It’s January in Minneapolis. We’re freezing. So talking about modesty seems untimely, but perhaps an off-season conversation is a good time to go deeper into the heart of the concerns. In any case, God talks about modesty, so I guess the topic is never really out of season. The specific question today comes from an honest anonymous listener to the podcast. “Pastor John, thank you for this podcast and for your honesty. I will speak honestly here. I am a 22-year-old single woman, consumed with my physical appearance and how pretty others think I am. God is definitely working on me, though, because I don’t buy clothes or other material things nearly as much as I used to. He’s also given me a desire to dress modestly. But I still care a lot about how I look and find it hard to buy modest clothing because I think more revealing clothing is sexier. I trust in my looks to get me a husband more than God, that’s the root issue, I think. I continuously look for compliments, and when I do get one, my ego is fed. When I don’t get one, my ego craves attention. I hate judging myself and others on their physical appearance — it’s tiring, disgusting, and not at all pleasing to the Lord. I don’t want to be like the women in Isaiah 3:16–26. Can you help me know how to cultivate beauty in my heart and in my faith in God alone?”
One of the things that our 22-year-old friend does not tell us is what she spends her time feasting her eyes on. I would just say as a kind of preempting strike that a stream that feeds the river of sensuality needs to be cut off. If you are spending hour after hour watching television, movies, videos, there’s little hope that you will be set free from the bondage of wanting to look sexy.
It is a bondage. You’ve described it as one because that desire, that bondage, is continuously fed and strengthened both blatantly and subtly in almost all advertisements and programming. Just when you think you have found a program that might not awaken that desire, there’s that one scene and the whole month’s worth of mortifying sin is undone in a moment.
Guard Your Eyes
Let’s take the words of Jesus and apply it to women. I don’t know how many women do this, but everyone should look at these words. Men don’t have to take and convert the passage to appropriate language for men because it’s addressed to men directly. It’s our issue.
Women, though, should do this — take the words of Jesus that are addressed to men in Matthew 5:27–29 and convert them into appropriate language for women. Believe me — Tony would vouch for this, I think — based on the questions we’re getting at APJ, there are major sexual-temptation issues going on for women as well as men.
“The guy you’re attracting by showing more skin is not the guy you want to marry.”
Here’s what Jesus would say if he had said those words today: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ You women, you should not commit adultery. But I say to you that every woman who looks at a man, or a woman with a sexy outfit, or a kissing scene on television, or who reads about sexual intercourse in a novel, or listens to one on Audible, or does anything else that feeds the desire to lure their eyes with sexiness has already committed adultery in her heart.” He’s going to be just as blunt with women as he is with us guys, surely. “If your right eye causes you to sin, women, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body would be thrown into hell.” Jesus says that to men and women.
Now when Jesus says, “Tear out your eye,” surely he at least means stop using the eye to feed the desire. It may not be possible to avoid every sin-awakening sight in our culture, but it is possible to keep dozens of them out of your eye. It is possible to set before you worthy things, holy things, beautiful things. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Surely, Paul said that because of the principle “garbage in, garbage out,” or “sexy in, sexy out.”
The principle here is this: find the streams that are feeding the river of sensual desire, and cut them off.
The Root Issue
Our friend says, “But I still care a lot about how I look and find it hard to buy modest clothing because I think more revealing clothing is sexier.” Well, of course revealing clothing is sexier. Then, the question is, why would you want to offer your sexiness to every passerby? She suggests part of the answer in the next sentence. She says, “I trust in my looks to get me a husband more than I trust in God. That’s the root issue, I think.”
My response to that is, personally, I doubt it. I doubt that’s the root issue, since there are many married women who intend to stay married who try to look sexy for everybody to see. There are many single women who have no intention of getting married anytime soon who also try to look sexy for everybody to see.
I doubt that the desire for a husband is the root issue, but let me say something about that since she raised it. That’s obviously a big issue for her. The guy you are attracting by sexiness is not the guy you want to marry. I’m going to repeat it: the guy you are attracting by sexiness is not the guy you want to marry.
Jesus is telling the guy you want to marry to tear out his eye instead of looking at you when you dress like that. That’s not going to work. That’s not going to work.
Sexiness Is Power
Of course, sexy is power. That’s closer to the root issue, isn’t it? Many women know that revealing more skin gets them more power. But here’s the catch: of course there’s more power in sexiness if you want to pull a man by his hormones and not his heart.
Let me be more crass, okay? Okay to be crass here on this issue? There’s more power in sexiness if your aim is to hook a man in his groin and not his godliness. Of course. This is not rocket science. That’s not the way you want to find a husband. Please, it’s not. Trust me, 22-year-old — you’re my daughter’s age.
Here’s another sentence that goes deeper, I think. She got this one. It goes deeper than the desire for a husband, and this is the heart of the matter. She says, “I continuously look for compliments, and when I do get one, my ego is fed. When I don’t get one, my ego craves attention.”
“Many women know that revealing more skin gets them more power.”
Now that’s right, and it’s not unique to women. John Piper is as vulnerable to that as anybody. It is utterly and deeply human. It is very near the core of what makes us fallen sinners. The Pharisees, Jesus said, lived for the approval and praise of other people, and he called it one of the most deadly dispositions in the world. He said in John 5:44 that it’ll keep you from believing in Jesus: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
This is one of the most damning sentences in the Bible for those who live for the praise of other people, because it cuts them off from what it means to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord and Treasure.
Paul said in Romans 2:28–29 that true Christianity is not outward and physical, but inward — a matter of the heart, by the Spirit. For the true Christian, here’s the key sentence: “His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29). Oh, God, let it be for all of us. This is the core issue in life. Where is this woman’s hope for acceptance and love and affirmation and significance and satisfaction? Where is it? Sometimes when we read about the beauty that 1 Peter calls against — superficial, external beauty — we often stop reading just before we get to the key verse, 1 Peter 3:5.
“Fearless hope in God — that’s the great need of men and women.”
Here’s what I mean. Here’s what he says, “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but 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” — and that’s where we often stop (1 Peter 3:3–4). Here’s what happens if you keep going: “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” Then it ends to say you can be like these holy women: “You are her children if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
Fearless hope in God — that’s the great need of men and women. God is 10,000 times greater than any husband. His look of approval and favor is 10,000 times more valuable than the glance of any hormone-heated man in an airport or any woman who says, “Cute outfit.” Oh, how wonderful and satisfying and significant is the identity that God offers us in Jesus.
I wish I knew her name, but I’m saying to our friend (our 22-year-old honest friend who represents thousands), ask the Lord to make this — what I’m going to read right now — ask him to make this deeply, personally, even sexually sufficient: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. . . . Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you, . . . everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:1, 4–5, 7).