Be Forewarned: this is a long post, but it’s not terribly ranty; I just couldn’t see ways to split up the concepts easily into shorter, pithy posts. It is, however, a bit churchy, so if you’re not in the mood, skip this one. I won’t be offended, I promise.
Right, so: the concept of modesty is one that gets talked about a great deal in faith circles, and in the circles of plain old Basic Common Sense as well, but for this bit of writing, I’d like to focus on the faith-based conceptualization of modesty. Basic Common Sense ideals are perfectly lovely, and I don’t think the faith-based and sense-based circles lack an overlap, but I’ll be concentrating on the faith side of this particular Venn diagram.
When I think about the concept of modesty, I think in three broad categories:
1: Body modesty
2: Spiritual modesty
3: Temporal modesty
Now, this is not “covering up with clothes.” Rather, body modesty is our natural shyness about our bodies, which develops as a child develops toward adulthood, and recognizes that yes, boys are different from girls, and yes, bodies have parts that work differently, and those parts change with time, and all that business. This natural body modesty ought, I feel, be recognized and respected with a healthy attitude in the household. Body modesty is a protective instinct given by God.
In practical application, though siblings may share sleeping spaces when a house is small, they can be taught to respect the personal privacy and body modesty of others. This might take the form of wearing non-revealing, comfortable nightclothes, using robes or comfortable lounging clothes instead of sitting around starkers, and respecting the option to dress or undress in the bathroom, in privacy.
However, healthy attitudes also include frank and accurate discussions of human anatomy and biology, which for me includes unashamed breastfeeding, toddlers playing in the back yard without clothing, and giving body parts their proper names from infancy, without snickering. (I would like to smack whomever named some of those parts. Wouldn’t sensible names like “Bob” and “Sue” have been a good option?) Knowledge and accuracy are not immodest.
Body modesty, for me, does not have much to do with clothing choices. More on that in a bit.
I feel it’s important to avoid eroding natural and appropriate body modesty in children, and particularly in young people. I am actively against mixed-gender, non-family discussions on human anatomy, development, and sexuality (such as in school classrooms, or even in church settings.) The natural modesty that exists in the pre-teen and teen years with regards to the opposite sex can play a vital role in sexual chastity. Preserve their natural modesty, but satisfy their natural curiosity with accurate, unashamed information. Informed innocence is a good goal.
I’d actually rather handle spiritual modesty first or last, but body modesty develops first among the children of men, and there are things I want to link together at the end, which come more easily after temporal modesty. Ah, the trials of the modern blogging essayist, who also doesn’t want to let these things marinate any longer…
Spiritual modesty could also be defined as meekness and humility. Our ability to focus outwardly, to give glory to God instead of craving the praise of men for ourselves, is an important modesty. A lack of overweening pride, lack of desire to be seen and recognized for doing God’s will, plays heavily in this modesty.
We learn it by giving (and teaching) quiet service, expressing gratitude for our blessings, and even learning how to accept a compliment on a skill, talent, or job well-done. “Thank you, I’m glad it was enjoyable, helpful, etc” doesn’t claim personal glory, nor is it conspicuous, as a “Well, I’m just doing God’s work” might be–that’s not a testimony, that’s boasting of ourselves with mock-humility.
George Albert Smith put one aspect of spiritual modesty (seeking God’s side of things) this way:
We choose carefuly the atmosphere that we breathe, that we may live in health. But sometimes, in our carelessness, we place ourselves in subjection to immoral influences that destroy our resistance of evil, and we are led to do things we ought not to do and would not do if we are under the influence of the Lord. If we would only be humble, if we would only be prayerful, if we would only live in such a way that each hour of our lives we could truthfully say, “Father in heaven, I am willing and anxious to do what thou wouldst have me do,” our lives every day would be enriched as we go through this earth experience.
Spiritual modesty changes everything.
In learning spiritual modesty, we can be on the lookout to avoid priestcraft, whereby we or others use our church membership is a pointed marketing tool to profit off the faith and trust of believers. That doesn’t mean we can’t make a living providing a service or product believers want; it does mean we don’t calculate or layer gospel-importance over worldly concerns, and that we refrain from notoriety or fame or any renown that would put ourselves and our accomplishments above what God intends for us, or who He wants us to be, and how He wants us to serve. We leave God in authority, and do not seek to usurp it for ourselves.
This might also be described in terms of stewardship, but temporal modesty encompasses so many aspects that a singular definition isn’t possible.
Temporal modesty can be the willingness to live with contentment and thanksgiving for the abundant blessings of God, no matter our circumstances. This may largely include the financial sense and determination to carry out excellent stewardship of whatever resources God has given us, and seeking to use those resources to bless other as God inspires. One of my favorite financial advice people is Dave Ramsey, who has a catch phrase of “Live like no one else, so you can give like no one else.” He encourages people, no matter their current resources, to carefully and prayerfully share those resources with others.
Temporal modesty may mean choosing to live in a small, carefully-appointed house, or getting through school part time at nights while working days, to avoid debt. It may mean choosing to delay home ownership or worldly advancement in order to pursue a service opportunity in our youth. It may mean checking out of the vicious cycle of “keeping up with the Jones’ family”, and choosing to streamline life to maximize family time, not career time. It may mean turning down worthwhile lessons or sports or hobbies because participation would stretch our resources too thin.
