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In praise of modesty

January 2007 | by Peter Jensen

What values should children imbibe at school? I’ve noticed that for most people ‘modesty’ is absent from the list. It’s an interesting omission, and one that should make us think about the nature of our society.

In the first place, modesty is a very useful virtue when it comes to self-understanding. In seeking employment or promotion in the workplace, people are encouraged to sell themselves. We engage in modulated boastfulness about our achievements.
The words are carefully chosen not to sound too arrogant – but the effect is one-sided. Let’s hope we don’t believe it ourselves! It is the path to self-centredness not self-knowledge.

Sober judgement

Of course, we should not be ostentatiously ‘humble’ either. The Bible’s advice is, ‘Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement’ (Romans 12:3).

According to the Bible, we should be putting all our skills and efforts into serving others, not into self-promotion. It certainly contrasts with the common human idea that the aim of life is to achieve a name and glory – or ‘celebrity status’ in today’s parlance.

Modesty is a hard-working, middle-of-the-road virtue. But it is most attractive when we see it. Let’s take an example. In sport, many countries are gripped by national arrogance. We flaunt success and despise our opponents. It is an ugly aspect of our character. Fortunately, we also sometimes see individual sportsmen and women who are generous in defeat and modest in success. When it happens, we like it.

Teaching modesty

Can we teach modesty? I guess that we can model it, for a start. We could also be more discriminating when we encounter self-promotion – demanding reality, not ‘spin’.

I remember that as a school-teacher I was taught to encourage children in order to build their confidence. This is sound in principle. But it can do more harm than good if it results in personalities with too high an opinion of their skills and accomplishments. There is such a thing as reality.

Unfortunately, the useful art of encouragement can turn into unwholesome flattery, which encourages self-praise and helps nobody. The difference, I suppose, is that flattery manipulates whereas encouragement builds up.

Encouragement must also be based on the truth. Undue encouragement can easily overlook sin – thus denying children the moral concepts and vocabulary to recognise their own failures and their need of salvation through Jesus Christ.

From the heart

Like all virtues, modesty comes from the heart, or it does not come at all. It is a sort of private habit, arising from an unwillingness to impose yourself on others.

When a person succeeds in some way, they are often asked ‘How do you feel?’ They are expected to disclose themselves to satisfy our curiosity. True modesty, however, has a secret side to it. It is more interested in others than itself.

The same applies to modesty in personal appearance. Modesty in appearance begins with an interest in the well-being of those around us. It does not flaunt itself.

Sadly, we live in an immodest age. Those with good looks exhibit their attractiveness. Those who show signs of aging try to conceal it, ‘treating’ their bodies in various ways, even to the extreme of cosmetic surgery. There is an almost frantic interest in whether we are too fat or too thin, an interest which has more to do with appearance than with health.

Imperishable beauty

I am not suggesting that we have to be dowdy and unfashionable, which is a reverse way of drawing attention to yourself. Rather, our personal appearance should put other people at ease and be unremarkable in context.

In particular we should avoid an immodest appearance which draws attention to our bodies in a way calculated to arouse attention or even prurient interest.

Why do some people dress like this? It is an attempt to manipulate other people – using our bodies to prop up our insecurity and win approval. It is the opposite of truly loving behaviour.

Paradoxically, in its privacy, modesty is not just attractive but beautiful (although it may be unaware of its own beauty). What matters from the Christian perspective is how God sees us. And such an understanding begets true modesty – that comes from a heart at peace with the God who sees and knows all things about us and can judge us for what we truly are.

We want successful children. We want tolerant children. Do we also want modest children? It would be much better to foster this virtue. The biblical injunction to wives is surely salutary for us all – ‘let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is in God’s sight very precious’ (1 Peter 3:4).