modest is hottest—but not like that (part two: shame culture and modesty)


This is part two of a three-part series on modesty.

Biblical modesty is actually a far cry from a strong affection for long skirts and a disdain for bikinis, though it has been reduced to that by certain Christian subcultures. However, in response to body-shaming women into more fabric, other Christians have embraced a “reactive theology” (have swung too far to the other side of the spectrum), forgoing any call to modesty that God commands.

In this series, I hope to show you that modesty is a symptom of a heart that is humbled before God and neighbor, and to propose that neither “baring it all” or baring nothing at all is the answer to the calling God has for our bodies, and neither will remove body shame.

what is shame?

Before we and even talk about how shame has infected the modesty conversation, first we must discuss the nature of shame, both practically and Biblically.

Shame is a terrible motivator, no matter the goal. Whether it’s losing weight, staying celibate, keeping up some GPA to make our parents proud, staying financially stable, breaking a bad habit, or whatever, avoiding shame feels like an unbearably heavy weight.

Because we will always end up failing our own standards, other’s, (and definitely God’s—because He is so perfect and good), shame is an experience every human has felt. It causes us to hide when we most need loving community, pressures us to lie when we need to confess, and convinces us that the amount we are loved is dependent on how well we avoid shameful activity.

Jesus knew this. He knew the power of shame is why Pharisees were bitter and ungracious, why the tax collectors never even tried to measure up to the Jewish law (what’s the point in trying if you feel bad about yourself anyway, right?), and why Peter wept like a child when he realized the weight of his denial.

Yet Jesus arrives on the scene in a religiously-prideful historical period for the Jewish people, and he says that He came for the sick and the sinners (Luke 5:31-32)—or those who feel most ashamed of their mess-ups and failings, not those who were so-very-proud of themselves. He says that the point of the law was to show we could never measure up without Him, and the Gospel (or “good news”) is that He loves us—not because we don’t have anything to be ashamed of—but in spite of it. The Bible says He loves us “even while we are still sinners” (Romans 5:8). And because He loves us He became to be the righteousness we never could be. He came to take on our shame, and to give us honor. De-shaming a sinful people, honoring them in a way they do not deserve is the good, good news of the Bible.

“A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Isaiah 42:3

I love this verse because it so clearly and kindly describes our Savior. This verse in Isaiah was a prophecy of Jesus. Basically, it’s saying that He won’t kick you while you’re down in pits about yourself. He is gentle and patient with us in our mess-ups. “He isn’t trigger happy” as Dane Ortlund says.

Jesus came to remove our shame, not to contribute to it. Because of the Gospel story—that Jesus came to love us, not shame us, into holiness—shame should not be the motivating factor in our walk with Christ. It should be love for Christ, because He loved us, even in the midst of our shame (“while we were still sinners”).

TWO TYPES OF SHAME

There is idea is something that seems to be missing from the modern conversation around shame. In recent years, it’s been a huge discussion that, essentially, Jesus doesn’t want us to feel ashamed—like ever.

But if Jesus doesn’t want us to be ashamed… then why does He point out the wrong-doing of sinners? While shame isn’t the desire God has for us, it’s not something He takes delight in, sometimes we are actually right to be ashamed. He actually must point out some shameful things for our good. He points out our wrong-doing for the sake of healing and sanctification. (Example: account of the Samaritan woman in John 4)

For this reason, what I think is most helpful in this conversation is to define two types of shame:

Misplaced Shame

This is the type of shame that we feel because we have not lived up to social norms, society’s standards, our family’s sky-high expectations, our own idea of who we should be, etc. This is the type of shame we feel, not because we have failed to meet God’s standards of right living, but because we have not lived up to human standards. These are not things to repent for (since no wrong was done), but instead, they are things to tun to God for comfort.

A few examples…

You trip and fall, and your skirt goes flying up, for everyone to see your underwear, so you feel ashamed.

You get a F on a project you really worked hard on, or you fail a course you tried your best at,

You let one rip on the first date.

You wear a costume to a party that you thought was a costume party but it wasn’t.

You don’t get asked to prom or homecoming.

You feel ashamed because you aren’t a size 2.

You feel ashamed because of the color of your skin.

You feel ashamed because of a disability.

You feel ashamed because you didn’t work out today, but you’re just so tired from work.

You feel ashamed that you went over budget, but there was no way around it.

A billion other things. You getting what I’m saying? You have no reason to be ashamed of any of this. It’s societal expectations that cause us to feel embarrassed when these things happen. You did nothing wrong. These things say nothing about our hearts or morality, yet we feel like we have missed the mark. The problem? It’s not God’s mark. It’s culture’s mark.

Well-placed Shame

Well-placed shame is those things we should feel bad about. It’s what Paul discusses in all of Romans 1. Some people might call it “guilt.” I don’t think I really need to give examples, but just in case:

You say something intentionally rude and hurtful to a friend.

You cut someone off in traffic and give them the finger. (Only to discover it was a cute old lady who is short, making your shame worse.)

