When we think of modesty, we usually think of underdressing. We think about women wearing scantily clad outfits revealing too much skin or too much shape. Underdressing is a problem, but the verses about modesty in Scripture are primarily about overdressing. Dressing in fancy, over-the-top ways to impress people.
1 Peter 3:3-4 says, “Your adornment must not be merely external — braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart…”. 1 Timothy 2:9-10 says, “Likewise I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works…”.
The word “modestly” in 1 Timothy means “a sense of shame or bashfulness.” It doesn’t mean you’re ashamed of yourself, but that you understand how undignified it is to parade oneself before the masses and put yourself on display.
When a person is immodest, they dress to draw the eye. They want everyone to look at them, they want to be the center of attention, perhaps even the center of envy. In Roman times, women used elaborate hairstyles, fancy clothing, and long flowing braids as status symbols. In a culture that valued honor and status more than anything, clothing was a means of self-elevation.
To be fair, overdressing can be a problem for men too. I’ll use myself as an example. I absolutely love suit vests. They look amazing and I wish we could all go back to wearing them (along with fedoras please!). One time I wore a suit vest to worship. I made it through Bible class, but after that I felt so uncomfortable I had to take it off.
Why? Because no one else had a suit vest. In fact, very few people even wear full suits anymore, so I stuck out like a sore thumb! And can I be honest? That suit vest made me look great! I didn’t wear it with the intention of looking great, I just wore it because I like suit vests. But I was concerned people would think I’m wearing this just to show off! I wasn’t trying to, but because I was way overdressed, I genuinely felt immodest. Instead of having that healthy sense of bashfulness, I felt like I was parading my suit vest awesomeness before my brethren, and it had to go.
Now to the ladies. There’s a difference between putting makeup on and doing it big like on your wedding day isn’t there? As a bride, you’re supposed to be overdressed so it’s not immodest. But if you came to worship with a long flowing white gown and professionally styled hair and makeup that would be way over the top. All eyes would be on you, instead of on the Lord! All eyes would be on your looks, instead of on your heart. And where would your heart be?
Likewise, there’s a difference between wearing modest jewelry that accentuates your beauty and wearing more ornaments than a Christmas tree. If people can hear you coming because of the jangling of the rings on every one of your fingers, the 5 ear piercings, and the multi-layered gold chains, you’re probably immodest. Now, maybe that’s how everyone dresses where you worship, but I would still urge you to check your motives. There’s a sobering passage in Isaiah about God’s judgment against women who cared far more about their physical looks than about their character.
“In that day the Lord will take away the beauty of their anklets, headbands, crescent ornaments, dangling earrings, bracelets, veils, headdresses, ankle chains, sashes, perfume boxes, amulets, finger rings, nose rings, festal robes, outer tunics, cloaks, money purses, hand mirrors, undergarments, turbans and veils. Instead of sweet perfume, there will be putrefaction; instead of a belt, a rope; instead of well-set hair, a plucked-out scalp; instead of fine clothes, a donning of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty.” (Isaiah 3:18-24)
What we wear matters. Both for men and women. Overdressing is a reflection of our heart. It shows twisted priorities, a lack of bashfulness, and a need for attention and admiration. What God really wants is our heart. Instead of overdressing to over-impress, “Let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.” (1 Pet. 3:4)
In the next article, we’ll discuss the other side of modesty: underdressing.