A Counselor Reflects on Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

“The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes (p. 94).” Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I wonder how many angry e-mails C.S. Lewis got for this statement. To clarify Lewis’ quote, he goes on to compare how a fully clothed Victorian woman may be equally modeled with a tropical lady in a bathing suit. His point is the culture, climate, and generation play a significant role in defining modesty (as well as beauty, I might add).

So what is the danger in treating chastity (abstaining from sex outside of marriage) and modesty (dressing in a way that does not draw undue attention or provoke lust) as synonyms? Both are good. Lust is adultery of the heart (Matt. 6:27-30).

But one is timeless and the other is not. One is universal and the other is largely influenced by personal taste. For someone with a foot fetish, an open toe shoe could be downright indecent by the standard of modesty above. By treating them as synonyms we begin to define divine law by sways of human taste. This will inevitably create great conflict between people of different gender, culture, or generation.

Another danger is that we run the risk of defining protecting another from lust as taking responsibility for another person’s sin. When this happens we enslave some in a regulation of modesty in the attempt to free others from lust. This can easily become a form of codependency.

There is also the risk that virtue becomes vilified. Beauty becomes only a context for lust. Flavor becomes the trigger for gluttony. Fun becomes the temptation to laziness and triviality. Charisma and an out-going personality become flirtatiousness.

Beyond this there is the tenacious tendency of human beings to obey the letter of a law while revolting against its intent. Someone can dress very modestly and still be seductive. But when we define modesty in purely exterior expressions we miss the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Does this mean we should remove any attempt at defining modesty? No. But I would agree with C.S. Lewis that ultimately we can only define modesty as a form of loving our neighbor and not in terms of a dress code. Let us dress in a way that seeks to bless our neighbor’s pursuit of God.

It is only that attitude that will protect our heart from fear or pride while at the same time protecting our neighbor’s eyes and heart from lust.

So what does this mean practically? It means we have to do a better job of getting to know one another and allowing ourselves to be known. For years I dressed very modestly for a guy (usually not the gender reference point for this conversation, I know). But my motive was fashion-laziness and an affinity for old things. I still like a dirty hat with lots of “character.”

In that “modesty,” I never asked how my appearance influenced others. I was self-centeredly caught up in my own preferences. I have started to ask the question a bit more (with my patient wife’s 11 years of encouragement) and it hasn’t changed my fashion that much; other than my clothes are slightly less baggy. But I believe the question that guides my thinking is becoming more godly and serving to reinforce a more consistent mindset to think of how I can influence others for Christ. Maybe that’s “modesty on mission.”