Guest post by K. C. Thomas, Mumbai, India.
What is modesty? When and how did it originate? The dictionary says that modesty is caring not to do or say anything impure or improper in speech, dress and behavior. In today’s society, any of these definitions of modesty may be seen as negative, since we often focus on self: self-esteem, self respect and self-expression. One who lives and behaves with simplicity will most probably remain someone very ordinary and unnoticed.
The Lord God placed man in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and guard it. Adam was happy to see one of his own kind in Eve, when she was presented to him. The Bible says that the man and the woman were both naked but not ashamed (Gen. 2:25). Eve appreciated the natural beauty of the vegetation when she beheld the Tree of Knowledge. Imagine the happiness the couple had in their honeymoon days in the most beautiful garden — probably much more beautiful than any of our modern parks and resorts, on account of the celestial light and glory supplied by the presence of God.
When God visited them one evening, they hid themselves among the trees. To God’s question: “Where are you?”, Adam replied that he was afraid and hid from God because he was naked. What does this mean? A thought had sprung up in Adam that the display of nakedness was something wrong and needed covering. God respected their feelings and He did not want them to continue in the wrong. So He made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and Eve and He clothed them (Gen. 3:21). The bodies of Adam and Eve were the handiwork of God, Who is perfect. After clothing them God observed that the man had knowledge of what is good and what is bad. It is said in the Bible that mankind spread all over the world and there was a time when some supernatural beings took the girls they liked because they were beautiful. What was their beauty? It may have been their beautiful bodies. Or it may have been their captivating wholesomeness! God then did not allow this, saying that He disapproved the wickedness of the people He had created (Gen. 6:1-5,12). He wondered at how evil their thoughts were all the time. God looked at the world and saw that it was evil, for the people were all living evil lives.
The human consciousness of our nakedness has brought about a need for us to cover ourselves. Originally, humans started covering their genitals, as that is the center of our nakedness. Also, they probably had difficulty in using animal skins; fabric had not yet been invented. Even today, tribesmen still use the minimum amount of clothes to cover the minimum area of the body. In the course of time, fashion arose; various designs for garments developed. Tailoring and knitting were added knowledge. The civilized world arrived at a standard which more or less conformed to the idea that the female body needed suitable cover to avoid the unwanted attention and inappropriate gaze of males. However, the modern trend in some societies seems to encourage a disregard of the traditional concept of modesty. So it is necessary to go into detail in some measure.
It may be better that every lady can answer the following with a “NO”:
1. Is your top so sheer that others can see inner wear or so low cut allowing cleavage to show?
2. Does your clothing ride so low that your underclothes can be seen when seated?
3. Does your clothing reveal your abdomen and back?
4. Does your clothing have sexually suggestive slogans?
Two main reasons for covering our bodies are to hide nakedness and to protect the body from the inclemency of the weather. The covering of the body to avoid lustful looks from males was an unwritten traditional understanding about female attire. The exposure of women’s bodies, especially certain areas like bare shoulders, various degrees of cleavage etc. is considered not in good taste, as it is likely to generate the base instincts of males and may incite inappropriate behavior in them. In this connection, it may be worthwhile quoting the comment of a Catholic boy, which I happened to read recently in an English magazine. He told his friends: “I want a girl whom I can respect and who will respect the fact that I want to guard my eyes against lusting after her body before we are married.”
Why should you prefer the charms of another man’s wife? (Prov. 5:18-21) What is the modern view? The modern view is that ostentation is not wrong even if it is to attract people. Sexual lustful thoughts are not considered as wrong or sinful. However, what is Christian wisdom on this subject? When charms are displayed in the exposure of female bodies (or even covering seductively), males may develop evil thoughts. Mature persons can appear elegant without ostentation, decorous without stiffness, carefree and friendly without boisterousness.
Islam prohibits immodesty in dress, but the fundamentalists interpret this in a narrow way, infringing even the normal rights of women and insisting on full covering of the body excluding the eyes. In spite of all opposition to the forced hijab, the real reason and principle behind the word “modesty” cannot be ignored. The advancement of civilization has revolutionized our thoughts on fashion and design. The purpose of revealing dress exposing the female body in an inappropriate way is said to be for “an attractive look” or “a good look”. However, knowing the human mind, this brings terrible results. Jesus said: “You have heard that you shall not commit adultery… but I tell you, if you look at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery.” (Matthew 5:27-28) Lust springs up from the mind, but the sight of human flesh in the inappropriate way is like fuel near fire. Anyone who seeks out or supplies the “fuel” is guilty. Sublimation of lust is rendered difficult.
People who believe in Christ’s teachings are bound to abstain from wearing such scandalous dresses and provocative dresses. In the past, a strict interior judge in us demanded obedience to parents, insisted on sexual purity and advocated high morals. This interior judge or well-formed conscience has been replaced by “Relativism”, as once observed by Pope Benedict XVI. The interior judge in man no longer uses Jesus, Mary or Mother Teresa to keep the standard, but prefers celebrities or a television anchor. Courage, conviction and immense faith in Jesus Christ are needed to resist bad trends. Parents who do not train their children by their examples and counsel, especially their teenage daughters, are guilty too. The world may spurn our ideas and ridicule us, but can we fail to bear witness to Jesus Christ? Should we not be counter-cultural at times?
We can also display modesty in our life. Quietness, humility and simplicity are values to be grasped and sought after. Colossians 3:12 states: “Since you are the people of God, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, g
Towards each other, we show our modesty by honoring others before ourselves. We have to allow others to have the place of prominence. Philippians 2:3 says: “Don’t do anything for selfish ambition or from a cheap desire to boast, but be humble towards one another, always considering others better than yourselves.”
Most of us do not naturally possess an attitude of modesty as characterized by humility and simplicity. We seek recognition and attention. We want others to honor us. If we follow Christ, we will divest ourselves of all self-seeking and submit ourselves to God. Living a life of modesty is a personal determination. We must patiently wait for God to bestow the rewards. He sees all that we do. It is not that we become doormats when we are humble. 1 Peter 5:6 says: “God resists the proud but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, then, under God’s mighty hand, so that He will lift you up in His own good time.” Let us be proud of our culture that upholds the teaching of Christ, even if thousands around us are steeped in modernity, disregarding traditional Christian teachings on modesty and humility.