Imagine that we were playing a game where we described our siblings to each other using only one word. One single word to communicate as much as possible about someone we’ve known really well for our entire lives. When you asked about my brother, out of all the words in the English language available to me (and after a long, thoughtful pause) I chose the word “modest”.
What would you think about him?
I suspect that you’d think that he had some particularly impressive attribute or great strength by which he could exert some social dominance in all of his relationships, but he doesn’t. He lives in a nice neighborhood and drives a nice car, but it isn’t the kind of “nice” that makes people gasp. He dresses OK but not impressively. When he talks to you he seems sincerely interested in what you have to say and doesn’t often bring up his impressive quality or drop names. He’ll help out at the community work day and volunteer to get your mail when you are on vacation. Despite his social power, he is just generally and all-around nice guy.
For example, I’d pick the word “modest” if my brother was a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon who invented a new technique in herniated disc surgery. He lectures extensively and doctors come from all over the world to learn from him. He can make as much money as he wants to make, and pretty much every neurosurgeon in the US and Canada knows his name. Nevertheless, his neighbors only know that he is a doctor. His house is nice but not opulent. He cuts his own grass. He gives most of his money away. He never brings up his days at Harvard. His car costs under $30K. He is the assistant coach for his son’s pee wee soccer team. If a stranger met him for the first time, somewhere other than his medical office, he would be very impressed–by what a nice and helpful guy he is (and no other reason).
Let’s go back to the start of the game. This time, when you asked me about my brother, I told you that I don’t have one. When you asked about my sister, out of all the words in the English language available to me (and after a long, thoughtful pause) I chose the word “modest”.
What would you think about her?
I suspect that you’d think that she dressed super frumpy.
I’d pick the word “modest” if my sister was a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon….
Modesty is a way of thinking about yourself and others. And, like every other way you can think about yourself and others, it will, by necessity, affect the way you live your life and relate to others.
Christian modesty recognizes that I am made by God, at God’s initiative, for a purpose—the exact same purpose that all of my brothers and sisters share. I, as one part of us (the Church), am to bear something of the awesomeness of God into His fallen world where Satan is its prince and power. At any cost, up to and including death, I must manifest the message of God in word and deed. With all the benefits endowed at my creation, while empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, I am to bring something of the power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy of God to the world for two reasons—to express worship to the author of every good and perfect gift, and to further the work of God in drawing His people to Himself.
But, sadly, Genesis 3 impacts us all. This hostile world thoroughly enjoys power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy—but spins them in worship of the creature rather than the creator. I must never underestimate my vulnerability to this temptation’s allure. It is such a small slip from proclaiming that God is powerful, beautiful, skillful, loving, hopeful and joyful to wanting others to credit me with being beautiful, skillful, loving, hopeful and joyful. Look at me! Treat me like a god—I’m glorious! Praise me! Aspire to be close to me!
“Look at me!”–herein lies the need for modesty. Christian modesty is sincerely desiring to live in such a way that the power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy manifested in my life are pointing to God (worship of the Creator) and not to me (worship of the creature). Our problem is never that we have too much power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy. These attributes look like our Father, and it is impossible to look too much like Him. Nevertheless, “Look at me!” feels so overwhelmingly compelling. How do we maintain a heart of modesty?
Satan has a strategy that he markets heavily with, sadly, quite a lot of success. His reasoning goes like this—if you are tempted to want people to look at your greatness, don’t look great. Don’t be too beautiful, too powerful, or too joyful. Dial it back!
Imagine my imaginary neurosurgeon sibling trying this approach. If she said, “I’ll try to have fewer positive outcomes so I won’t tempt my colleagues with jealousy”, would that honor God? If she quit studying so she could become less excellent and more mediocre would that promote the Kingdom?
God wants us to look like Him and use our strengths to point others to the source of them! Only the devil wants you to hide your light under a bushel (or put it out). Mediocrity is not an ambition that honors our Lord Father.
Modesty isn’t achieved by buying a bigger swimsuit or taking your diplomas off the wall. Modesty is a way of thinking (or more accurately believing). It is not obtained by taking external behaviors. Rather, godly behaviors flow from the modest heart. Jesus didn’t call it a hard and narrow way for nothing! Modesty, like all the virtues, requires a life-long fight of faith to constantly pull our eyes off ourselves and put them on the Lord. It is a fight to remind ourselves why we’re here, whose we are and what our purpose is. It would probably help us to constantly remind ourselves that the “why, whose and what” is exactly the same for every Christian—I am here because God wants me here. I belong to God without condition or reservation. My purpose is to worship God and carry His life and message into the world.
At the end of the day, my “why” and “what” is not determined by my family, my job, my wealth, my appearance, my reputation, how many people like me or how successful I appear. My imaginary neurosurgeon sibling is not more valuable or meaningful in the Kingdom because of her wealth and social clout. While it is impossible to imagine a scenario where she should be less excellent at her craft, it is possible to imagine scenarios that would require her to do less of it in order to integrate her craft into her whole-life calling. Perhaps she’d need to see fewer patients in order to be more involved with her children, her aging parents or to be more active in another ministry that God has called her to. She has a Lord. She has a Lord Father. She is, truly, a princess. “Neurosurgeon” is only a means (not an end) from an eternal point-of-view. “Means” can frequently vary due to a wide variety of situational variables. “Ends” never do. 100 years from now, nobody will call her “Dr.” [“Princess” is the greater title]. In heaven, the only thing that will matter about our accomplishments (no matter how impressive) will be whether they were worshipful. A cup of water in Jesus’ name will outweigh donating millions for the praise of men.
The world and flesh and the devil may tell her that being a world-famous neurosurgeon is at the core of her identity. She is modest enough to know that all the accolades the world can offer would pale in comparison to being princess in the Kingdom of God. She is adopted into the very family of God at His initiative. That is her identity, and it is all of grace—nothing that she could accomplish in this world could rival it.
A person who believes that they are adopted by God and are a beloved prince/princess of the Kingdom can stand strong in the face of temptations to use their physical beauty, their wealth, their prestigious job, their heroic exploits, their generosity, their connections to powerful folks, etc. to earn the praise of men. What is the praise of men compared to being beloved of God? We have more than we can hold already. Now we’re free to love people and bring boatloads of power, beauty, love, joy, hope, skill and work to the battlefield in the name of Jesus to the glory of His name alone.
Why would I want anyone to “Look at me!” when they could see my Lord Father in me?
Oh for the grace to repent and believe!!!
EPILOGUE: Some of you are wondering why I didn’t focus on the impact of a woman’s beauty on the temptations of men. There is one simple reason–that is not necessarily an issue of modesty. That is an issue of love. But, again, the order is significant–love is not a function of the surface area of the suit. However, bathing suit surface area may be a function of love.
The tendency of history is to blame women for the failures of men. Personally, I’m just sick of the “modesty” emphasis that goes like this–women have a modesty problem and it tempts men to lust. The far more common reality is that men have a lust problem that tempts women to immodesty. Satan laughs as the whole thing spirals downward with causes and effects fueling each other.
Blaming women is not the way to stop the spiral. Nor is it helpful to blame men, or the television or the rich and famous trendsetters of the culture. We could dress our daughters like the Taliban and it won’t solve the problem. Let’s stop the yelling and finger-pointing and start loving each other better. I think that would work.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Galatians 5:13-15