The Rebellion of Nudity and the Meaning of Clothing
- John Piper Desiring God
- 2011 8 Aug
The first consequence of Adam’s and Eve’s sin mentioned in Genesis 3:7 is that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”
Suddenly they are self-conscious about their bodies. Before their rebellion against God, there was no shame. “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). Now there is shame. Why?
There is no reason to think that it’s because they suddenly became ugly. Their beauty wasn’t the focus in Genesis 2:25, and their ugliness is not the focus here in Genesis 3:7. Why then the shame? Because the foundation of covenant-keeping love collapsed. And with it the sweet, all-trusting security of marriage disappeared forever.
The foundation of covenant-keeping love between a man and a woman is the unbroken covenant between them and God—God governing them for their good and they enjoying him in that security and relying on him. When they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that covenant was broken and the foundation of their own covenant-keeping collapsed.
They experienced this immediately in the corruption of their own covenant love for each other. It happened in two ways. Both relate to the experience of shame. In the first case, the one viewing my nakedness is no longer trustworthy, so I am afraid I will be shamed. In the second, I myself am no longer at peace with God, but I feel guilty and defiled and unworthy—I deserve to be shamed.
In the first case, I am self-conscious of my body, and I feel vulnerable to shame because I know Eve has chosen to be independent from God. She has made herself central in the place of God. She is essentially now a selfish person. From this day forward, she will put herself first. She is no longer a servant. So she is not safe. And I feel vulnerable around her, because she is very likely to put me down for her own sake. So suddenly my nakedness is precarious. I don’t trust her any more to love me with pure covenant-keeping love. That’s one source of my shame.
The other source is that Adam himself, not just his spouse, has broken covenant with God. If she is rebellious and selfish, and therefore unsafe, so am I. But the way I experience it in myself is that I feel defiled and guilty and unworthy. That’s, in fact, what I am. Before the Fall, what was and what ought to have been were the same. But now, what is and what ought to be are not the same.
I ought to be humbly and gladly submissive to God. But I am not. This huge gap between what I am and what I ought to be colors everything about me—including how I feel about my body. So my wife might be the safest person in the world, but now my own sense of guilt and unworthiness makes me feel vulnerable. The simple, open nakedness of innocence now feels inconsistent with the guilty person that I am. I feel ashamed.
So the shame of nakedness arises from two sources, and both of them are owing to the collapse of the foundation of covenant love in our relationship with God. One is that Eve is no longer reliable to cherish me; she has become selfish and I feel vulnerable that she will put me down for her own selfish ends. The other is that I already know that I am guilty myself, and the nakedness of innocence contradicts my unworthiness—I am ashamed of it.
Genesis 3:7 says that they tried to cope with this new situation by making clothing: “They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Adam’s and Eve’s effort to clothe themselves was a sinful effort to conceal what had really happened. They tried to hide from God (Genesis 3:8). Their nakedness felt too revealing and too vulnerable. So they tried to close the gap between what they were and what they ought to be by covering what is, and presenting themselves in a new way.
So what does it mean that God clothed them with animal skins? Was he confirming their hypocrisy? Was he aiding and abetting their pretense? If they were naked and shame-free before the Fall, and if they put on clothes to minimize their shame after the Fall, then what is God doing by clothing them even better than they can clothe themselves? I think the answer is that he is giving a negative message and a positive message.
Negatively, he is saying, You are not what you were and you are not what you ought to be. The chasm between what you are and what you ought to be is huge. Covering yourself with clothing is a right response to this—not to conceal it, but to confess it. Henceforth, you shall wear clothing, not to conceal that you are not what you should be, but to confess that you are not what you should be.
One practical implication of this is that public nudity today is not a return to innocence but rebellion against moral reality. God ordains clothes to witness to the glory we have lost, and it is added rebellion to throw them off.
And for those who rebel in the other direction and make clothes themselves a means of power and prestige and attention getting, God’s answer is not a return to nudity but a return to simplicity (1 Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:4-5). Clothes are not meant to make people think about what is under them. Clothes are meant to direct attention to what is not under them: merciful hands that serve others in the name of Christ, beautiful feet that carry the gospel where it is needed, and the brightness of a face that has beheld the glory of Jesus.
Now we have already crossed over to the more positive meaning of clothing that God had in his mind when he clothed Adam and Eve with animal skins. This was not only a witness to the glory we lost and a confession that we are not what we should be, but it is also a testimony that God himself would one day make us what we should be. God rejected their own self-clothing. Then he did it himself. He showed mercy with superior clothing.
Together with the other hopeful signs in the context (like the defeat of the serpent in Genesis 3:15), God’s mercy points to the day when he will solve the problem of our shame decisively and permanently. He will do it with the blood of his own Son (as there apparently was blood shed in the killing of the animals of the skins). And he will do it with the clothing of righteousness and the radiance of his glory (Galatians 3:27; Philippians 3:21).
Which means that our clothes are a witness both to our past and present failure and to our future glory. They testify to the chasm between what we are and what we should be. And they testify to God’s merciful intention to bridge that chasm through Jesus Christ and his death for our sins.