From Myth to Truth: Lust & Modesty

One challenge to embracing sex as God designed it to be is erroneous messages we’ve absorbed. Some such messages are truly heinous and harmful, others are not quite right, and plenty fall somewhere in between. This post is the first of a series that will appear now and then over the next couple of months, with each post correcting the record on a specific topic in the realm of sex.

Today let’s address myths perpetuated in the Church and beyond about lust and modesty and replace them with biblical truth.

What’s So Bad about Lust?

The word translated as lust in the Bible refers to intense longing, not sexual desire specifically. The longing can be good or bad, depending on the motives and target of your longing. For instance, it’s good to long for (“lust” after) your spouse, as long as it involves not merely physical desire but respect and intimacy. It’s bad to long for (“lust” after) the skimpily clad stranger walking down the street.

But let’s talk about the latter—when lust is misdirected and becomes sin. As Jesus said:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Matthew 5:28

In an effort to avoid such adultery of the heart, people have suggested “bouncing your eyes,” avoiding the opposite sex, and/or insisting women dress more modestly. Let’s look at each of these.

Bouncing Your Eyes

“Bouncing Your Eyes” is the title of a chapter in the well-known book Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker. It begins:

To set up your first defense perimeter with your eyes, you want to employ the strategies of bouncing your eyes and starving your eyes as well as the tactic of taking up a “sword” and a “shield.”

Let’s first consider bouncing. You can win this battle by training your eyes to “bounce” away from sights of pretty women and sensual images. If you “bounce your eyes” for six weeks, you can win this war.

The problem is that your eyes have always bounced toward the sexual, and you’ve made no attempt to end this habit. To combat it, you need to build a reflex action by training your eyes to immediately bounce away from the sexual, like the jerk of your hand away from a hot stove.

Part of me understands the theory here. After all, the verses after Jesus’s warning about lust are:

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. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew 5:29-31

Might bouncing be a less messy version of gouging out your eyes?

But the problem with that theory is Jesus himself. He didn’t bounce His eyes from women, and He never told His disciples to do that.

From Myth to Truth: Lust & Modesty: "[Jesus] didn't bounce His eyes from women, and He never told His disciples to do that." @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

Then there’s Job statement: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1). He did not say he wouldn’t look at a young woman. He wouldn’t look lustfully.

In fact, the majority of biblical teaching is about training your eyes and mind to see beyond flesh and selfish desires. It’s about looking at someone through the ideas of a transformed believer, governed by the Holy Spirit. For example:

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:5-6

It’s not about bouncing your eyes, but seeing the whole person.

Sure, some are at the level of addiction/compulsiveness and might need to adopt this approach for a time. (I haven’t read the book, but even that snippet from Every Man’s Battle suggested six weeks to get things under control. Did the authors intend men to bounce eyes for a lifetime? Surely not. Hopefully not. Anyway, that book is not the point.)

Stop bouncing your eyes, gents, and follow Christ’s example. He engaged with women even of highly questionable sexual character and looked at them for the whole person they were.

Avoiding the Opposite Sex

Setting boundaries is a good idea and might include:

  • not traveling alone with a member of the opposite sex
  • not meeting behind closed doors with a member of the opposite sex
  • talking positively in public about your spouse, so others are aware of your marital commitment
  • regularly wearing a wedding ring (or having one tattooed on) to convey your marital status
  • checking in with your spouse frequently through phone calls, texts, etc.

But boundaries shouldn’t mean isolation or exclusion. That is, some women have been denied opportunities in the workplace because they can’t get into the offices, boardrooms, country clubs, lunch meetings, etc. where deals and connections are. All because some guy(s) can’t look beyond her physical features to the work talents she possesses!

Moreover, if we never interact with each other, we don’t learn how to be around people of the opposite sex without viewing them as “other” or forbidden or even dangerous.

Now, I’ve personally avoided the opposite sex in some circumstances. But then, I had a bad premarital history, have admitted that I’m not naturally monogamous (I’m wholly dedicated to Spock, but monogamy wasn’t my initial tendency), and witnessed friends descend into adultery through a series of ill-advised choices. Yet, the more I’ve mulled it over, the more I believe the boundaries I’ve set are largely applicable no matter who I’m with.

For instance, put a window in your office door and meet with whomever you need to. Take that work lunch, but remain in public. Talk positively about your spouse whenever you can. Wear the wedding ring. Check in with your spouse.

If you cannot interact with a member of the opposite sex without a struggle, that’s not a red flag about them. It’s a red flag about you needing to figure out what’s up. Do you have baggage you need to work through? Should you see a counselor or join a support group? Have you matured sufficiently in your faith and honoring of others?

