Modesty and the Lust of Men

If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard countless sermons on the importance of modesty. Typically, these sermons are addressed to women. Women are told that if they do not conceal their femininity adequately, they will “cause” men to fall prey to the sin of “lust.” Usually, the preacher will then attempt to support this admonition by quoting from the following Bible passages:

“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (1 Timothy 2:9-10, NIV).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You Shall Not Commit Adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28, NIV).

There you have it. Women should dress modestly or they will cause men to look at them lustfully and commit adultery. Right?

Wrong.

What is the author of 1st Timothy concerned about? “Elaborate hairstyles, gold, pearls, expensive clothing.” Nowhere does the author of this passage talk about covering up so that men will not lust. Evidently, the concern here is related to displays of material wealth.

In the book of James, we see similar concerns about discrimination in the body of Christ on the basis of wealth and social status:

“Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:2-4, NIV)

God does not play favorites on the basis of material wealth, and neither should we.

Similarly, quotations of Jesus’ comments related to lust and adultery found in Matthew 5 have a disturbing tendency to leave out verse 29: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (NIV).

Does Jesus tell women to cover up so that they will not “cause” men to commit the sin of adultery? On the contrary, he uses a dramatic metaphor to encourage men to say “no” to temptation.
Once again, the book of James provides some helpful insight into this topic by describing how temptation can turn into sin:

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15, NIV).

The temptation to sin comes from within a person, not from without. It is also important to recognize that we can always say “no”: “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NLT).

If a man notices a woman and finds her attractive, even in a sexual way, he has not sinned. He has experienced what psychologists call “attentional capture” along with an initial, involuntary emotional response. At this point, he may be tempted to behave in a manner that is sinful, but he does not have to. He can choose where to focus his attention, and he can choose what kind of attention it is that he directs towards another person. The apostle Paul, for examples, tells Christian men to think of women as “sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1, NIV). Referring again to psychology, the process Paul is advocating would rightly be called managing one’s “cognitive appraisal.”

Sadly, many men have never been taught to distinguish attraction from action, impulse from choice, temptation from sin. In fact, we have often been told that “sexual desire,” in and of itself, is the very definition of sin. Historically, this notion originates in the work of a 4th century Bishop named Augustine. In his mind, sexual desire was a manifestation of “indwelling sin.” A genuinely Christian man would have all such desires crucified and replaced with other-centered, non-sexual inclinations from the Holy Spirit. That sounds very “holy,” but it is frankly not human. Neither is it actually biblical. St. Augustine derived these views from his study of ascetic philosophy. He shares this openly in his book of Confessions. Sadly, his views on sin were adopted as orthodox theology by some notable Protestant reformers. This view of alleged holiness continues to be taught in many churches today. In my experience, these churches inevitably preach sermons on the importance of feminine modesty, so that a glimpse of the female form will not “cause” men to stumble. The author of this brand of holiness, St. Augustine, insisted that women be veiled in public.

Should women be sure to “cover up” so that they do not “cause” men to sin? Not according to Jesus or the authors of the New Testament. Rather than attempting to control women, I believe men should develop a more accurate understanding of human sexuality, and with the help of God’s Spirit learn how to say “no” to choices and actions that would truly be sinful.

Concluding thoughts:

The blaming of women for male sin tragically goes beyond concerns about “lustful looking.” In many years of clinical practice, I’ve worked with victims and perpetrators of sexual crimes. It is often the case that a man charged with a sexual offense will claim that a woman’s beauty “caused” him to assault her. In this way, a woman is doubly assaulted. First, her sexual boundaries are violated by a man’s actions. Then she is held responsible for them. Typically, we refer to this as “blaming the victim.” This problem is not isolated to sexual crimes. Male perpetrators of domestic violence often say that a woman’s tone of voice, words or actions caused him to physically assault her. Sometimes the man will allege that the woman was not being sufficiently “submissive.” Sometimes church leaders will agree.

Another troubling message from some church leaders suggests that Christian men will fall prey to infidelity if their wives do not keep them sexually satisfied. Once again, women are made responsible for whether or not a man chooses to sin. Ironically, two of our most influential New Testament figures were apparently single—Jesus and the apostle Paul. They did not depend on women to “keep them holy.” Both set an example of yielding themselves fully to the Holy Spirit so that their lives would be characterized by love and kindness. Contrary to what is suggested by theologians like Augustine, this does not render one’s humanity inert. It does, however, give us the strength and inclination to say “no” to temptation and “yes” to God and love.

The issue I’m attempting to highlight is not confined to the Christian church. Other cultures also encourage what psychologists refer to as an “external locus of control.” This concept refers to the process of attributing one’s choices and actions to “external” or outside forces. Men who feel guilty for sexual feelings, or who do not know how to manage their sexual impulses, may blame these internal issues on external factors (e.g. a woman who is perceived as attractive). Viewing the perceived attractiveness as a threat to their moral and spiritual health, some men have been guilty of disfiguring women in a fit of rage. Leaders of some religious communities even encourage this kind of violence, in the alleged service of the public good.

All of these examples have a common thread: women are made responsible for the actions of men. If women are responsible, then the man is not. Rather than managing his own inner world and outward behaviors, this man will attempt to control women.

Jesus Christ did not teach women to take responsibility for men’s behavior. He did not teach men to control women. Sadly, many mistake this kind of co-dependent functioning for Christianity. It is my sincere hope that this article will provide some clarity. We may choose to dress in one way or another for various different reasons. The fear of “causing” someone else to behave sinfully need not be one of them.

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