If the Grove were so good for them, why should it not be good for him? He was a Jew; could it be that the excellencies were for all the world but children of Abraham?
Those two sentences struck me quite forceably as I was reading through the chapter, and I think these words have some applications in the area of modesty and beauty. I've had a few requests from commenters in recent months, asking me to do a post on female apparel. I'm finally honoring that request, though, in typical Susan-fashion, I'm taking a slightly different look at the issue than is probably expected :).
In my opinion, there are many, many excellent treatise in the blogosphere on the subject of Christian, female modesty. I see no reason to add my superfluous general comments to the mix, but I will say that women have the responsibility to build up their brothers in Christ, not tear them down by walking around in various stages of undress. For my musings on complementary dress, see my post last fall. But when female apparel is analyzed and wittled down to a list of "do's and don't's," then we've lost the real issue. It shouldn't be a matter of measuring our hemlines or making hard-and-fast rules such as "skirts are the only legitimate apparel for women." The real issue is the heart. How does this manifest itself? In different ways for different women. How was that for ambiguous :)?
But now for the purpose of this post. Oftentimes Christian women look around them, see the flashy, attractive fashions that the world has to offer, glance back at what many in the Christian community have deemed "acceptable" clothing, and they ponder, like Judah Ben-Hur, are excellencies for all the world but Abraham's daughters? We Christian women are presented with a false dichotomy: attractive, seductive clothing or frumpy, modest clothing. It seems we have to choose between beauty or conviction.
Or do we?
Believe me, as a former homeschooled girl who fit many of the stereotypes ;), I've tried about every form of modest apparel out there: long baggy shorts, culottes, super-loose t-shirts, relaxed-fit jeans, sweatshirts, layered shirts for opaqueness, long billowy skirts, jean jumpers. You name it, I've probably tried it. Except the flour sack look; I never did do that :).
I've discovered along the way that one does not have to be frumpy to be modest. When it comes to female dress, most conservative Christians stress modesty so much (a good thing, mind you!) that they overlook the lovely references to female beauty throughout the Bible. God delights in beauty! Loveliness is included among purity and truth in Philippians 4. Look at the beautiful details given to the Old Testament temple, and look at the inspiring descriptions of Old Testament women as they are adorned for their husbands. Dressing in a shapeless piece of sack clothing may keep my brothers in Christ from lusting after me, but at the same time I would be missing out on the opportunity to show others that excellencies are not for all the world but Abraham's children. Take a few amusing anecdotes:
During one of my phases (believe me, I've had many!) in apparel, I mostly wore shapeless denim skirts everyday, topped with a loose t-shirt. These skirts were primarily of either the straight (one-legged trouser) variety, or the extremely loose and baggy variety, and the shirts were not exactly gracefully-feminine, though they were modest! That was also the semester I wore my hair in a bun to classes for the first two months straight. Quite frankly, I looked like I was part of a cult. And I was asked that, in so many words, by one of my classmates :). I didn't exactly make a great advertisement for the delights of feminine modesty and decorum that semester!
Or, take another example. I wear headcoverings in worship on Sundays. When I first had this conviction, I had one suitable straw hat to wear, which served me well in the spring and summer, nicely accessorized by coordinating cotton-print bands. But come winter, and straw hats were not seasonable items :(, so I opted for the cotton-scarf-tied-on-the-head look. Especially if coupled with my granny boots, this was not attractive with most (not all) outfits. I looked like I belonged in The Beverly Hillbillies. Trust me.
I've now opted to shed the shapeless or extra-baggy skirts. And I make sure that I wear scarves for coverings only when carefully paired with complementary outfits. And the differences are amazing. I don't get weird you-belong-in-a-cult looks anymore. My reasonably-sized knit tops or tailored blouses and my long, flowing skirts get looks, yes, but not the same sympathetic looks I got before ;-). I get compliments and looks of respect. Men open doors for me. Women in my church tell me how beautiful my wool hats and coordinating silk scarves are.
Now, please, please don't read this post and think I'm trying to pat myself on the back. Notice I spent 2-3 paragraphs laughing over my frumpy past, and only 1 trying to explain ways I hope I've improved. That balance was intentional. I'm merely trying to explain ways I have sought to change, and my success is not for me to judge. And I'm still learning :).
Beauty is an important tool we are given in the fight against the world. Don't miss it! If we've managed to keep our flesh hidden from the eyes of our brothers, good! But if in the process we've presented a very unattractive picture of godly apparel, then I think we've failed to display God's glory, beauty, and majesty.
Does this mean that as Christian women we should dress in ball gowns on a daily basis? No. Should we never wear denim? No. I still have denim skirts, I still have scarves to tie in my hair, and I still have knit tops (though they are now of an appropriate size. . . ). I still have granny boots, though I continue to find myself preferring slip-on dress shoes. I like to wear semi-nice clothing on a regular basis, but I don't think this is a requirement! It's easy to make dressing nice into a struggle with vanity and pride. Believe me! Perhaps your own application of this post is to wear clothes that are in style, yet still modest. We don't all have to wear the classic feminine style :). Dress in a way that is modest and that shows that you are female. And dress in a way that will not evoke pity, but rather respect. You fill in the details :).
A note of caution: remember that the most important type of beauty comes from within, as the women of the past adorned themselves. As is such with all of God's good gifts, it is easy to take beauty and misuse it, and set it on a pedestal where it should not be. And it is easy to take the world's definition of beauty and apply it to ourselves. Any outward beauty should be a reflection of our inner beauty, as we are becoming more and more like Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
My goal in dressing used to be to portray the "homeschool" look, whether that manifest itself in the form of a denim jumper, Ked shoes, long baggy shorts, or a billowy top. Now, though, I try to look in the mirror and ponder if my apparel is giving modesty a good name. Am I portraying conviction as something that makes people dull, boring, and frumpy, or are people learning by my example that excellencies are also for the daughters of Abraham? I pray the latter. Beauty and modesty are not mutually exclusive.