Modesty & Modernity
“Modesty is the color of virtue,” Diogenes wrote in the fourth century B.C. Unfortunately, in our own day, one might say that it is a color that is out of style. Like a chartreuse tuxedo, no matter what the occasion its wearer is sure to stand out.
The notion of modesty runs counter to our age. Immodesty is assertive, and cares not about the sensitivity of others. It is seeks to draw attention to itself, either in dress or in attitude. Modesty, on the other hand, calls for self-denial. It asks us to give up our vanity and, perhaps even more difficult, our independence.
A person who is always modestly dressed, following the admonition of St. Paul, risks being considered a prude. And indeed, there is a fine line between modesty and prudishness. Modesty, unlike prudishness, is never judgmental or mean-spirited. It takes no part in looking down on others.
For the Christian, modesty is a form of propriety. It simply is a matter of acting properly. It goes beyond suggestive dress or speech—it extends to the heart of our relationships with others. More than committing a sin itself, it is avoiding situations where others might be led to think we have sinned or where others might be tempted to sin by our actions. For example, when dating, a couple needs to watch how they spend time together lest they tempt each other to sin or give cause to others to think they have acted improperly.
Propriety, according to the dictionary, is “conformity to established standards of behavior or manners.” From this definition one might argue that it is prudish for the aforementioned couple to worry about such things. After all, the standards of our culture (as evident from any television program) dictate far different values. Why should we worry about what others think or even about temptation when sin itself has been declared passé?
As Christians, the established standards of behavior should be those of St. Paul, those of Jesus our Lord. As such, we should avoid even the appearance of evil. Scientists have shown that secondhand smoke can permanently stain our lungs. In like manner, the sins to which we get too close, even without committing, can stain our souls. It is modesty which keeps us away so that even the odor of such sins does not find its way into our raiment and remain there as a temptation for others.
Ultimately, modesty is rooted in placing a love of others ahead of our own insecurities and needs for attention, for these are most often what make us immodest. This we see in Tertullian’s words. If we truly love our neighbor, we will care for his soul more than we will desire attention for ourselves. True love is to care a great deal whether we have led someone closer to God or closer to hell. The devout Christian is one who earnestly desires to see others brought closer to Jesus and to be a witness himself of the abundant life in Christ. And the only witness of the Christian life that is of any value is one marked by purity and virtue. Modesty is the color of virtue.
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“Modesty & Modernity” first appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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