Friday, October 12, 2012

Fluid Modesty

What do you think of when I say the word "modest?"  In the U.S., we tend to use modest as synonymous with "covered" or "clothed," just as we use obey as a synonym for "comply."

When I was growing up, I attended a very strict, conservative Baptist school.  At school,  there was a long litany of "modest" attire for girls, but boys' "modesty" involved wearing pants, a belt, and a tucked in, collared shirt.  Ironically, a girl in the same attire was "immodest," since it was considered improper for females to wear male clothing (pants).

I received many messages about modesty during that time: in sermons, through the rules, from attitudes of faculty.  What I understood was modesty = being covered from neck to knees.  Oh, and loose is also modest.  The more shapeless, the better.

The high school girls who wore just-below-the-knee pencil skirts and blouses that actually fit instead of being baggy earned the reputation of being slutty.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Girls who, in any other setting, would have had their clothing deemed conservative and modest were given a horrible label because they did not completely hide their God-given figures under tent-like jumpers or oversized shirts.

All that to say, for years I equated modesty with "having all the naughty bits covered + more for good measure."

I'll admit it:  I was judgmental of other Christians who covered less.  Rather, I was judgmental of Christian women who covered less.  Wait, that's still not right:  I was judgmental of any woman who covered less flesh than I did.  Which was almost everyone else.

And then, I joined an intentional on-line community of Christian mothers from all different denominations.  I "met" Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Messianic believers, Quakers, Catholics...pretty much every flavor of Christian was represented in that group.  And we moms all wanted to teach our children about modesty.  But while I equated modesty with an appropriate clothing checklist, these moms generally equated modesty with the heart-attitude.

It shook my world to pieces.  How on earth could I teach my kids modesty without a checklist?!

But as I learned more about God's heart, about grace, about the individual priesthood of the believer, and about following the conviction of the Holy Spirit, I realized that I had no ties to my list other than tradition.  There is nothing inherently wrong with tradition, but tradition doesn't necessarily equal God's will.

Something that helped me let go of my list was a mama talking about modesty meaning different things in different circumstances.  For instance, your bathing attire, no matter how modest, is usually considered immodest in a church worship setting. (I do know of some Christian sects who insist females swim in dark t-shirts and long skirts, but still, sopping wet, clinging fabric is generally not considered appropriate at church.)

Obviously, what we deem "modest" is fluid, based on time, place, and circumstance.

Another dear mama spoke of the time period when she wore only long-sleeve blouses and ankle length skirts.  She had an affair, despite the abundance of flesh being covered.  This dear, Christian woman stated that she believed she was at her most seductive and immodest because of the clothing, not in spite of it.  Obviously, this is not true for every woman, but it was true for her.

Which left me wondering, what is modesty?  What does God mean when He used Paul to write that women should adorn themselves in "modest apparel?"

The word translated "modest" is the Greek word "kosmios," taken from "kosmos."  It has the idea of being well-ordered.  In that context, I believe it means women should take care to look nice, not to the extreme of narcissism, but as befitting an Image-bearer.  I think, also, that women (as wives and mothers) often get so caught up in the giving and doing for others that we leave ourselves out.  We neglect to honor the bodies God has given us by taking care of them properly.  We neglect to adorn ourselves in ways that remind us we have worth in God's eyes.  The nitty-gritty details of how and what to wear are left to the discernment of the believer and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

At this point in time, I believe modesty to be a heart issue between each believer and God.  I wear low-necked blouses and shirts a lot because I am still nursing, and those necklines provide easy access to the food source.  Another woman may be uncomfortable wearing the necklines I do, yet don a mini-skirt with no guilt whatsoever.  It is not my place to usurp the authority of the Holy Spirit and heap guilt or shame upon the woman wearing a skirt I deem inappropriate.  Nor is it her place to condemn me for seemingly putting the "girls" on display when in actuality I am taking into consideration the feeding of my baby.

Modesty is still fluid.  Now, I see it as fluctuating between individuals as well as changing based on circumstances and cultures.  Follow God, and you will be fine.

Even if it means tossing your list.