05 March 2011

Reflecting on these words: Moderation ~ Moderate ~ Modesty ~ Modern ~ Mode... and what it means to Model Modesty

Laying in bed late one night recently, Tim asked me what I was thinking about.

He'll do that sometimes - he assumes I'm always thinking, and at that moment, I actually was. He kind of startled me, for we'd turned the lights out several minutes earlier and I'd assumed he'd fallen asleep... so it took me a second to respond. And then when I did, he started laughing.

My honest answer?

I was wondering if the above words ~ moderation, moderate, modesty, modern, mode ~ if they all came from the same root or origin... and if they did, how did we end up with today's present meanings, usages and connotations? Is that too wierd of a thought to be pondering?

Considering that I have had several interesting exchanges about modesty with folks from varying circumstances and backgrounds recently... not to mention the fact that I'm trying to raise 6 young women and "modesty" is, and has been, a buzz word when it comes to discipling young girls... as well as the fact that I've been meditating on Philippians 4:5 this week, I don't think it is surprising at all! But maybe that's because I'm me!

I decided to look up the etymology of the word modesty - and here is what I found:

1530s, "freedom from exaggeration, self-control," from M.Fr. modestie, from L. modestia "moderation," from modestus "moderate, keeping measure, sober," from modus "measure, manner." Meaning "having a moderate opinion of oneself" is from 1550s.
(Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper)
From what I can tell - all of these words do have as their root the same Latin word modus which means "measure" or "manner;" another similar root word, mode, refers to "keeping within due measure." As early as the late 14th century, moderate signified "to regulate." By the early 15th century, it also referred to "abating excessiveness," with the connotation of "presiding over a debate (with the goal of preventing excess and making sure rules are followed)" first appearing in usage around 1570. Modestie  (modesty) was first commonly used in the 1530s and indicated "freedom from exaggeration" or "self-control." By the 1550s, that meaning had expanded to include "having a regulated, kept within due measure opinion of oneself." It was not until the 1590s that the word modest received particular application towards the fairer sex, referring to "not improper or lewd," as in behavior. Around 1610, modest was first applied when describing feminine attire/clothing. (from Online Etymology Dictionary)

Even today, according to Mirriam-Webster, the first definition of modesty has nothing to do with dress or outward appearance, but rather is "freedom from conceit or vanity."

I also found this interesting essay (not written from a biblical worldview, by the way) on modesty in a cultural context, which concludes with the following thought:
"...modesty, far from being a peculiarly feminine trait, is a feeling or emotion that all genders are capable of expressing. It is also a feeling that can be expressed with or without clothing. Modesty has little to do with nakedness or nudity and everything to do with doing what is "right," what is "decent," and most important, what is socially acceptable. And what is right, decent or socially acceptable is entirely dependent on one's culture. Modesty, then, is not feminine, but it is relative."
I must say I agree... at least with the idea that teaching and training in biblical modesty does not necessitate immediate separation of guys and gals (although admittedly, there are moments when that is appropriate) because it only applies to females. Frankly, I've been a bit frustrated by most of the teaching I've seen and heard on modesty for several reasons:
  1. Modesty (and several of its biblical synonyms) are included in teachings and commands directed at both men and women.
  2. Modesty of the heart is infinitely more critical than modesty of dress alone - because a gentle, modest spirit in the heart will be reflected in dressing choices. I can immediately think of times when my dress has been totally appropriate and modest; not even the most critical of critics would have found fault - but my behavior, word choice, attitudes, etc., shouted, in all caps: "IMMODEST!"
  3. Modesty is NOT ONLY an issue of protecting those weaker brothers, to keep them from stumbling  - it is only one aspect of a much larger heart, submissiveness and teachability issue. Yet as I listened to some sweet, seeking to be godly young women discuss modestly recently, that was the reason why how they dressed was important: "Protecting others from impure thoughts," was what one young gal told me. What about the simple fact that God commands modesty in all areas of life and a heart that loves Jesus above all else is compelled to obey? That, I believe, should be what compels a modest life.
  4. I find one of the logical extensions of the above thought immensely insidious: women have this power to control and manipulate men, their thoughts and ultimately their actions as a result of how they dress, and thus, men are essentially powerless and unable to make their own righteous choices when in the presence of a seductively dressed woman. That sounds to me like sinful arrogance!
  5. Again, along that same line of thought (which I find equally disturbing as the mother of a teenage son) - that a man's pure thought life is the responsibility of the females surrounding him; he, himself, carries very little of that burden and cannot be reasonably expected to fight temptation and control the subjects, ideas and images he seeks out and on which he allows his mind to linger... yet what about the truth of 1 Corinthians 10:13? I have to ask myself if the problem with p0rn0graphy in the church today is partly a result of this line of thinking.
Girls (and guys) will make mistakes as they mature and even as seek to grow in this area of living lives in which their moderation is known to all. Boys will go overboard as they show off and boast, eat three large pizzas all on their own, tease, pull stupid stunts when they hunt animals and climb trees, and draw attention to themelves and their guy-ness as they explore what it means to be masculine. Girls will dress more seductively than intended, wear too much make-up and jewelry, stand too close, appear flirtatious in how they laugh and move, and draw attention to themselves and their girl-ness as they explore what it means to be feminine.

