Modesty on the Mount

I have to admit that I’m alternately irritated by, and fascinated with, the ongoing discussion of modesty making its way around my blogging circles. In one sense, I think it’s one of those issues that most people outside evangelical circles never think about and would probably find slightly bizarre. And it seems like a whole lot of people feel a need to loudly agree with each other, even though the “opposition” is largely sympathetic – mostly trying to nuance the discussion more than silence it.

On the other hand, I think it’s a terribly interesting test case for our understanding of 1) rules/laws/guidelines/grace and 2) sexuality; and it has been formative, and reflective, of my own personal relationships to those things (and, you know, people and God). I’ve also been a little disturbed by the arguments of some people whose conclusions I agree with, and challenged by some of those I disagree with.

I offered my impressionistic/narrative/personal take last week. Purely in the interest of collecting my own thoughts, I’ll be working through some more systematic ideas in a four-part series now, using the Modesty issue to frame some other stuff about rules, grace, sexuality, and community.

The whole big issue starts with these people going around saying that others’ lack of modesty hurts them by causing/contributing/making it difficult for them not to lust.

And then the chain of events stops there. You got dressed, I looked, I “lusted”.

So what’s even bad about that?

Did Jesus tell us not to lust in the Sermon on the Mount just to make our lives difficult? It seems kind of cruel if you look at it that way. “Haha,” thought the Son of God, “they think they have mastered the no-adultery commandment. Watch them squirm when I throw this one at them! I just wiped alllllll the checks off your holiness list. Back to square zero.”

But even if people took (and continue to take) it that way, that is really not what Jesus was saying. Jesus was trying to explode the very idea of the holiness list.

This isn’t to say, as I’ve heard too many times in my life, that Jesus was demonstrating how impossible it is to be holy. That is a cop-out at worst, and a gross misreading at best, since the commandment not to lust is nestled in the same chapter of Matthew where Jesus says, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

But perfection or holiness or pleasing God cannot be reduced to lists of actions – awesome, another day without committing adultery.

 Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “You have used your adherence to outward standards to manipulate God, to pat yourselves on the back, and to shame other people – and now your relationships are more broken than ever. But holiness is not a thing you do or accomplish. It is a way of being, a lifelong transformation into greater love and humility.”

When we let God transform us, we see ourselves and other people in new ways. We approach the world with a new awakening to the beauty, the gift in it all. We are completely re-oriented to everything we thought we knew. That’s something rules alone cannot do.

We have to keep this context in mind. If you’re a Christian and you want to talk about lust, you need to have Matthew 5 in front of you. Of course there are lots of other places in Scripture that can help us nuance this discussion, but Jesus’ words are, I think, where the discussion (preoccupation?) began, and where it can end.

Stick around; this is just the groundwork for the rest of the series all week!
Part 1: Modesty on the Mount
Part 2: Lust is and isn’t
Part 3: Sex in community
Part 4: Building Up

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