Heath Lambert: Last week was the week of Memorial Day which is the unofficial start of summer for so many people that listen to this podcast. We want to begin the summer by talking about some issues that Christians need to think through with regard to purity and modesty. Last week we talked about purity at the pool and how to cultivate a heart of purity when you’re in a situation where you might be seeing a lot of immodest people. This week, we want to deal with the other side of that coin and talk about how to actually be modest when you show up at the pool or the beach.
Our guest on the podcast this week is Martha Peace. She is a certified Biblical counselor with ACBC, she counsels at her church, Faith Bible Church in their counseling Ministry, Faith Biblical Counseling Center. She is a popular conference speaker, and she’s also the author of many books—most relevantly for the topic this week, her most recent book, Modesty: More Than a Change of Clothes. Martha is also my adopted mom and we are happy to have her on the podcast this week.
Martha, we want to talk about this issue of modesty at the pool and modesty at the beach. When we gather for these summer activities, there is the call upon the Christian to engage in those activities in a way that portrays modesty in their dress. But before we can really get into the nitty-gritty on this, we have to know what it means to be modest and what it means to be immodest. So can you help us understand what’s going on there?
Martha Peace: Well, Kent Keller is one of my pastors and he and I wrote the Modesty book together. We initially titled the book A Gold Ring in a Pig’s Snout, and the publisher didn’t like that, but we loved our title. But anyway, they made us change it.
But anyhow, we defined immodesty as an attitude of the heart that expresses itself with inappropriate words, actions, expressions, and/or clothing that are flirtatious, manipulative, revealing, or suggestive of sensuality or pride. And then we defined modesty as an inner attitude of the heart motivated by a love for God that seeks His glory through purity and humility. It often reveals itself in words, actions, expressions, and clothes. So it’s just much more than a list of rules and regulations about your clothing.
Heath Lambert: You know when I read your book, one of the things that I appreciated the most about it was the comprehensive definitions you provided for each of those realities. You’ve got the issue of the heart dynamic, but also, the behavior—and the behavior is not just about clothes either, it’s about what you say, and it’s about all kinds of things. So why is it so important to have a comprehensive definition and understanding of modesty and immodesty like that?
Martha Peace: Well, the challenge in writing this book, and even talking to people about modesty, is the issue of legalism. Because the first thing you want to do is just make a list of “do this, don’t do this” that kind of thing. And if you’re dealing with someone who is not a Christian, then they really don’t have the heart for God that they should have and it’s very hard. You need to start over with them and go back to the Gospel. Then parents, of course, are in a dilemma. If they’ve got unsaved daughters and they want them to be modest they’re just going to have to come up with their own standards and be firm about it.
Heath Lambert: Well, as we translate that important reality—this begins in the heart, it begins with the Gospel and then that translates into decisions about clothing—how do we work that out? When we think about, for example, a young woman making a decision about the kind of swimsuit she’s going to buy to go to a pool party or to spend a week at the beach. How do we work that out?
Martha Peace: Well, because it begins in the heart, you would want to explain to her that a godly woman would want to show love to God and love to others. That would mean she would desire two things. One, she would want to obey God. That wouldn’t be a burden for her if she really knows the Lord and loves Him. It would be her joy, 1 John 5:3 tells us. Then she doesn’t want to unnecessarily tempt the boys and the men around her to think wrongly when they see how she dresses and acts. Showing love to others is the second greatest commandment. 1 Corinthians 13 says love doesn’t act unbecomingly, it doesn’t seek its own way, and it doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness. So, if she loves the Lord, and she loves others she would not want to tempt them unnecessarily.
Heath Lambert: So, will this mean that a Christian young woman will make a decision about what she’s going to wear to exclude a two-piece bathing suit? Is that going to mean only certain kinds of bathing suits? What’s that going to mean in real practical terms?
Martha Peace: Well, if we could go back to my great-grandmother’s Victorian day and see what they wore at the beach, that would be better. But we can’t do that. So, whether it’s one-piece or two-piece—usually one piece is better—but they both can be very sensual and they can show outlines of private parts—it can be very immodest. She needs to try it on and lean over and look in a mirror and see what is showing there. I believe there are websites where you can go to find modest clothing for girls and women, and probably bathing suits too. So, they just have to try them on, take their parents with them—at least their mothers—and make sure that it’s okay with them and just look at every angle—front, back, side, lifting their arms up. It should not be a trauma for the mother and the daughter. It should be fun for them to go do this. I know a Christian woman, who has a swimming pool and they invite the church family over once a week to swim in their pool and she keeps a pile of oversized t-shirts. If she thinks the girls are immodest then she just says, “okay slip this on over your head,” and they have a good time, they know what she’s like and they’re not unnecessarily tempting the guys that are around.
