I made two mistakes when I taught my Sunday school class on the theology of clothing, as it relates to modesty. My first mistake was fundamental: I did not begin with the gospel. My second mistake was one of scope: I addressed modesty as a women’s issue. This was unintentional because I only had young ladies in my class that year.
Five years later, I would teach this class much differently.
Out of the Abundance of the Heart
I grew up in a Muslim country where clothing embodied faith. People literally wore their religion on their sleeves. Muslim women were allowed to expose only their hands and faces; even Muslim men followed a strict dress code. Though faith is typically regarded as a private matter here in the West, what we choose to wear still tells others who we are and whom we love.
Out of the abundance of the heart, our clothing speaks.
As our Lord Jesus declared, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person. What defiles a person, he said, proceeds from the heart (Matthew 15:10-19). Thus, it is not what I put on my body that defiles me; my wayward heart defiles me. In and of themselves, cotton and polyester, leather and fur cannot make me righteous or unrighteous.
Sin and idolatry proceed from my heart. My defiled heart desires clothes for my own comfort, my own glory, for my own honor, for my name’s sake. I can be covered from head to toe and still be defiled. I can be wearing locally made, fair-trade, recycled clothes—and still be defiled. Modest dresses can be stained with pride and self-righteousness. Environmentally conscious, budget-friendly fashion can reek of greed and jealousy.
The Lord's instruction with regard to how we dress goes beyond what we wear. He is looking at the desires and intentions of our hearts. Therefore, living out a biblical understanding of how to dress does not begin with what we wear, but why we wear what we wear.
We Are All Immodest
Adam and Eve walked with God in Eden, naked and without shame. They had nothing to prove, nothing to hide. The serpent lied and said that their eyes would be opened if they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. They believed the serpent, and they ate. Their eyes were indeed opened—unto death.
Apart from God, they were naked, exposed, and ashamed. Immodesty was the result of their death, their separation from God.
Apart from God, I am naked, exposed, and ashamed; I am immodest. My clothes are reminders that I am not who I ought to be. I always have something to prove, something to hide. In the words of the hymn writer, I can only pray, “Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless look to Thee for grace; Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
Garment of Mercy
In his mercy, God clothed his rebellious children. While they attempted to hide, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. But fig leaves were not enough. Even in their unrepentant state, God showed them grace. He fashioned for them garments of skin and covered his children (Genesis 3:21). In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, we hear an echo of the father’s love and mercy. When his son returned home, the father clothed his rebel child with the best robe, put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
My clothes remind me of God’s mercy toward me. I despised his rule and sought after my own glory. I tried to cover my guilt, but my best effort was as the fig leaves. The righteousness I fashioned for myself was like a filthy rag (Isaiah 64:6). Yet when he saw me, my Father brought out his best robe. I was a beggar at his gate, and he clothed me. I was naked, and he covered me.
Jesus Christ is my perfect covering. Christ took on flesh and dwelled among us. Christ paid the penalty for my sin; he died in my place. Hidden in Christ, I am truly modest. I am modest not because of my clothes, but because Christ hems me in, behind and before (Psalms 139:5). I am no longer naked, and I am no longer ashamed.
I am to put on Christ, my armor of light (Romans 13:12-14; Galatians 3:27). Christ is my helmet of salvation. Christ is my breastplate of righteousness. Christ is my belt of truth. Christ equips my feet with shoes; he prepares me to proclaim the gospel of peace. Christ is my shield. Christ gives me the sword of the Spirit, his living Word (Ephesians 6:10-20). I am to wait for my linen, bright and pure (Revelation 19:8), when my mortality will be replaced with the garment of eternal life, where I will be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:4).
Immodesty is the beginning of why we wear clothes, but Christ is the end. We put on our clothes in remembrance of him.
Nothing to Prove, Nothing to Hide
By faith, Jesus Christ makes righteous our defiled hearts. What we put on our bodies, therefore, is a response, not a means, to God’s forgiveness. Our clothes embody our response to the gospel. Our clothes embody our worship.
This was where my Sunday school class went wrong. Apart from the gospel, no real change can happen because real change begins at the heart. Apart from understanding the shame of our nakedness, the magnitude of God’s mercy, the perfection of Christ’s death in our place, teachings about clothing and modesty can only lead to self-love, not godliness.
Out of the abundance of the heart, our clothing speaks.
If I had encouraged others to dress modestly in order to “attract the right kind of guy or girl,” I would be teaching them to dress for themselves, to dress for other people’s attention and affection. If I had encouraged them to dress modestly primarily to “not make other people stumble,” I would be teaching them that other people, rather than God, are the ones for whom we dress. But in our concern over other people’s lust, we neglect to repent from our own self-righteousness, jealousy, unforgiveness, and every other form of self-glorifying, self-satisfying sin. Apart from Christ, our own sin is what would eventually destroy us. The gospel guards our hearts for times when we feel perfectly righteous about how we dress. The gospel exposes our pride, reminding us of the ceaseless work of repentance and our relentless need for grace.
As for my second mistake, I should have made it clear that modesty is not only a women’s issue. All of God’s children need to evaluate their desires and intentions when it comes to their clothing. We were all immodest. Both Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and both of them saw that they were naked. The Father, in his mercy, clothed all of his children—male and female—with the perfect sacrifice of his beloved Son. Modesty is a heart issue that affects both men and women.
Again, immodesty may be the beginning of why we wear clothes, but Christ is the end. We get dressed with nothing to prove, nothing to hide. When our clothes are beautiful, let their beauty honor Christ. When our clothes comfort and protect, let them enable us to labor for Christ. When our clothes are means of expressing ourselves, let us proclaim Christ—truthfully, beautifully, and well. Not because we have to, but because we enjoy the privilege of responding to the gospel by worshiping Christ—even in what we wear.