You cheat off someone’s test in school and get an A because of it.

You are racist toward someone.

You are jealous of a friend and treat them unfairly because of it.

You gossip about someone and feel how hurtful it could be to them.

You have an affair.

You try to lure someone into sin with you.

You steal something.

You cheat on your taxes.

You over-indulge in food in a way you know isn’t honoring to God.

You get drunk and do dumb things.

You get what I’m saying? These are things we need to repent for. This action doesn’t define who we are as a person, but they do reveal a part of us. They are definitely wrong-doings against God, and some also against our neighbor. We should be ashamed of our actions when we do these things.

(***For more on the types of shame, I would like you to read this article by John Piper that discusses this type of shame. I borrowed these terms from him.)

shame culture and modesty

That was a LOT of build up, but we must define these terms in order to talk about them in an affective manner. This is a confusing conversation so lots must be defined and clarity must be

So what does shame have to do with modesty? I will tell you.

The conversation around modesty in the context of the purity movement and many conservative Christians is almost always makes its defense by using misplaced-shame. Meaning that it acts like people are wrong and evil if they don’t adhere to some specific culture’s standards rather than God’s, and it scares people into follow it with side eyes, gossip, whispers, and public humiliation if you don’t. It doesn’t judge by God’s standards, but by mankind’s. It makes its own hard-and-fast rules about the skirt lengths, make-up, swimsuit types, etc. without any Biblical evidence to back it up. When there’s no Biblical basis for a legalistic principle, the sure-and-fast way to get people to abide by the rule is to shame them into it. This is what happens to women in communities and groups influenced by purity culture.

The “modesty” of purity culture seeks to cause women to feel ashamed of their bodies and their person by telling women to:

– to cover their bodies (in a very specific way) because they are dangerous and sinful if they don’t
– to hide their sexuality because it’s gross and wrong for women to feel sexual

Can you see what’s wrong here? The motivation isn’t pure, and the conclusion isn’t true.

This motivation is shame-based. The conclusion is unless you follow these very specific rules about dress that were never spoken by God, then you are in sin.

There is no place in the Bible that says women’s bodies are inherently dangerous. There is no place in the Bible that says that women shouldn’t be sexual beings (—there’s actually much of the opposite! Song of Solomon, I Cor. 7:4-5).

So now that we’ve discussed the nature of mis-placed shame in modesty, now begs the big question you know we are getting to: if there is a Biblical call to modesty that is God’s standard (as established in the first post of this mini-series linked here), and we can fall short of it, then…

is there ever a place for well-placed shame regarding our bodies?

Yes. In fact, there is.

I know that many of you are cringing at me saying this, so allow me to give some examples that I think we can all agree on:

– Someone (man or woman) sexual assaults another person, just because they were feeling like it.

– Someone wears clothes with explicit language, racial slurs, or a swastika, just because that’s a shirt they like.

– Someone decides not to wear pants or underwear when they has company over, just because they don’t like the way underwear feels. No only stangers are around, but there are also children around.

– Someone decides to flaunt her diamond rings, necklaces, and a tiara, while serving the desperately poor their first meal in weeks.

Now, you probably won’t see much of this in your daily life. These examples are pretty darn extreme, but all are deserving of well-placed shame, though to varying degrees. They put self at the center, without any regard for another person. But here’s the thing… aren’t we doing the same thing when we:

– wear a revealing piece of clothing, just because we look good in it? Without regard to the temptation someone might face when they see us in that outfit. Without regard for the person you are dating who is recovering from a pornography addiction and fighting lust on the daily.

– pick out the Halloween costume that we are pretty sure is offensive to the host of the party, but we like it anyway?

– choose to put on our new, most extravagant necklace for a lunch date with a friend who we know is struggling through serious financial situations, and needs a new pair of shoes but can’t afford to buy them?

– go to another country and decide to ignore the request to wear a head covering or a long skirt, just because you don’t feel like it?

With each of these decisions, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the specific piece of clothing the person is choosing to wear. It’s the heart attitude of disregard for another person and elevation of self-interest.

It isn’t loving. It isn’t kind. It isn’t humble. It doesn’t seek to honor the other person (Romans 12:10). It doesn’t count others more important than oneself (Philippians 2:3-4).

Though purity culture definitely gets it wrong in the modesty conversation, the opposite end, which is the idea of “just wear whatever you love, whatever you feel because it doesn’t affect anyone but you” doesn’t work. “Just doing you”—no matter how revealing, extravagant, outlandish—might sound good on the surface. But with no regard for other human beings, their struggles, their souls, their preferences—this doesn’t play out so well. When it comes to our dress, we must consider other souls, that they might have different life experiences, cultures, contexts than us, and we need to be respectful of this.

We need to first be seeking the glory of God (that is, clothing ourselves with the fruit of the Spirit), secondly be seeking the good our neighbors. Like Christ, it should be our greatest joy to

What does it mean to seek the glory of God in our dress? Tune in for part three, when I list some questions to ask yourself before you dress.

In Him,

Mary Madeline


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