Insisting Women Dress Modestly

Could women insist that men dress modestly? Sure, but I’ve rarely heard that one. Instead, the vast majority of messaging on this topic could be summed up as:

"Ladies, cover up! You don't want to make a man sin, do you?"

Here’s another area where I kind of get it. That is, I raised two sons, and it did not seem to their mom particularly helpful for them to see a lot of images of highly sexy women or actual girls with TMI about their bodies appearing through their dress, or lack thereof. It would be nice if young women would at least understand—fair or unfair—how the way they dress can impact how they are seen.

But for every woman dressed in a very provocative way, there have been a thousand messages to women not dressed that provocatively being blamed for men ogling them!

Meanwhile, Scripture never blames the target of lust for the sin of lust. It’s the person lusting who holds the responsibility for his/her actions. Let’s revisit Jesus’s warning from Matthew 5:28:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

That says nothing about how the woman is dressed. And Jesus encountered women likely dressed in ways that conveyed immodesty (see Luke 7:36-50, John 4:1-26, and John 8:2-11), yet treated them with kindness and respect.

Moreover, let’s look at the one and only time “modest apparel” is mentioned in the Bible:

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 2:910

Modesty here doesn’t refer to how much clothing one is wearing, but rather how elaborate the adornments are.

And the word translated modest in that verse is the same Greek word translated as “respectable” in this verse:

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

1 Timothy 3:2

Do you think Paul was telling Timothy that overseers need to cover up? I don’t think so. Rather, modesty—the New Testament Greek word kosmios—is about conducting yourself respectably. It means well-arranged, orderly, proper.

You know what’s respectable behavior? Not lusting after women! Hey, in that second verse, the word “self-controlled” comes right before “respectable” (aka modest).

When speaking to women, yes, I think it’s reasonable to say, “Let’s be respectable by dressing appropriately according to culture, context, and morality.” But no woman is responsible for a man sinning by lusting after her. That’s his immodesty, not hers.

From Myth to Truth: Lust & Modesty: "No woman is responsible for a man sinning by lusting after her. That's his immodesty, not hers." @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

Shifting the blame and responsibility to someone else is like becoming a glutton and blaming the cook.

Are Lust & Immodesty Related?

Lust and immodesty are related in that each doesn’t show the reverence for God and respect for others we should have.

Honestly, a lot of arguments about lust and modesty would just disappear if we followed Christ’s example for how to treat one another and remembered that each of us is a unique individual made in the image of God. Let’s aim for that!

Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus…

Philippians 2:4-5 (HCSB)

11 thoughts on “From Myth to Truth: Lust & Modesty”

  1. This is a pretty well balanced article. Personally, I don’t really get the first two, though I have read about bouncing eyes and avoiding women in other articles. It just seems like foolishness to me.
    Modesty, however, is something that I believe is an important issue, for both men and women. It gives an indication of the intent of the one wearing immodest clothes. Now, I am not the fashion police and there can certainly be some differences in what we consider modest. When I think of immodest attire, I think of some of the items worn on the red carpet at entertainment awards. They are clearly worn to entice those watching. That doesn’t excuse ogling or lust either. It just means that both the one wearing the attire and the one focusing on the attire are wrong. By the way, I don’t believe noticing that someone is attractive is wrong either. We are not blind. It just means it stops at that and I can focus in on who I am interacting with rather than what someone looks like.

  2. Interesting article but I have to respectfully disagree in regards to your point that blame rests in the one who lusts, I would point you to 1 Cor. 8.

    You said:
    “Shifting the blame and responsibility to someone else is like becoming a glutton and blaming the cook.”

    But what would your response be if that cook knowingly fed the glutton all they wanted to eat? So too a woman may be committing a sin with what they choose to wear.

    1 Cor. 8:9 Be careful that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block for the weak.
    8:12-13 When you sin against them in this way and wound their week conscience you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

    Paul clearly warns us that our actions as stumbling blocks to others is indeed sinful. That said, both women and men should practice care around modesty and lust.

    1. I get what you’re saying, which is why I made sure to include that we should consider others with regard to our dress. In fact, 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 says:

      Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

      But when you look at that passage, it says that eating meat sacrificed to idols isn’t a sin; in fact, it’s an “exercise of your rights.” So if you’re analogizing this to dress, that would mean that dressing immodestly is a right. But I don’t think it is—I think it’s a bad idea, which is why I said, “Lust and immodesty are related in that each doesn’t show the reverence for God and respect for others we should have.” In fact, that seems to be the sin noted here in 1 Corinthians 8: not the act of eating meat itself but the disregard of another’s weak conscience and immaturity in Christ.

