If you saw a book devoted to modesty in the book store, what would you expect to be in it? I tend to think it would be filled with things like a defense of modesty, prescriptions for modesty and/or a list of things that aren’t modest. I’d expect it to contain a few “do this” or “don’t do this” diagrams on the back pages, but R.W. Glenn and Tim Challies have given us a completely different kind of book on modesty–a book that focuses on your heart and not your clothing.
In Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel you will be hard pressed to find a single explanation of what the modest woman looks like in terms of hem length or neckline. Instead what we are given is a book on the Gospel and how it effects the way we act, speak, and dress–what a novel thought! According to the authors, modesty apart from this foundational understanding is pointless:
Modesty without the gospel is prudishness. Modesty divorced from the gospel becomes the supposed benchmark of Christian maturity–perhaps especially for women–and a perch of self-righteous superiority from which to look down on others who “just don’t get it.” You may find yourself exclaiming disbelief about someone else’s wardrobe; “Can’t she see what she is (not) wearing?”
Modesty, apart from the gospel, becomes a self-made religion that can give some appearance of being the genuine article but that is int he end of no value (none!) in our battle with the sinful and inordinate desires of our hearts. If we reduce modesty to certain rules of dress, we are completely separating the concept of modesty from the person and work of Jesus christ. As a result, we may have the appearance of godliness, but not a whole lot more.
So, what we find is that the book Modest is less of a discussion on clothing and more of a discussion on the gospel, which is a breath of fresh air.
If you think this lessens the standards for modest dress, then you would be wrong. In fact, I think it makes it harder. As I quickly read through this short book I found myself wanting the authors to give me a list of specific do’s and don’ts. What do these men think is modest or immodest? What is their standard? What do they think is appropriate for a Christian woman to wear or how do they think a Christian woman should act? I love check lists and being able to live up to other people’s standards. As I closed the book I found myself saying, “Sure modesty is about the heart, but couldn’t they give me even a few specifics of what that looks like?”
While I think it might have been beneficial to walk through a few practical examples (as they did in the appendix for men), Challies and Glenn challenge us to ditch the “before-you-leave-the-house-look-in-the-mirror” check list and seek something higher (and perhaps even harder): view your clothing choices and behavior through the lens of the gospel.
How do the gospel and modesty come together? Challies and Glenn make this important point:
Without question, the foremost intersection of the gospel and modesty is your heart. If your heart is not fundamentally gripped by the grace of God as revealed in the gospel, then all your efforts at modesty will be for naught. This is how the Christian life works. To the extent that our behavior is not grounded in the grace of the gospel, our behavior is not authentically Christian and so cannot bear the fruits of authentic Christianity. Modesty is no exception. Pursue modesty outside the gospel and not only will you fail to be genuinely modest, but everything you do in the name of that supposed modesty will undermine the very gospel you profess to believe.
Instead of a handy check list for modesty, we are challenged to take a closer look at our hearts. Are we seeking to dress, act, and speak appropriately in our context or are we seeking to draw attention to ourselves, and if so, why? Are we seeking to live out our redeemed natures and be a light in the darkness of our culture or are we trying to “fit in” and be accepted by the world? In our pursuit of modesty are we trying to earn the Lord’s favor or be seen as better than others? These are all questions that we must ask ourselves if we are going to pursue modesty from a gospel perspective.
Another key point that Challies and Glen are careful to explain is the influence culture should and should not have on modesty. This is a subject that rarely gets discussed in Christian circles because we tend to focus on how our modesty compares to other Christians. I appreciated the focused discussion on dressing and acting modestly in each context we find ourselves. For instance, modesty will look different in the pool than in the church: One would never wear a bathing suit (even a “modest” one) to a church service, but a bathing suit at a pool might be considered perfectly acceptable and modest given the context. This is a helpful distinction to make and one that should be taken into consideration when judging your own attire and even in judging others.
This is a very short little book, so it is not surprising that there are topics and issues within its pages that I wish were more fleshed out. For instance, the authors make a distinction between modesty and chastity in dress. Whereas modesty (by the book’s definition) is simply respecting your culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior, chastity is explained as being the virtue of loving others in our dress (i.e. not exciting lust in men). It was difficult for me to get a grasp on the distinction being made between the two and because this type of immodesty is what women typically think about when addressing the topic, I would have liked to see the relationship between the two virtues fleshed out a little more.
All in all, I really appreciated this book’s focus on the heart and highly recommend it. I think this is a very helpful and important treatment of the topic of modesty and think it will benefit young women just beginning their pursuit of modesty as well as those who have been seeking to live modest lives for some time.