Guest Post — Words Mean Something: Modesty and Lust
There’s been a lot of talk recently about The Lord’s Standard of Morality, as defined by Elder Tad R. Callister. I’d like to focus on just two words: modesty and lust.
Modesty in this talk is used rather narrowly to refer to clothing choices – particularly of women.
The scripture quoted to justify women’s modesty is 1 Timothy 2:9, which speaks against braided hair, gold, pearls and costly apparel. It mentions nothing about covering shoulders or knees. It mentions nothing about how men might be sexually titillated by their lack of covering. Elder Callister also missed the verses 11 and 12, which teach that women should be silent and should not be suffered to teach or have authority over men. Words mean things. Selectively using only a small section of a verse, without honoring the context, or even acknowledging that it exists, eviscerates the scriptures and pretends that revelation exists independently of culture – particularly unhelpful when talking about dress standards.
“But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; [...] for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7
The Lord teaches that we should not judge other people by their appearance. He teaches that we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions, to put off the “natural man”, to be aware of the poor among us rather than focusing on material things. Elder Callister is narrowing the rhetoric about modesty to the superficial message that “if it is too low or too high or too tight it may prompt improper thoughts”, and then quoting scripture inappropriately to support it.
“In the end, most women get the type of man they dress for.” – Elder Tad R. Callister
Unlike Callister’s narrow use of the term, modesty is actually a much broader concept. According to the Oxford American College Dictionary, it encompasses “the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities”. Modesty is about what goes on inside us, not what covers our bodies. If we are dressing with the intent to make others feel bad about their looks or belongings, if we are trying to show off our wit at the expense of others, if we flaunt our wealth as a measure of our personal value, we are being immodest. And because it concerns our intent, the only person’s modesty we can judge is our own.
When clothing is chosen because of its effect on others, it objectifies us, and rejects principles of agency and accountability. By constantly tying judgement of others into our rhetoric about modesty, it is impossible to treat our bodies as temples.
“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – Matthew 5:28
The sin pinpointed in this scripture occurs in the man’s heart, not in the woman’s body. Trying to locate blame elsewhere prevents true repentance, and encourages judging others. We have no control over other people’s emotions or actions. It took me a long time to learn that my father’s anger was not my responsibility. His agency is his own. I’m not about to start taking on the agency of others now.
“We do have the power within us to take control of our lives and our thoughts.” – Elder Tad R. Callister
The sin of lust is partly in encouraging thoughts of a sexual nature which occur out of the bounds of a committed, healthy relationship, and partly because it is using another’s body for our own gratification. We are not treating them as children of God. I think Elder Callister did a great job of outlining that sexual sin comes when we use others for our self-gratification, rather than treating them with unselfishness, though this got lost among his other, somewhat conflicting, messages.
Of course, lust – just as with modesty – does not exclusively have a sexual component. Lusting after inanimate objects is also possible, because lust – just as with modesty – is more about attitudes than actions.
Please, bridle your own passions, by all means. Just don’t try to rein in someone else.
(Olea loves the smell of spring mornings, the sound of an aeroplane readying for takeoff, the feel of the sun shining on her neck, the sight of cookies fresh out of the oven, and the taste of sweet victory over yet another tricky Gospel Doctrine lesson.)