Based on the principles of physics, a pendulum is always bound to come to a halt. It will be a slow, almost imperceptible suspension in movement, lost in the lull of each swing. Yet to and fro it will continue until the invisible hands of friction and resistance pull it to hover, stationary, in the center. There seem to be some pendulums in existence that may never arrive at a standstill. I have witnessed such a pendulum in the past several months regarding the topic of clothing and modesty, felt its tug as I spectated in the midst of a volley of angry blog posts from prominent authors.1 The presence of the pendulum is often an indication that there is a greater issue involved. Modesty, lust, and beauty can pertain to issues of clothing, the topic I wish to discuss. However, these are not just dilemmas of the wardrobe or issues involving only women, as they may seem. I hope to create a conversation in which both genders can participate. I propose that, in our Christian culture, the strife regarding clothing is ultimately about worship.
Timothy Keller addresses the subject of worship in his book, Counterfeit Gods. “An idol,” Keller says, “is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’ There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.” He then continues later, “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give you.”2 In the article “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair,’” David Powlison discusses the roots of human motivation. “In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another… The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my God?” he asks. Later, he describes a worship of food that may propel one’s life or a segment thereof. He says it is not that this person is “hunger-driven,” it’s that they are “hunger-driven-rather–than-God-driven.”3 Hence, idolatry is what I believe lies behind our world’s attire-obsessed culture as well as the less-than-friendly conversations that have taken place on the same subject in our Christian subculture.
We are driven by something other than God.
Our pendulum extremes look like this: Men have blamed women for their lust because of what they reveal of their bodies and have, therefore, held them to the highest of modesty standards. Women have placed the blame back on men, saying the problem lies with men’s hearts and not with women’s clothing; they should be able to dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable and beautiful. Some have managed to find what they believe is a happy medium in the issue of modesty; indeed, they see no need to dress like grandma or for sex appeal, but instead may show their idolatry in other ways through spending an abundance of time or money on clothes, makeup, and hair. We are worshipping something that our manner of dress gives us more than God. Rather than fashioning idols out of wood4 we idolize fashion, exchanging satin for splinters.
To the Left: Immodesty
“If we would help people have eyes and ears for God,” Powlison says, “we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention.”5 The preponderance of the idolatry I see in the issue of immodesty is an idol of approval. Women desire to be found beautiful; however, many females fall prey to the confusion of beauty and sexual appeal. To say that showing cleavage, leg, and wearing tight clothing is beautiful is to draw on our culture’s definition of beauty and not God’s.6 So women who dress scantily in order to be found desirable by those around them have not counted God’s opinion to be most important. They need God’s opinion plus another’s to feel adequate or valuable.
Seeking approval through self-control is also idolatrous. Perhaps some women dress with less because they have accomplished something through diet or exercise, feel good about themselves, and want others to notice: “I can look good in these jeans!” Another idolatry issue I see in the problem of modesty is a comfort idol—valuing one’s own comfort over the consideration of others. Leggings, “jeggings,” and yoga pants that don’t leave anything up to the imagination are a trend in today’s society. I hear a lot of women say that it is not an issue of modesty—the reason they wear the aforementioned clothing items is not because they want to appear more desirable, it is because they are comfortable in them.
To the Right: Excessive Modesty
The proposed answer to many of the above idols has often been to “cover up more.” Instead, it’s resulted in an extreme swing of the pendulum toward loose turtlenecks and floor-length jean skirts. As blogger ‘Unka’ Glen has stated it, “The extreme opposite of a bad idea is another bad idea.” We cannot merely say, “If I do this other action, perhaps I will no longer idolize in the way I did before.” The answer to one’s idolatry is not simply to practice the reverse of that idolatry. When we merely run away from an idol, we replace it with another one: self-righteousness. True repentance occurs when we replace the idol with Jesus.7
Another oft-given reason for dressing modestly is to avoid causing a brother to stumble, a principle derived from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8. Many say this would be “loving your neighbor as yourself.” However, if your primary reason for dressing is to love your neighbor as yourself by not causing a brother to stumble, you are still ignoring the Greatest Commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.”8 Love for others must first flow out of a love for God; a love for neighbors that does not have its source in love for God is idolatry. As St. Augustine states it, “He loves Thee too little, who loves along with thee anything else that he does not love for thy sake.”9 When we dress in order to honor the Greatest Commandment, we love God first and others for His sake.
The False Middle
The “home” for this pendulum, however, is not necessarily the mere avoidance of all extremes. Despite what has been argued in the past, it is not arduous to dress neither immodestly nor aggressively modestly. However, it is easy in our American culture to indulge in the excessive preparation of our appearances. This fact remains true for both males and females in our culture; however, John Piper’s take on female clothing is worth mentioning as he explores Peter’s portrait of womanhood in his book, This Momentary Marriage. In his discussion on 1 Peter 3:1-6, he examines a Christian woman’s role as a whole. In reference to the ‘internal adornment’ that Peter describes, Piper says that the author is not excluding all jewelry or all hair styling, because this would mean that all clothing would be excluded as well. “What he means is: Don’t focus your main attention and effort on how you look on the outside; focus it on the beauty that is inside. Exert more effort and be more concerned with inner beauty than outer beauty.”10
He describes the thrust of 1 Peter 3:1-6 like this: A Christian woman puts her hope in the promises of God. From Him she derives her beauty, not the way she dresses.