Temporal modesty means we do not seek to live in Zion, with a summer house in Babylon. We do not need to adapt every worldly notion to some “church” version. We can be in the world without being of the world. We need not be concerned that our definition of success may be radically different from the world’s definition. Nephi taught:
And others will he (Satan) pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
“Modest” clothing actually fits into temporal modesty for me, versus in with body modesty. Modesty and appropriateness in our outward appearance and comportment are not about shame or any need to “hide”. Rather, these things are an outward acknowledgement of an inward confidence: the confidence that we have intrinsic worth as souls, with no need to seek praise or notice for only our physical characteristics or style choices. We need not wear sacks, either. We can clothe ourselves in tasteful, functional, and yes, beautiful clothing that does not call undue attention to just our physical forms.
We can attract with our whole countenance, and Christ in us, rather than entice with our exposed flesh.
Clothing modesty is dressing with respect and consideration of the circumstances and events of our lives. It means choosing fit versus size labels, having items altered so they may be worn comfortably and without gaping, re-arranging, or exposure, taking care of upkeep and mending to look tidy and clean. It means we do not don items that demean others, show hateful or mocking attitudes, offend natural modesty, or seek to shock.
If we are the Body of Christ in any given situation, is our outward appearance and demeanor drawing others to Him, or distracting?
This aspect of temporal modesty may also involve making the choice to avoid devoting too many of our resources to our outward appearance, owning or wearing “costly apparel”, or incurring expenses beyond the physical value of the item. In every book of scripture, we find at least one societal warning against “fine-twined linen” and “costly apparel” (each signifying haughtiness, selfishness, and pride among the believers, the exact opposite of the spiritual and temporal modesty we could otherwise be inculcating.) That is not to say we should never shop outside of a thrift store! Rather, we must decide for ourselves, after prayerful consideration, if some portion of our physical resources can be diverted and used to further God’s work, aid the poor, support bringing Christ to others, care for widows and orphans, or relieve those who suffer.
Quoting George Albert Smith again (I love this man for his plain preaching!):
This people have been advised to conserve their energies and their means. We have been taught by those whom the Lord has raised up to instruct us that we should live within our income, that we should not follow the fashions of the world and expend as rapidly and even more rapidly than we can earn the money that comes into our hands, to take care of ourselves and our families. I fear that that Latter-day Saints, in many cases, are blinded by their own vanity, by their desire to be what the world is; and we have been told in such plain language by our Heavenly Father that we cannot live as the world lives and enjoy His Spirit.
In all these forms of modesty, we need to seek personal revelation after hearing wise counsel in the scriptures and from modern prophets, and watch for God’s hand and inspiration in how we, and those in our direct stewardship (such as our children), can best live according to our understanding of these principles of modesty.
Notably, however, we are not asked to be in charge of how others fulfill their understanding of modesty. When we seek to codify specific rules regarding “what modesty looks like” or modesty “checklists” for sweeping generalizations, we run the risk of developing some “vain traditions of men,” similar to the codified, coercive orthopraxy of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. We can (and should) define for ourselves what we understand. We can share visuals, we can share thoughts, we can share encouragement. But we should not be using our own understanding of the ideals of Godly modesty as a bludgeon against our siblings. As Joseph Smith so famously said, “We teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
George Albert Smith taught and lived a personal creed that demonstrated compassion and a Christ-like understanding for others still working on developing their testimonies, including the testimony of modesty in all its forms. We cannot use our own understanding of modesty to judge, condemn, or exclude others who may be at a different spot in their own spiritual journey. Another few bits of preaching of which I’m particularly fond:
I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals, but rather love them into doing the thing that is right.
There has never been a time, in my judgement, when kindness was needed more than now. These are the days when people’s souls are being tried, and when their hearts are being wrung. These are the days when many are facing hunger and distress… I believe our Heavenly Father is giving us our opportunity for development… We will discover now whether the love the Savior said should be in our hearts is among us.
There are those who will make mistakes. There are those among us today that have gone astray, but they are the children of our Lord and He loves them.
In my own life, I’ve seen the positive effects of this open, compassionate creed. Years ago, a young man was traveling through our area, and had grown quite desperate, both temporally and spiritually. On Sunday, he woke up and determined that today was God’s last chance. He would walk up the highway on the way out of town, and stop in at whatever church he came to. If God wanted him, there would be a sign. If God didn’t want him, then he had decided to go past town to the river, and end his life.
Blessedly, God directs the feet of the despairing, and the hands of those who love as He loves.
The man climbed the church steps, and stood outside the glass door.
Just inside stood one of the “Mothers” of the church, a woman who had finished raising her own children, and was now joyfully engaged in loving everyone. She saw the man standing outside, and went to open the door to him. She invited him to come in and join them… services were going to start soon, and wouldn’t he like to come in?
He glanced down at himself, dusty, ragged, and compared himself to the smiling, cozy woman in front of him. “I’m not dressed for it,” he said, and moved to leave.
“Nonsense,” she said. “There’s room in my pew, and you’re welcome. Come and rest by me.”
And he did.
Her open compassion went beyond just opening the door. She and her husband became his devoted “church parents”. They provided a safe place to sleep, helped him find work, then helped him build his own business; saw to it he had invitations to be social, to enjoy a meal, to belong. They loved him. They didn’t draw back from his stained and tattered state. Instead, they rejoiced that a prodigal was returning, and a child was seeking to know his Heavenly Parent in some small way. It was years before I realized he was not, in fact, one of their children. They did not judge him by his existing state; they saw in him divine potential, and loved him first, and loved him toward Christ.
That’s what all this modesty talk brings us: to the capacity to love and protect and draw and serve, not for any outward praise or glory, but because we are loved by God, and He would like us to love His other children.
It’s not about the hemline. It’s about Him.