Peter suggests this alternative: we should focus on the “hidden person of the heart,” on the incorruptible qualities that become evident in the life of a person devoted to Christ. This idea is reiterated in one of Samuel’s prophecies about the coming Christ, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart“ (1 Samuel 16:7).

Conversations about modesty can feel like a minefield, so they are most effective when they take place in the context of a relationship. Understanding a person’s heart requires time and attentiveness that just aren’t possible within a snap judgement on a Sunday morning. But because God does care about our hearts, these conversations are worthwhile. Modestly isn’t a law for Christians to police but rather a virtue to pursue, so let’s push past the question of what is permissible to a larger conversation about how our character shapes the way we present ourselves to the world.

*If you’re thrown off by the phrase “gentle and quiet spirit,” stay tuned for Part Two.