The Bible’s View
Modesty—‘The Lowest of Virtues’ or Highly Valued?
“MODESTY,” wrote William Hazlitt, the 19th-century English critic and author, “is the lowest of the virtues and is a confession of the deficiency it indicates. He who undervalues himself, is justly undervalued by others.”
Is this view of modesty shared by the inspired Bible writers? Is modesty an evidence of personality deficiency, “the lowest of the virtues,” a sign of weakness? What kind of value do you place on a modest person?
Often the word “modesty” is used with regard to propriety in dress and grooming. In this context, the apostle Paul discouraged showy extravagance when he counseled: “I desire the women to adorn themselves in well-arranged dress, with modesty and soundness of mind, not with styles of hair braiding and gold or pearls or very expensive garb, but in the way that befits women professing to reverence God, namely, through good works.” (1 Tim. 2:9, 10) The counsel here, which applies equally to both sexes, is not against neatness but it does emphasize the impropriety, from the Christian point of view, of indecency, vanity and ostentatiousness in dress and grooming. The more important adornment, however, is a person’s “good works.”
The meaning of the word “modesty” is not limited in its application to one’s outward appearance. When it refers to qualities of mind and heart, it means having a proper estimate of oneself, an awareness of one’s limitations. Modesty is freedom from pretentiousness, presumptuousness, vanity, conceit and boastfulness. The modest person lives by the words of Proverbs 27:2, which say: “May a stranger, and not your own mouth, praise you; may a foreigner, and not your own lips, do so.” Would you not value a friend who displayed this kind of personality?
Rather than downgrade modesty, the ancient prophet Micah refers to it as a requirement of God. “He has told you, O earthling man, what is good. And what is Jehovah asking back from you but to . . . be modest in walking with your God?”—Mic. 6:8.
Modesty in walking with God is a sign, not of weakness, but of a realistic evaluation of one’s position before the Creator. Modesty stems from an awareness of one’s dependence upon God, a recognition of one’s sinful state as contrasted with God’s purity and holiness. Instead of exuding an unbecoming self-confidence, the modest person works out his own salvation “with fear and trembling.”—Phil. 2:12.
The grandeur of creation engenders in a modest person a sense of awe, a feeling of humility. Interestingly, this attitude is shown in the words of the late, world-renowned scientist, Albert Einstein, who said: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” This statement does not lead one to believe that Einstein viewed modesty as “the lowest of the virtues.”
If anyone would have had reason to boast in his relationship with Jehovah God, surely it would be Jesus Christ, “the beginning of the creation by God,” the “master worker,” the “only-begotten Son” and God’s foremost spokesman. (Rev. 3:14; Prov. 8:30; John 3:16; 1:1) Yet, modestly, Jesus refused to accept pretentious titles. Acknowledging his Father’s authority, he said: “I cannot do a single thing of my own initiative . . . because I seek, not my own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 5:30) To a ruler who called him “Good Teacher,” Jesus answered: “Why do you call me good? Nobody is good, except one, God.” (Luke 18:18, 19) Do you view such statements as revealing a personality deficiency in Jesus Christ? Surely, his modest attitude toward God contributed to his being, above all others, the embodiment of perfect manhood.
But, what about modesty in human relationships? In inviting disciples to come to him, Jesus said: “I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart.” (Matt. 11:28-30) To the Christian congregation in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote: “For through the undeserved kindness given to me I tell everyone there among you not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind, each one as God has distributed to him a measure of faith.”—Rom. 12:3.
That modesty is a desirable quality in our contacts with fellow creatures was demonstrated in the apostle Paul’s approach to his associate believers in the Corinthian congregation. Referring first to God’s regard for modest ones, he wrote:
“For you behold his calling of you, brothers, that not many wise in a fleshly way were called, not many powerful, not many of noble birth; but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put the wise men to shame; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put the strong things to shame; and God chose the ignoble things of the world and the things looked down upon, the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are, in order that no flesh might boast in the sight of God. . . . that it may be just as it is written: ‘He that boasts, let him boast in Jehovah.’ And so I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come with an extravagance of speech or of wisdom declaring the sacred secret of God to you. For I decided not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him impaled. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling; and my speech and what I preached were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of spirit and power, that your faith might be, not in men’s wisdom, but in God’s power.”—1 Cor. 1:26–2:5.
If you had been a member of that Corinthian congregation, would you not have responded warmly to the apostle’s humble approach? On the other hand, how would you have felt had he been conceited, overbearing, pretentious—immodest?
Yes, there may be a tendency on the part of some, perhaps sincerely, to minimize or even ridicule the Christian virtue of modesty. But an honest appraisal of the subject leads us to the inspired conclusion: “People who are proud will soon be disgraced. It is wiser to be modest.”—Prov. 11:2, Today’s English Version.
“When, now, he had washed their feet . . . he said to them: ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You address me, “Teacher,” and, “Lord,” and you speak rightly, for I am such. Therefore, if I, although Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another. For I set the pattern for you, that, just as I did to you, you should do also.’”—John 13:12-15.