My job, as a parent (or teacher, or youth group worker, or person in the church that some young man or woman might be watching) discipling my children through this issue is first of all, to
model modesty
(how's that for a funny turn of phrase?) in ALL AREAS of my OWN LIFE, living modesty bubbling over and out of a heart that desires to obey my Lord and Savior more than it does to sacrifice for Him. Moderation (or gentleness, graciousness, reasonableness, forbearance) in my life should be evident to all (Philippians 4:5), and because gentleness comes from God, I must work persistently at it. It will not come naturally.

Secondly, I need to teach and discuss with my children what biblical modesty of the heart looks like - how do we act, what do we do, what do we say, how do we dress, so that lives of moderation are unmistakeable, so that our lives are characterized by "freedom from conceit or vanity," so that what others see is not me, myself and I - but the touch of God's presence reflected in and throughout me? When my children fail in these areas, they need loving and gentle correction - not harsh criticism and anger because I wonder what others will think of me based on what my children have/have not done.

Thirdly, they also need to be taught that when one of their friends (or siblings) fails in this area - they are still responsible for their response - and when/if that response should call for gentle and loving confrontation. Boys need to be taught how to respond to the girl that flirts or dresses provocatively or calls attention to herself with "blonde" behavior. Girls need to be taught how to respond when boys are showing off to get their attention or teasing incessantly or encouraging communication of which her parents don't approve... any of these as well as countless other behaviors could easily fall under the description of "immodest."

The idea that modesty is primarily an issue for girls and how they dress needs to be exchanged for a more comprehensive  and biblical view which I believe is valuable and true for both men and women, young and old. Modesty encompasses an accurate view of what I am worth in God's eyes, and because of that I do not seek to exaggerate or self-inflate the opinions of others by accentuating or calling attention to the things about me that I particularly like or the areas where I believe I excel. Modesty incorporates authenticity as I seek to regulate or keep my behavior, dress, attitudes, actions, speech, etc. according to a divine measure, God's standard given in the Bible - not so that I can feel good about myself or so that I can earn a part of my salvation, but rather because I'm compelled to try and obey the Lord. Modesty includes loving others and seeking to address their needs before I think of myself. Modesty embraces accountability because I am more concerned with pleasing God and am willing to repent, confess and be accountable to others instead of presenting that "all-together" image.  In the context of Philippians 4, Paul says to imitate the things learned, received, heard and seen from him - thus we must be able to look to him as an example of a life lived modestly. Esther, in the Old Testamen, is a phenomenal example for young woment. And, of course, the life of Jesus was a life of moderation, evident to all...

Amazing biblical examples... but because there is not some biblical checklist, because some elements of modesty are culturally, socially determined and because my obedience/disobedience in this area does have consequences that touch the lives of others - living a life of moderation requires living with a continual tension, asking myself if my daily choices in a multitude of areas are evidence of a moderate, gentle graciousness that imitates the example of Christ.

Maybe it is better, albeit harder, to live without always being 100% sure, or without having a hard, fast and easy checklist of rules because that tension is what helps us keep from falling into the sins of judgmentalism and legalism regarding our appearance, our behavior, our thoughts and attitudes, our demeanor around others... versus license or no consideration of how we may impact others. That tension reminds us that modest living is a continual battle, and that we are "working out our salvation" until the day the Lord takes us home with Him.

Using the example of clothing - since it is the common one - when I become comfortable with what I am wearing, I stop considering how I wear it, where I wear it, for whom I am dressing, and why I've chosen a particular outfit. I stop thinking, considering, evaluating, asking questions: “Is this appropriate?” and "Will wearing this this qualify as walking in a moderation that is evident to all men?" It is often when I give something those second and subsequent thoughts, that the Holy Spirit will speak and I will hear.

Thinking all these thoughts - I'm thinking that God still has a lot to teach me about living modestly...

How about you? What do you think?  


  1. I agree! AMEN! Excellent post - thank you!

  2. You preach it sista!

  3. Thanks for your candid and honest thoughts about modesty. It always goes back to the heart, doesn't it? I have 4 daughters (oldest is 9) and I appreciate reading and talking with other women who are striving to teach and model biblical principles, especially getting back to the heart!

  4. Thanks, Sarah, for your encouraging words. How'd you stumble upon this blog post?


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