Hoping in God
So it is not, in fact, clothing that creates the problem of the pendulum; rather, it is the way we think about clothing. “We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case,” Keller argues in Counterfeit Gods. “The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.”11 So it is not a sin to want to be found beautiful! Idolatry happens when being found beautiful becomes the source of one’s value and meaning, when it absorbs one’s heart and imagination more than God.12 The question to ask is, “By whom do I most desire to be found beautiful?” Any answer but “God” will lead ultimately to disappointment, for it is seeking what only God can give you—in fact, already has given you. He is your Creator, who molded each of your atoms according to His standard of beauty. Sin is what makes us ugly, but Jesus died to cover it with His blood and to make you lovely in God’s eyes. You are already beautiful in Christ; your clothes cannot influence that beauty for the negative or positive. This is an objective fact because God’s opinion of you, rooted in the objective death and resurrection of Christ, will never change. Your wardrobe does not make you beautiful. Christ does.
It is also not a sin to be fond of comfort. However, we do not ultimately put our hope in the fleeting nature of comfort but in the God who comforts us even in our afflictions. We do not put our hope in a concept or a feeling, but in Jesus, who endured the agony of the Cross for our sins past, present, and future. Christ gave up His comfort for the sake of others; we can, too. In addition, your wardrobe is not a tool to exhibit your self-control or your own righteousness. You are not defined by your accomplishments, but instead by what Christ accomplished on the cross.
Rest for the Pendulum
So when our pendulum finally comes to a rest, its home is not even on the pendulum of our human solutions, but in the gospel. The gospel, in fact, discards our problematic pendulum altogether. Our happy medium does not even reside in our ability to kill our idols or our sin and believe in the gospel—for God is not unaware of the idolatry which clings to us closer than our very clothing, and His Son’s sacrifice on the Cross is powerful enough to atone for that, as well. C.H. Spurgeon said, “Trust in Christ, in Christ alone; cast your arms around His Cross, and cling to that—you are saved—yet it will not be your clinging, it will be the Cross that will save you.”13
Indeed, we find that rules are not what are able to pull our pendulum to hover, stationary, in the center. It is not regulations that save us; it is Christ. This does not mean every proposed guideline for dressing is wrong; the problem with listing guidelines is not that they are bad, it’s that often they are used as a means to righteousness. The reason rules have not provided a solution is because the issue is not merely clothing, but idolatry, which is a problem of the heart. Doing away with the pendulum and having our hearts set upon gospel truths rather than our idolatry will facilitate a more valuable and grace-filled conversation about what those measurements should be. Viewing our wardrobes through the lens of the gospel does not land us in front of the mirror asking, “Does what I am wearing fall within the limitations?” Instead, it entreats us to inquire, “Why am I wearing this?” Our intellectual attempts at defining measurements will always miss the mark until our affections are in line with the gospel. The gospel frees us to dress however we desire; however, the gospel also changes how we desire to dress. Regardless of what those guidelines for hemlines and clothing budgets are, they should be a means of worshipping God and loving people, not worshipping idols and loving ourselves.
1. “Modesty, Lust, and Emotional Rape,” by Lauren Nicole Love. “‘Divided you fall’: how the myth of male weakness turns women against one another,” by Hugo Schwyzer. “How Modesty Made Me Fat,” by Sierra Townsend. “Your Body Is Never the Problem,” by Hugo Schwyzer on the Good Women Project.
2. Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters . (New York: Penguin Group, 2009). Xviii.
3. Powlison, Doug. Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”. (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 2). 39.
4. Isaiah 44:14-17
5. Powlison, ibid. 44.
6. God’s definition of beauty revolves around an inward beauty created by faith in Him rather than outward beauty. (See 1 Sam. 16:7, Prov. 31:30, 1 Tim 4:8, 1 Peter 3, 2 Tim. 2:9). This will also be addressed later in the article, see “Hoping in God” section.
7. Colossians 3:1-2, Romans 12:1-2.
8. Luke 10:27
9. St. Augustine, and Albert Cook Outler. “Book 10, Chapter XXIX.” The Confessions of St. Augustine. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002. N. pag. Web. 5 Oct. 2012.
10. Piper, John. This Momentary Marriage. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009). 98.
11. Keller, Timothy. Ibid.
13. Spurgeon, C. H. “The Cleansing of the Leper.” Sermon preached at Exeter Hall, London. 30 December 1860.