For a long time, the word “modesty” to me meant being covered. We often talk about modesty in terms of location or amount-- skirts to (or below) the knee, shirts with sleeve caps that cover the shoulder, etc. But what if that’s not really what modesty means, not really what it’s all about?
The only place in the scriptures where “modesty” is mentioned is in Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, where Paul writes that “women should adorn themselves in modest apparel.”Paul finishes the statement by saying that women should have “shamefacedness and sobriety” (what?!) and not have “broidered” hair or gold or pearls or anything costly.
So let me get this straight. Women should have shamed faces and not braid their hair?! Well, not exactly. The Greek word translated as “shamefacedness” in English means “modest or reverent.” Maybe braided hair was a culturally risqué thing back then.
Maybe the women of that time were struggling with modesty and the men weren’t (unlike our day). Whatever the case, it seems clear that there’s a little more to modesty than the length of a skirt. It’s definitely that, but what is it, really?
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Here’s where it gets interesting. The word modest comes from the same Latin noun stem as the word moderate. Think about that. Something that’s moderate is tempered, average, not excessive. Or, according to dictionary.com: “keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense; of medium quantity, extent, or amount; calm or mild.”
It won’t surprise you, then, to learn that the definition of modest is: “having or showing a moderate or humble estimate of one’s merits, importance, etc.; free from vanity, egotism, boastfulness, or great pretensions; free from ostentation or showy extravagance; having or showing regard for the decencies of behavior, speech, dress, etc.; decent.”
So being modest doesn’t just mean not wearing revealing clothes. It means being moderate, not showy, vain, or extravagant. It’s behaving, speaking, and dressing in a decent way that respects yourself and those around you. It means not drawing undue attention to yourself by speaking poorly (gossiping or swearing, for example) or behaving in a boastful or showy way.
It means being true to the royal within you. As children of God, He wants us to be modest or moderate because it is a regal way to behave. It reflects the nobility of who we really are.
There’s something special about a body. The world is determined to distract us from this fact, but it’s something we innately know if we listen to our hearts. Have you ever heard a news report of someone being killed and their body being dragged through the streets?
Why does that feel wrong? Why do we care? If the person has passed on, why is the body left behind still supposed to be treated with care and respect and honor? Because there’s something special about a body. A body is a gift from God. Deep inside, we know it. It can be hard to remember with the worldly voices shouting tattoos and drinking parties and immorality, but it’s true all the same.
Several years ago, I served as a Young Women president at church. We had a Q&A fireside once where the young women would ask the leaders questions. I was only 25 at the time, and I didn’t have any of the benefits of experience that I have now.
One girl asked a question of me: “Why be modest?” It’s times like this that prayers for the guidance of the Holy Ghost are obvious, because I could tell that the words coming out of my mouth were not my words but words inspired from our Heavenly Father who loves us.
My answer was that of all the billions upon billions of God’s children, only about 2/3 of us chose to follow God’s plan for us and come to earth. The others chose to follow Satan’s rebellion and stay behind—forever. So here’s the truth: The only thing that separates us from the followers of Satan is a body. One of the reasons we are here is to learn to use and master it.
It matters what we do with it. Being modest in speech, behavior, dress, attitude, and demeanor is for us. It’s our way of showing God our thanks for our bodies, these treasures that make splashing in ocean waves and kissing babies and holding hands possible. Modesty is also for others.
It’s a way of helping others focus on what’s important (such as being obedient to God’s commandments) as opposed to being part of the worldly distractions and prevailing attitude that life is just to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Think of it this way. If I were standing in front of you reading this article, you would have the benefit of hearing the timbre of my voice, the emphasis on certain words, and the passion in my voice. These things would enhance my message.
If I were standing in front of you reading this article wearing a bikini or swearing, you would probably not hear or even care about one thing I said. Modesty makes a difference. It makes a difference to those around us. It makes a difference to God.
In “Hold High The Torch,” Margaret Nadauld lists six ways to be modest, from dress and language to how you play sports. She emphasizes, however, that modesty includes embracing your talents, being fun to be around, and being smart and interesting in such a way that people are drawn to you in a welcoming, loving way. Have you ever thought about modesty that way?
Several years ago I had the opportunity to live in Israel for a couple of years. My husband and I took our kiddos all over the country, seeing as much as we could on weekends. One of the spots we visited, of course, was the Western Wall. The Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, is part of what was originally a much larger wall, built as an expansion of the second Jewish temple.
It’s considered today as the holiest place where Jews can pray. When we visited, I was surprised to see a box of clothing for people to borrow to approach the Western Wall. Men must have heads covered, and women must have legs and shoulders covered. Coming to this holy place requires modesty in attitude, dress, and demeanor.
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I will never forget the obvious tourist I saw giggling her way into the Western Wall Plaza. She was wearing a tank top and the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen. She bounced and laughed her way toward the wall when someone stopped her and directed her to the box.
She was so oblivious of Jews praying at the wall and of the respect she should be having for a place that was holy to those around her. She was immodest in every way, not just because of the short shorts and tank top.
Being modest is really a very small thing, a very small way we can tell God “thank you” for our bodies and for life. The way we look and behave on the outside really is a reflection of who we are on the inside. The older I get, the greater my desire is to be moderate.
I don’t want to be obnoxious in any way that would distract people from things that are much more important than me. I want my words, deeds, image, and attitude to teach people that I know I’m a child of God, and I know they are, too. That’s what modesty really is.
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