My search through Scripture looking for verses that addressed modesty only revealed two circumstances in which the word is found – the first being in 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul is talking about how the gifts of the Spirit are like a body, and some parts that we think less of are actually accorded greater honor as we treat them with modesty. The second is in 1 Timothy where Paul is telling Timothy to instruct the women of his church to use modesty and self-control in how they adorn themselves.
So what are we to do with that?
Modesty gets a bad rap in today’s culture. We are told to flaunt our wealth, our bodies, our opinions, and to do anything less means we are old-fashioned and prudish. We live in a land of excess, of too much, and we see it daily on our iPhones, TVs, laptops, tablets. We need the newest, the best, the biggest.
Those of us who came of age in the 1980’s and 90’s are the most susceptible. We were told we could have it all. And should have it all. And then should let everyone know in our carefully curated social media lives that we DO have it all.
Is it any wonder that today’s coming of age generation is slightly revolted and turning away from all that conspicuous consumption? But really, are they any different than us in the pride they take in their simplicity and tiny houses – in living off the grid?
Modesty does not assume a hair shirt. It does not sit in sackcloth and ashes and proclaim how modest it is. Modesty just means to live a well-tempered life. To be modest means to find middle-ground, let things be what they are, and to NOT DRAW ATTENTION to it! If you proclaim to live modestly, then by sheer virtue of the fact you’ve said it you are not doing it!
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it this way (exchange the words modest and humble):
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 8 “The Great Sin”)
How is it that C. S. Lewis continually sends it out of the ballpark? (I have a theory that involves pondering, but that is in another post, see On Discernment.)
I’d like to think this is all new – that no society before us had so much time to blow their own horns. But it’s not. History is chock full of eras of excess, and pride in lack of excess. There is nothing new under the sun (said several millenia ago by a pretty wise man).
The big question is: How do we walk the tightrope between true and false modesty? My parents’ generation was raised to assume a false modesty about everything they did. This led to a whole lot of them underplaying their gifts and trying to remedy their weaknesses. My generation was given awards just for showing up. As Syndrome says in The Incredibles, “when everyone is super, nobody will be.” (The Incredibles, 2004)
There is nothing wrong with being “super” if that is the gift you are given. Just as there is nothing wrong with affording greater modesty to parts we think less of, to paraphrase Paul.
The point is that true modesty neither denies nor exalts. It just lives. And in a culture where that becomes increasingly difficult, it is a virtue we should probably all be praying for.