Heath Lambert: We have—in my own ministry—dealt with this a number of times, and in a number of ways, with young girls in the youth group, with family friends. When you start talking about the issue of being modest at the pool and purchasing a swimsuit that is not unduly revealing, it gets into all sorts of objections and all sorts of protests. Here at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, we have an extensive research arm and we used that research arm to come up with a list of potential objections to what we’re talking about here—the need to be modest at the pool. I want to go with you through some of the objections that our highly skilled researchers uncovered from young women. I want to just hear your response to those objections.
So one objection to, “hey, we need to wear modest swimming attire,” is the objection that “well, I want to be comfortable at the pool. I want to be comfortable at the beach and this two-piece—this bikini—is just more comfortable when it’s so hot outside.”
Martha Peace: Well, I think if you really want to be comfortable, you just want to go naked. I mean, that’s even better. So, if the bathing suit is big enough for them, they’re going to be comfortable. I just want to be comfortable in God’s eyes.
Heath Lambert: Okay, that’s good.
All right, here is another objection, “I have looked all over the place and I can’t find a one-piece that fits, or I can’t find a one-piece that really looks good on me.”
Martha Peace: Well, then you just don’t go swimming. It’s not worth sinning against God. You just have to keep looking. That’s all I know to say.
Heath Lambert: That’s good. So keep looking, maybe you haven’t looked hard enough. And if you really, really can’t find one, it’d be better not to go swimming than to sin against the Lord.
Martha Peace: You know, some of these places like L.L. Bean and Lands’ End, they have these bathing suits that are sunproof, and they’re even long-sleeved and high neck. Not because of modesty but because people don’t want to get sunburned and ruin their skin, and some of them are adorable. Some of the bathing suit bottoms are like little skirts. I mean, they’re just adorable. There’s no reason why they can’t find something that would look good on them.
Heath Lambert: Yeah, I always wear swimming trunks and a swimming shirt when I go swimming and there are two reasons—one is because I’m trying to love my neighbor—and two is because I don’t want to get sunburned. So, there are all kinds of reasons to be looking for those kinds of things.
All right, here’s another objection, “all of my friends are dressing this way, why can’t I? It’s just one more person.”
Martha Peace: Well, our standard is not what our friends do. Our standard is the Scriptures and wanting to be chaste and pure. 1 Timothy tells us to dress modestly and discreetly. So, that’s our standard.
Heath Lambert: Okay, here’s another one, “it’s cute. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just cute.”
Martha Peace: Well, the guys are thinking something else and it’s not cute. They’re thinking of her in a sexual way and it’s a struggle for them—a terrible struggle.
Heath Lambert: Okay, so that’s actually a good segue into our last objection. Our last objection is the one we heard most commonly as we were looking into this, “why not wear a bikini? It’s the guy’s problem. It’s the guys’ issue with lust, it’s not my problem. Let’s let them be responsible for their stuff and I’ll be responsible for mine.”
Martha Peace: Well, it’s both of their problems. The guys really do struggle with this and it’s not just the young men—it’s the middle-aged men, it’s the old men, it’s the pastors—it’s everybody. It’s a sin that is common to men and they really have to struggle sometimes to take their thoughts captive and to honor the women, and the people that they are around and not think wrongly about them. But, this is what I tell women—some women are naive. They really don’t understand the effect that it has on men. In our book, we do explain it, not in a sensual way, but we make it clear. Once you know that, then you’re not just naive. If you continue to dress and act in a sensual way then, really and truly, I think you’re a harlot in your heart, and you’re doing it deliberately. So we assume that women, young women, don’t know and they are innocent or naive about that. But once they’re told, then they need to stop doing it. And it is both of their problems.
Why would anybody want to tempt another Christian or even a non-believer? A godly woman would not want to unnecessarily tempt the boys and men around her to think wrongly. A godly man would want to be attracted to her true beauty, the gentle and quiet spirit, and the one who loves Lord with all her heart.
Heath Lambert: You know, one of the things I notice when we were looking into those objections and hearing those objections, is they are fundamentally self-oriented. It’s about me and what I want. As I listened to your responses to those and how you’re explaining modesty, you’re saying this really isn’t about you at all. This is about honoring and loving the Lord first, and honoring and loving your neighbor second. Is that about the difference?
Martha Peace: I agree totally. It’s a self-focus, a selfish focus, it’s a worldly focus, and it’s loving the world. Culture does change, styles do change. Sometimes it gets harder and harder to find appropriate dress and styles. But, you don’t have to look like Little House on the Prairie and be covered from head to toe like my great-grandmother was. You can look stylish, but you can also be modest and look like a godly woman. And you know what? It’s not just at the beach or the pool—it’s at Walmart, it’s at church, it’s anywhere you go. I know people that dress modestly at church and then you see them out and about and you’re like, “oh my word.” I have grandchildren, I have granddaughters, and we have to discuss things sometimes.