When someone says the word “modesty”, we usually immediately think about the clothes. That’s understandable; usually, Christians focus on that in discussions of modesty.
But I don’t think we should stop there, or even start there. The deeper meaning modesty holds can shed some light on why we dress the way we do and why modesty is such a valued trait according to the Bible.
I want to talk about that today, instead of starting with the clothes, so that we are once again building a foundational understanding of what modesty means before getting into the practical side of it.
Modesty: A Dictionary Definition
The dictionary definition of modesty barely mentions clothes. I looked it up on Merriam-Webster, and here is what I found:
1: freedom from conceit or vanity
2: propriety in dress, speech, or conduct
*propriety: being proper or suitable
Yes, “dress” is mentioned in the second definition, but it’s not the focus of what the word really means. Let’s talk about both of these definitions a little bit.
Modesty: Freedom from Conceit
The first definition of modesty is “freedom from conceit or vanity”. In this sense, modesty is basically another word for humility, or the counting of others as more important than yourself.
I wrote a blog post on this subject a while back that you can check out for a more detailed discussion of what Biblical humility really looks like. But for now, here is a quick summary:
- Christ is the ultimate example for us. He made Himself nothing despite being the actual Son of God.
- Humility does not equal insecurity; it is, in fact the opposite. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.”
- True humility means being others-focused.
- The root of humility is found in regular confession of sin; when we recognize that we are sinners, we have no reason to think that we are better than other people.
Modesty is another word that can be used in the place of humility. It has slightly different connotations, but Biblical humility and Biblical modesty involve some of the same things. Essentially, it means being focused on other people and avoiding sinful pride.
Modesty: Propriety in All Things
The other definition of modesty is “propriety in dress, speech, or conduct”. This definition is where we get our ideas about modesty in relation to clothing.
Propriety, or proper behavior, is essentially acting in a way that is appropriate to the situation.
- Dressing in an appropriate way (covering ourselves however much is necessary for the situation)
- Speaking in an appropriate way (keeping our words respectful and loving)
- Acting in an appropriate way (making sure we are setting a good example and living how God wants us to)
These can look different in different situations; the idea of propriety is that you are living “suitably”. What is a suitable tone of voice when talking to a friend is very different from when you are talking to a teacher. You won’t dress quite the same at the beach as you would at a church service. And so on.
Basically, we are living out the verse in Proverbs 31:
“Strength and dignity are her clothing.”
Acting with propriety is acting with dignity. When we take care to conduct ourselves in a way that presents a good impression, we are being witnesses of Christ. That is what modesty is about.
What do you think? Were you familiar with these definitions of modesty? Are there other ways the word is used that you can think of? What questions about modesty do you have that I can answer later on in the series?