One of the more interesting things about the Bible is what happens when God reveals Himself to people. They are always terrified, they say things like “Go away…or I will die.” And then they say something peculiar like”Who am I?” When God reveals Himself to people, the people always become acutely aware of how broken they are.
They become in a word…modest.
When we talk about modesty, immediately what probably comes to our minds is cleavage or short skirts…I notice we rarely apply it to shirtless, or provocatively dressed men. As a person who struggles with self-delusion, I’ve made the personal commitment to never wear tight clothes or short shorts, you know, just to keep others from stumbling.
But when the Bible talks about modesty, much of the time it’s not talking about the same things we talk about. For example, go back and read Paul’s letter to Timothy, or Peter’s letter to the church of his day.
Most of the time, when they are talking about modesty (in a world very much like ours) they are talking about economic modesty. The word they have for the women of their day is not to feel the need to showcase how much you have…in other words, because of God, you shouldn’t dress to show how well off you are.
But modesty also has another meaning in Bible, and by this meaning, Christians today are rarely modest.
Which is not a new thing.
I Know You Are, But What Am I
In the 17th century, the Quakers and the Puritans were locked in a pretty intense debate. One of the most famous Puritan preachers, a guy named Richard Baxter, wrote a pamphlet where he called those Quakers “ drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches…miserable creatures .” And then, just in case they didn’t get how serious their theological error was, he said they were no better than “Papists.”
So a Quaker preacher, James Naylor, responded to these harsh accusations and names…with more accusations and names. Naylor called Baxter “a Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog .”
Naylor actually said he was responding because he had been compelled by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which may be true. But he most certainly wasn’t responding with the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
The problem with these arguments is that they do the opposite of what they are hoping to accomplish. When we demonize the other, we rarely have healthy conversations about the issue of disagreement. We divide up the world into right and wrong, and lose the ability to learn and grow from each other.
Last year, on NPR, I heard about a city where the Pro-Life leaders and the Pro-Choice leaders had started secretly meeting for lunch once a week. They had to keep it a secret because the war had already been clearly defined by talking points and hostile speech, but these women still wanted to learn where the other was coming from.
Have you ever noticed how we talk about war? Pascifists argue against all war, Just war people argue that there are some wars that are justifiable. But both sides are starting with the assumption that violence has to be held in check by some moral-limits. They don’t believe most wars are justified.
But they rarely talk about what those limits are, because they can’t talk about much past what defines them in their opposition.
It seems like every day there is another conflict that has broken out between another faction of people. Politics, Corporations, Churches, Atheist Groups.
Language as Dress
Growing up, modesty was something that the Christians around me talked about a lot. It was always assumed that even though it wasn’t in the ten commandments that girls should dress modestly, it was at least a footnote.
We understood that it was important to not dress in a way that dehumanized yourself.
I think it’s time we learned to speak that way too.
Think about the way the Bible refers to dress, it often isn’t talking about specific clothing instructions, it’s speaking more with a putting on of a certain kind of character.
Like in 1st Peter:
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self,the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
The early Christians cared a lot living a quiet, gentle lives, even while having passionate convictions.
I wish we talked about that when we talk about modesty.
Modesty basically means to not over-estimate ourselves, it is the virtue of knowing and embracing our limitations. We don’t know everything, we don’t know for certain what’s best for the world, and no human should find themselves so certain that they can dehumanize another because they disagree with them.
I like the way Richard Mouw talks about this:
Our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones. Now this is a dangerous point to emphasize . The call to modesty can easily be interpreted as giving Christians permission to be unconcerned about the issues of public life . “Poverty is always with us, so why worry about injustices?” “You’re never really going to do away with prejudice and conflict—at least not until Jesus returns! No compromise is acceptable. Those who adopt our variety of Christianity are possessors of the truth, and everyone else is caught up in error!” We may hear statements like these when we start encouraging modesty . But the risk is necessary, especially in the light of the immodesty that has often characterized Christian forays into the public arena.
I know that modesty can sound quaint and the ways that we’ve talked about it have been sexist. Still, as parents of three children, Leslie and I are going to talk about modesty with them….and it is going to involve more than clothes.
Underneath modesty is the virtue of humility. You don’t have to prove yourself or justify your existence with your looks, or your clothes or your ideas or your words. God has justified you.
So let’s talk like it.