A Theology of Sex: Lust and Modesty

Responsibility isn’t popular, blame-shifting is. In our therapeutic culture nothing is ever an issue of personal responsibility, we are always the victims. In the area of lust this is evidently true as we have often shifted the responsibility from the men who lust to the women who clothe themselves. Modesty, we are often told (especially in the church) is the key to defeating lust. But according to the Bible lust is an issue of the heart not an issue of the closet.

There is a popular conception of lust that blames a woman for her clothing choices. What a woman chooses to put on when she gets up in the morning and goes out in public will either causes a man to “stumble” or it will help him to remain pure. The onus, we are told, rests largely on the shoulders of the woman. For multiple reasons I don’t believe this is an accurate picture of reality.

For starters lust is an issue of the heart. Men will find a way to lust and fantasize regardless of what a woman wears. As one author recently put it, “Let’s be honest, boys (or many boys, at least) can be tempted to lust after a woman no matter what she does or does not wear.” Even covered from head to toe, men can find a way to lust. That’s because lust is not primarily a visual temptation. It begins in the heart. The Bible describes lust as a heart issue. Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

At the moment that you look on someone with lust, Jesus says you have already committed adultery with her in your “heart.” Even more telling, perhaps, is Matthew 15:19. Here Jesus clearly states that it is “out of the heart” that sexual immorality comes. Lust is a heart issue, and the responsibility falls on the one lusting, not on the one being lusted after.

And a man has no excuse for his lust. He won’t be able to look at Jesus on the day of judgment and say, “She was practically asking for me to sin against you God. I mean did you see that shirt she was wearing?” You cannot blame anyone else for your sin, no matter how they dress or what they wear. The burden for fighting sin rests squarely on our shoulders. I love what Dianna Anderson wrote about this subject. Speaking of a recent survey conducted by some young Christian men, Anderson said:

The danger with surveys like this is that they give them impression that the main burden of preventing boys from lusting belongs on girls. And that it is reasonable for them to try to come up with a list of do’s-and-don’t’s to avoiding causing a brother to stumble.

Lists are rarely, if ever helpful. In fact, this survey implies through its questions that you might cause some boys to stumble by the way you walk, sit, and lie down, which doesn’t leave a lot of options for girls who are alive.The danger with surveys like this is that they give them impression that the main burden of preventing boys from lusting belongs on girls. And that it is reasonable for them to try to come up with a list of do’s-and-don’t’s to avoiding causing a brother to stumble.

It is unfair, unreasonable, and irresponsible to put the burden upon women to resolve a man’s lust problem. And of course the opposite is true too. Men are not responsible for a woman’s lust issues, because after all women do lust too. If lust is a heart issue than each of us must deal with our hearts before we start pointing the finger at someone else’s clothing.

Modest too is not simply about what people wear. The Bible paints a picture of modesty that directs us again and again to the inner character of a woman. Rachel Miller recently composed a short reflection on three Biblical passages that discuss modesty. She noticed rather quickly that the Bible “gives very little by way of specifics as to what modest clothing looks like.” Rather she observed that it speaks to the character and inner beauty of a woman. 1 Timothy 2:8-10 instructs women not to focus on their outward appearance, but to focus on living godly lives. In 1 Peter 3:3-4 we find the same dichotomy of internal versus external. But the point of the contrast is not, as best I can tell, to suggest that the external is bad or wrong or sinful. It’s not to suggest that physical adornment, as Peter calls it, is bad, but rather to turn our focus from the external to the internal. God cares more about the heart. Finally, Miller directs her readers to Proverbs 31. The famous passage gives us a picture of a model woman, but the passage is focused on her character not on her dress or appearance.

Again and again the Bible does not suggest to us that modesty is about what you wear but about who you are. Modesty is a heart issue just as lust is a heart issue. If a woman dresses to provoke or incite others to lust then she sins regardless of what she wears. But if her character is a model of virtue and righteousness then she will dress accordingly. It’s not about composing a list of acceptable clothing. Such lists are unnecessary, unhelpful, and often can’t cover the subjective reality of temptation. All this talk about lust and modesty must focus on the heart and put the burden of responsibility where it genuinely lies. Lust and modesty certainly go together, but not in the way that so many assume.


  1. Thanks for the link.

  2. Phil Sr. says:

    Dave, I think your comments about The theology of sex: Lust and Modesty are well written..I think I will have my grandkids read it…It just might enlighten them, as it did me….Thank you..Phil Sr.

  3. Dave, great post. This also fits nicely with a couple articles I recently wrote on my blog, also picking up on some of Rachel Miller’s points. If you are interested, see


  4. Dave, note the typo in one of your block quotes; you give the quote twice. Feel free to delete this comment after you’ve edited it.

  5. Robie Day says:

    Thanks for the helpful thoughts Dave. I’m preaching on this passage Sunday.

  6. I have had enough with all these stumbling block teachings.

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