I recently watched a video of a fellow talking to a group of young women about whether or not they should wear bikinis. You shouldn’t, he explained, because it makes men objectify you. He even cited several neurological studies showing that male brains literally process images of bikini-clad women as if they were things, rather than people. Thus, if you want to be valued for who you are, you ought to dress modestly, he concluded; men will be more likely to find you attractive if your own scantily-clad body isn’t running interference. In related news, recent studies have shown that water is wet.
Despite the obviousness of the advice, something about it didn’t feel quite right, for the same reason that I’m always a little troubled by warnings to young men that they shouldn’t look at porn because it will make them less suitable for godly young women. Well yes, obviously… but. If you tell a girl she shouldn’t wear a bikini because it will make young men objectify her, what happens when she wakes up one day and realizes she wouldn’t much mind being objectified if it means having someone to hold her? What happens when you tell a boy he shouldn’t look at porn because porn now will harm his relationship with his wife later, and he concludes he’s mostly just interested in porn now?
It’s so terribly easy to give someone the wrong reason for doing the right thing. It’s more natural, usually. On a certain level, “Modesty will help you get the right sort of husband” is more immediately compelling than “Modesty will glorify God.” And of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a good husband, or acting in pursuit of that goal; quite the opposite. But framing virtue primarily as a means to some intermediate end–even an unambiguously good one–just doesn’t work.
Quite simply, no good short of God Himself is worth the daily death to self that comes with the command, “Be ye holy.” Jesus warned his followers, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?” Only one prize is worth that price. Satan wants us to justify our virtue in the context of some earthly good, because he knows that no earthly good can ever justify the virtue that God demands. If that is our focus, we will eventually conclude it isn’t worth it… because it isn’t.
Even more importantly, the more self-focused our virtue is, the less we glorify God in what we do. “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full… When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Of course, there is a difference between an action motivated by pride and an action motivated by a desire for some real but not ultimate good. But as Peter learned on the Sea of Galilee, even a righteous desire can become dangerous if our eyes stray from Christ en route.
Of course, it is far from useless for a girl to remember that a bikini will make men objectify her, or for a guy to remind himself that porn will damage future relationships. In fact, the desire for the sort of joyful, complete marriage that is only possible between a man and woman joined together with the yoke of Christ can and should be a strong guard against these and similar sins. But it is essential that we cultivate the habit of tracing our morality back to its source in the being and command of God, allowing His glory to drown out any risk of these secondary goods becoming our primary motivations.