This year, an intensely complicated subject has continued to show up in my life. Jesus has been sending me ideas and perspectives that make me stand up and cheer “Yes, yes, yes, yes!”, make me gasp and say “That is so backwards!”, or even make me genuinely question what I’ve always thought. I’ve been learning so much, and I think it’s time I start voicing these things that have changed my life radically. What is this subject that has been affecting me so deeply?
I know what you’re probably thinking: “But, Tessa, we’ve already got this all figured out; you don’t need to question anything.” I used to think so, too. But what I’m finding is screaming otherwise. I’ve grown up in the church and wouldn’t change that at all; I love where I’m from, and I still attend the church I did when I was a baby. But I realize now that modesty is a much bigger issue than we think, in different ways than we expect. Can I share a bit of my story with you? There’s a part of me I wasn’t aware of until a few months ago–
I have sexuality.
That’s kind of a “duh” statement, isn’t it? I am a human being; I have sexuality. The end. But no one has ever simply told me that it’s okay to have sexuality. Do you want to know what people did tell me when I started growing up? “You need to be modest to keep boys from stumbling when they see you.”
And that’s all.
When that mixed with my inaccurate perception of sex, the message was incredibly clear to me that my sexuality was something to be detested and hidden away. I was still not fully aware of the reality of Jesus’ forgiveness at this point, so I associated my shame with who I was. To me, I didn’t have shame; I was shameful. I’ve always been modest with my clothing, more modest than anyone required of me. But it was never enough to me. If I was wearing a t-shirt, I would also be wearing two tanks tops under it. No matter how hard I tried, I was afraid that because I was a girl I was going to be a stumbling block.
A few months ago, I was still living in fearful modesty when I found an article someone had written– and almost cried because I related to everything she said. I hadn’t realized these things hurt me so much. While I didn’t agree with every argument the writer made after she shared her story, it brought an awareness to me that has been shaping every aspect of my life ever since, and that is–
Having sexuality is not sinful.
I know how obvious that is, but that just makes it even more terrible that I subconsciously believed it for so long. When my Bible study and youth group leaders would tell me to be modest, it was never for any reason but to keep boys safe or do my husband a favor. That implied to me that if I was seen, I was stealing someone from a deeper relationship with Jesus, and that terrified me. Cue t-shirt with two tank tops.
I want to take younger Tessa into my arms and let her cry about the shame she feels trapped in. I want her to hear C.S. Lewis when he says, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Most of all, I want her to realize that she isn’t being modest to save boys–
She is being modest because Jesus values her.
The famous Bible passage that speaks of being a stumbling block is Romans 14:13-23. It’s a beautiful passage that speaks of loving others through what you do with yourself. It says that if you wonder if something is sinful, for you it might as well be, and then relates that concept to other people; if you are doing something that isn’t sinful, but someone sees you doing it and they have never been able to without believing they are sinning, it is as if you are sinning in front of them, which places conflict inside them. We must not do that. However, when Paul penned these words, he didn’t happen to pen the word “modesty” in with them. This concept can definitely apply to modesty, but it is not at all saying that women have the responsibility to be modest in order to keep men from sinning; if anything, it is saying women should be modest to help other women.
Verses that do speak of modesty actually have quite a different take on it. First Timothy 2:9-10 says, Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness– with good works. And 1 Peter 3:4 says, Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. Both of these verses are on my closet and I deeply hold to them, but not for the same reasons I used to. I used to read them daily and tell myself, “Okay, Tessa. Don’t let anyone see you.” Today, I read them and tell myself: “Okay, Tessa. Let people see you.”
Yes, these verses tell me to be modest, but not because I need to protect the men I meet. These verses say that modesty is a way to practice self-control; that beautiful actions should be my focus; that the things about me worth noticing come from inside me; that Jesus adores my spirit. I honestly have no clue where we got the idea that modesty is for the protection of other people. Modesty is a virtue that involves humility and kindness, not something that is meant to be found solely in women and what we put on our bodies; it’s the unwillingness to draw attention to yourself in order to win praise. These verses speak to women, but that’s because women were seen as objects and Jesus wanted to say, “No! I see inside you, and I love the you that exists in there. You are not an object and need no decoration; you are precious, and you have the ability to do beautiful things in my name. I am in love with your spirit. With you.” Do you hear Him saying that to you? Because He is. The hidden person in you is His dearest treasure. He wants your spirit to shine brightly from your physical body. That’s why He asks you to be modest. Not to keep boys from sinning, not to give your husband a gift– to be a soul instead of a body. Your existence is not a stumbling block.
One more thing: because all we were told as girls in youth group about our sexuality was that we needed to be modest, I felt like a disgusting, lustful monster for having sexual desires.
If I ever voiced this, I might have been corrected. But I was too terrified, because… well, I felt like a disgusting, lustful monster, and I didn’t want to tell someone that I was! But I wasn’t. And I’m not. I have desires sometimes, because I have sexuality, but I am not a monster. And the girls in your church’s youth group, maybe even the grown women in your congregation, need to be told this about themselves. I passionately hate that we forget men aren’t the only ones who have desires. We hear about sex being “what men want” (which is another stereotype I detest), and whenever I heard this I would internally crumble into a pile of pain as I whispered, “I want it, too. Not right this moment and not in a weird obsessive way, but I want it.” I cried about it sometimes, in quiet moments by myself as I thought, “I shouldn’t be feeling this. Jesus doesn’t want me to feel this.”
So, precious girl, this is for you: having desires is normal, not sinful. Acting out of them right now or obsessing over them may be wrong, but having them does not make you wrong. The key is surrender, giving your entire self to Jesus to care for. This isn’t something you can go through without Him. Accept what you feel and ask Him to give you patience, not simply in your actions but in your soul, too. Your sexuality was His idea. He made you; He knows how to take care of you. Beloved, there is nothing wrong with you, and I don’t ever want you to feel that way again.
And church, I have a question. I’m not asking out of bitterness, although I was when I first learned these things. I just ache to know: why didn’t you tell me? Why did it take so many shame-filled years for me to finally understand that I could have desires without being a monster? That all it took was trusting Jesus to take care of me? And why did you put effort into teaching me about modesty, yet ignore teaching boys to see me as a soul? Why did you talk to me and boys about their desires, yet say nothing about mine? And why didn’t you explain that modesty goes way beyond clothing?
Be modest, yes. But remember that modesty doesn’t stop at what you put on your body; you can be modest in your words, your actions, your spirit. And He’s teaching you to let your spirit, your soul, shine out of you and be what everyone remembers after they see you. You are not a stumbling block or a monster. You are precious. Allow that be seen.