On Modesty

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.


Trusting the false gods

“Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub?” 2 Kings 1:3

Every morning I have a little routine.  Sam (best of men) brings me a cup of coffee, I groggily sit up and grab my Bible, and I read a portion of Scripture.  This, my friends, is what I like to call a “spiritual discipline”.  Which is a way of saying that sometimes I just do it because it is supposed to be good for me, like squats or eating right.  Which also means that sometimes it is very difficult to harness my thoughts and focus on what God is trying to say to me.  My mind wanders to what I’m going to wear, what I need to get done, what color to paint the mudroom…

I am not a morning person.  But I also know that if I don’t do this little act of obedience/discipline now, I probably won’t get to it today.  And as clichéd as it sounds, starting the day with God always makes it go better.  Even if I am sort of just phoning it in.

My spiritual discipline for time with God this year (I try to start each year fresh), is to read through the Bible in a year. I have done this before – for a while I was doing it every other year.  The problem with so many of these read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year programs (at least for me) is that they are so very regimented as to be overwhelming.  Reading becomes the “have-to” instead of the “get-to”.  There is JUST SO MUCH.  Experts tell you that to read through the Bible in a year “takes only about 15 minutes a day!” (imagine the falsely cheery advertising voice).  Some days it does only take that.  Some days one is reading Leviticus.  Or long lists of geneology.  It may only take 15 minutes but it feels a bit like an eternity.  I know each of those names is important (after all, I believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant word of God – which means I don’t really get to pick and choose what is important and what is not.  God did.  Because He is God.)

The program of read-through-the-Bible that I am using this year seems much more doable for some reason.  I’m not sure if it is the way it is structured (a passage of OT, or of NT, it jumps back and forth – you read a book, then move to the other Testament, read a book, etc. and a wisdom chunk – Psalms, Proverbs… a day), or if it is that it allows for days of reflection (every 7th day is a reflection day.  Or in my case, a catch-up day.)  But this time I have more or less stuck with it.  Even through Leviticus.

This has all been a very long preamble to the meat of this post.  Setting the stage for you.

At the beginning of each quiet time, I have gotten in the habit of asking God to let me know what He wants me to get out of the reading for that day.  Currently I have just begun 2 Kings after a refreshing dive into the very short book of Philemon.  I have mixed feelings about Kings.  I love history.  I love knowing stories – narrative is one of the best ways for me to connect to concepts.  So the history in the Kings books should draw me in and fascinate me.  Except I don’t love history about war.  Talk of battles and campaigns is a sure-fire cure for insomnia. I like history about people’s lives – what they did, what motivated them, what did they EAT!  Kings gives a little of that, (let’s face it – Ahab and Jezebel are a fascinating example of a completely dysfunctional marriage and parenting) but there is a lot of who killed who where in what battle that is very hard for a layman like me to keep straight.

I digress.

So this morning followed every other habitual morning.  I woke up, drank some coffee, grabbed my Bible, prayed my “show me” prayer, and got three short verses into 2 Kings and was so struck by the verse at the top of this post, that I had to write.

Background:  Ahaziah has ascended the throne of Israel, the northern of the two kingdoms, following the rather gruesome death of his nasty dad Ahab.  God has already warned Ahab that things were not going to go well for Ahaziah as a consequence of a long family lifestyle of worshipping Baal instead of God.  At some point following his ascension, Ahaziah has taken a tumble through the lattice of his private apartment and injured himself, apparently quite severely because he is unsure if he’s going to make it.

So he calls to his minions and says “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” (2 Kings 1: 2)

Hmm.  A few red flags in the narrative here.  First, Ahaziah is an Israelite.  The God of the Israelites is GOD.  He must have been around when his dad tried to bring rain by calling on Baal.  Didn’t work out so well for him. Four hundred fifty of Baal’s priests were unable to accomplish this task (and ultimately wound up dead as a result of God’s wrath).  Elijah (who really is the central character for a good chunk of this narrative) is a true prophet of the one true God.  He calls on God to show his mighty power, and God delivers in a major way (see 1 Kings 18 for the full story).  Even if Ahaziah was not there, surely the story was passed on.  This isn’t the kind of event that is easily forgotten.

So first red flag.  Forgetting that God is God.

Second red flag.  Ahaziah doesn’t ask to be healed.  He just asks if his time is up.  And back to red flag 1, he doesn’t inquire of God, but of Baal-Zebub. (Side note:  remarkable resemblance in this name to Beelzebub, another name for Satan.  Which I’m sure makes total sense to a Hebrew scholar and would be a very interesting topic to explore.  Just not now.) On their way, the minions meet Elijah who tells them to return to their king and tell him he is going to die.

Third red flag.  This makes Ahaziah, not repentant, not sorrowful, but mad.  He sends several companies of soldiers to fetch Elijah.  Two of these companies are struck down dead by fire of heaven.  The third captain begs for mercy, so Elijah goes with him, delivers the message about death in person to Ahaziah, and Ahaziah dies.

So what is the take away for a middle-aged mom of teenagers several millenia later?  It is so very easy for me to complacently judge Ahaziah from my audience seat in the drama.  Why?  Why wouldn’t he remember the previous actions of God?  Why wouldn’t he ask for healing? Why just ask about the outcome? And for sure, why ask Baal-Zebub?  Is this guy some kind of moron?  And finally, when he hears of his death-sentence, why does he just get angry?

Truthfully, how am I all that different?  I have seen God work amazing wonders in my life, the lives of those around me, and in this 21st century world.  And still when I face even a minor crisis, do I remember first that God is God?  Or do I try to solve it myself? Or hash it out with a friend?  I may not go marching to another “god”, but I’m not always falling to my knees either.  And am I asking for the right thing?  Do I seek healing, or do I just want to know how it is all going to turn out so I can steel myself?  There is an old proverb saying “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Isn’t that what I really do?  And by so doing, am I really hoping?  I so struggle with wanting to micro-manage things, to be in control of a situation, and the truth is, THERE IS NO CONTROL!!!!!  (This is clearly a lesson I have a hard time learning because I am given so many opportunities to practice!)  And when I don’t get what I want, I get angry.  I pout.  Or worse, grow silent.  I maybe don’t send a company of soldiers to kill the messenger, but don’t I do that as effectively myself with my words or lack thereof?  How dare I judge Ahaziah.  Learn from him, would be the wise path.  Put my trust where it really belongs, not in my marriage, or good job, or comfortable house, or dear friends.  I need to be willing to ask the RIGHT person, the one true God, for what I really need, not for what might be an outcome.  I need to be able to repent, to say I’m sorry, and ask for forgiveness instead of just pouting if the answer isn’t what I wanted to hear.  Mostly, I need to remember that God is God.