      Getting back to the cook/glutton analogy, yeah, it would be sinful for a cook who knows that their customer is worried about, say, sugar intake to add additional sugar to the food. The cooking and sugar themselves are not the issue, but the disregard of another is. (By the way, my analogy was a cook to a glutton, not a spouse or friend who would know more about the glutton’s situation.)

      In all of these situations, however, the best options are for each to act with personal responsibility for their own actions and kindness toward one another. That personality responsibility is part of maturity in Christ, which is why these passages written by the apostle Paul always refer to those weak in the faith; that is, not yet rooted enough to rise above such temptations. Meanwhile, sadly, a lot of the “stumbling block” arguments have been used by men who’ve been Christians for many years or even their whole lives, and that is not what these passages have in mind. What we should all be called to is growing stronger in our faith and our ability to see people as imago Dei—not merely body parts, but the image of God.

      1. Just a very quick thought. I think there are too many articles that only focus on either modesty or lust, which is why it has become (in my opinion) rather controversial. Personally, I feel you did a good job of keeping a balance. That is not an easy thing to do with this topic.

    2. By the way, I want to thank you for the way you disagreed with me. There’s so many attacks and rage-filled comments these days, I so appreciate when someone engages thoughtfully and respectfully about a topic. I hope my answer kept that same tone. Blessings!

  3. Hi, this is a great post. It is so important that we see the whole person.

    I read the book—I think it was the recently updated version. There was a part of the book that seemed really strange that I haven’t seen anyone comment on. One of the authors talks a great deal how he and his son were involved in sports—he is so detailed it is possible we may have been in the same high school gyms. If not at the same time–we have traveled similar roads so I feel qualified to make a comment on young men in sports.

    My son played sports until he graduated from high school. We live in a town where there are also many collegiate sports. We’ve attended men’s gymnastic meets. My son has a friend who is now a collegiate swimmer. You can see the cross country team running shirtless. I used to pick my son up from summer strength training when he was younger–the older boys would all leave shirtless. Collegiate wrestling is huge where I live—a wrestling singlet doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

    I thought it was truly strange how one of the authors would describe glistening female bodies running scantily dressed down the sidewalk—-but there was never one comment throughout the whole book about the athletic attire of men—whether it be what they wear to practice or their actual competitive gear.

    I’m not making a comment about what men should or should not wear—just thought it was a huge disconnect for me on the subject of modesty.

    As for the cook and the glutton–I am a middle aged woman who likes to eat but doesn’t have the metabolism I once did—my weight struggles(or potential for gluttony)are mine to manage.

  4. Hi J! This is a great article and I agree with all your points. Just a question for you. What did you say to your sons when they were young and they saw a provocatively dressed woman? I’m not sure what I’m going to tell my little one (he’s a baby now but I love him so much and want to be ready to have those conversations when he’s older!)

    1. It depends on where the son saw the provocatively dressed woman. When they were tween/teen boys watching TV or a movie, and a woman clearly dressed (or not that dressed) to entice showed up on screen, I might casually mention it like, “Huh, that’s pretty revealing,” or even “That looks uncomfortable.” I wasn’t trying to disparage the woman but rather calmly point out that that’s not the best way for women to dress. If it was a woman in person, I might say something similar or I might point out something else about the woman, so that they notice not just what she’s wearing but something deeper about her; for instance, “I don’t know if you saw it, but that woman had gorgeous green eyes.”

      My sons also discussed what girls wore at school, so we had conversations about that at times, and I would point out that a lot of girls think they’re dressing cute without recognizing how much they’re really showing. They also pointed out to me that times had changed since I was their age, such that seeing girls’ bra straps didn’t begin to have the effect on high school guys that it would have had in my youth or earlier. But we also talked about instinctual reactions guys had to how some girls dressed, and the challenge of that as well as the ways of mastering that challenge.

      But all of this—ALL of it—was set on top of many, many discussions about respecting and caring for others. I talked about how you can respect or disrespect others both by what you wear and how you view people whatever they’re wearing.

      Mind you, I did not do this perfectly! You do not have to score 100% as a parent on these things. (There is only one perfect parent: God.) But these were my goals, and by making it an ongoing discussion, a passing grade got the point across.

  5. Thank you for your article. It seems you primarily spoke to the issue of men dealing with lust. Do you have any advise and/or resources you would recommend to a married woman dealing with the same struggle?

    1. I’ve written a few posts about women struggling in this way: Q&A with J: A Wife Struggling with Lust, Do You Dream about Others?, and Are Women Aroused by Visuals Too?. But I admit that I hear more from husbands dealing with lust than wives, so I have more posts about that.

      I don’t have specific resources to recommend, but I feel like I should! I need to compile a good list of books, courses, blog posts, etc. that can help with various issues, including this one. Thanks for the reminder!

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