I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "you can't judge a book by its cover." Often, it's true. Of course, this phrase began long before books had illustrations on the cover itself--which today does often reveal much of what's inside. When my wife takes the children to the library and she sorts through what books are appropriate or not, many of them can be abandoned based simply on what illustrations are on the outside, or what is said of the book on the dust jacket. It may be that she'll make a mistake once in a while, and leave behind a reasonably good book, but I suspect that on the whole, she's kept far more bad than good from the children. In some ways, this is true of people as well. Now, I don't mean we ought to determine who might be more receptive to the gospel based on how they look; but I do mean this: whether we like it or not, people often do judge us by how we look--and at times, they'll be right. In the same way that the cover illustration or the synopsis on the dust jacket are intended to give an idea of what's inside, the same can be true for us--in how we dress and behave. The author or publisher will spend a great deal of time trying to decide how to properly package the book, so that it both appeals to the public, and so that it gives an accurate idea of what is inside. We do the same thing in the way we dress--and we need to give serious thought as to the kind of message that will come across.
We dress the part
In Genesis 41, Joseph had been in the dungeon of the king of Egypt for two years. Suddenly, the king had need of him; and so, before he came to see him, verse 14 reports that Joseph shaved himself and changed his clothes. Now, why would he have done that? I suspect it would be for the very same reason we might dress in a suit and tie before coming to see a judge: you want to make a favorable impression. It may be that you have done nothing wrong; yet if you decided to go in sweatpants and a tee-shirt, you would be showing both apathy and a lack of respect for the judge. Joseph was going before the king; and by caring for his appearance, he showed that he respected the position of the king.
The truth is, clothes do not make an individual; but they can reflect thier character. There are some things that we have no real control over; for instance, how much money we have is also reflected in how we dress. My parents never had a lot of money, so nearly all of my clothes came from a thrift shop. That naturally had an effect on how I dressed! Of course, scripture recognizes this: in Jas 2:1-9 we see that some will have more of this worlds' materials than others; but it also outlines the principle that differences like that make no difference at all in God's eyes--and if God sees no spiritual difference between rich and poor, neither should we. So I'm not referring to the price or quality of clothing; we don't always have a great deal of control over our income.
From the heart...
There are some things, though, that we do have control over--and in particular, I'm referring to our heart. Jesus said, "...from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man." (Mk 7:21-23) The point is that what is within our heart will bubble up to the surface; so that often, the way we dress reflects what is in the heart.
As an example, in the book of Proverbs chapter 7, we read of a young man that was walking the city streets, when, in verse 10, "...behold, a woman comes to meet him, Dressed as a harlot and cunning of heart." She was dressed as a prostitute! It was in her heart to commit adultery with him, and that attitude was reflected in what she wore. Her sole intent was to seduce that young man, so she dressed the part--and in fact, as the story goes on, he fell for it.
How we dress does make a difference in life--particularly if we dress immodestly. Even among Christians, there are some that dress immodestly; and yet, they don't even recognize it. Chances are that they would be able to look at someone else and see a problem there--they could tell if someone else was dressed as a prostitute--but they would never say that of themselves. How is it, though, that we could tell whether or not we were dressed that way? One way might be to examine the heart.
It's been reported that a poll conducted some years back revealed that sixty percent of men that went to the beach went there mainly to watch the women--and thirty percent of the women went because they wanted to be watched (Bulletin Briefs, Dunlap church of Christ, Dunlap, TN, July 2003). Now, although they would likely never admit it to be so, the fact is, they were dressed as prostitutes. In a very real way, their goal was to arouse the desire in the men around them--just like a prostitute does by her clothing. We need to examine our heart as to why we dress the way we do. If we dress provocatively so that we can attract those of the other sex then we have an evil attitude of heart, and are certainly dressing as prostitutes.
That's their problem!
But, you may say, "what if my conscience is entirely clean?" If you're a female, you may ask, "what if my heart is pure, and the only reason I dress the way I do is that shorts and a halter-top are so much cooler? It's his problem if he has a dirty mind!" The weather is hot at times right now, and no one could deny that; but if you think that his sin in lusting after you is entirely his problem, it's not true. In Mt 18:6,7, Jesus was speaking of how His disciples were to be as children. He continues, "...whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me [that is, one of His disciples,] to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks!" Now a stumbling block is something that is placed in someone's way that causes them to fall, or stumble; so here it means something by which another is drawn into error or sin (Thayer). This being so, Jesus continues, "...it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!" Simply because you give no thought to providing temptation to another by a low cut blouse, or by a short skirt, you aren't absolved of that responsibility.
How should we dress?
A good question to ask, then, is "how should we dress?" Paul, speaking of how women ought to behave, wrote, "...I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness." (1 Tim 2:9-10) Paul was not saying that women were not to have braided hair, or good clothing--this was a Hebrew way of saying that what was to come next in the passage was better. Rather, he was saying that women were to dress modestly--not so that they would attract attention with physical beauty, but rather that they should have the far more beautiful jewelry of good works.
Peter said something very similar in 1 Peter 3:3,4. There, he said of a married woman that her "...adornment must not be merely external--braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God." Her behavior was much more important than what she wore. It's not wrong to dress neatly and to try to look nice--Joseph did that. Yet, the outward appearance cannot become our focus; we must be primarily concerned with the hidden person, the inward appearance--how we look to God.
All these points apply to men as well as women; a woman can be tempted in the same ways as a man. If we are truly concerned with the souls of others, we will not wear clothing that may cause them to stumble and sin; instead of trying to make ourselves physically attractive to those of the opposite sex, we'll busy ourselves trying to become beautiful on the inside, which will bring eternal reward.
There are two passages in particular that vividly describe the behavior of godly individuals: one refers to the "worthy woman," found in Prov 31:10-31, and is a beautiful description of a wife who's worth is far above jewels. The other describes a counterpart of the "worthy woman"--a sort of a "worthy man"; that passage is Job 31. There, in defending his integrity, Job pointed out how he had behaved--and it was behavior well worth imitating. It's important to note that in neither passage does how the individual looked play a part in their worth--the emphasis is all on character and behavior. In fact, in the only reference to beauty in the two passages, we read, "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised." (Prov 31:30)
Paul wrote to the Philippians that they appeared "...as lights in the world," "in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation" (Phil 2:15). The picture that he gives is of beautiful pinpoints of light against the black darkness of the night sky. Christians should, by their chaste behavior and modest dress, stand out in sharp contrast to those of the world.
Brothers and Sisters, let's consider each other, and not dress in such a way that we tempt one another or anyone else to sin; but instead, adorn our inner being with the spiritual growth that God wants to see in us.