Every year in the youth ministry at my church, I am tasked with delivering a presentation at the eighth-grade weekend retreat. The theme of the presentation is “modesty” and how dying to ourselves can bring us closer to Christ. In short, the concept is that modest behaviour forces us to focus less on ourselves and allows more space for service to others and to God. Using the ministry’s prepared speaker notes, I quickly created a presentation, hitting the key points and infusing some personal examples as the outline suggested. I always did my best to deliver an emphatic presentation, one which explained my understanding of modesty in concise terms for my eight-grade audience. But although I spoke about modesty for four years, it took me that long to truly understand it.
My speech started off with a softball question; I asked the group what word came to mind when they heard “modesty.” I perpetually smiled and affirmed the first response of “humility.” Yes! Humility! To me, modesty was humility, and just that. I decorated the speech with my failures to be humble, and how these failures separated me from Christ. Sometimes I acted arrogant, sometimes I placed too much emphasis on the way I dressed and whether I was perceived as cool. These talking points were easy. But there was one element which never resonated with me. The speaker notes, which I took seriously, mentioned the need to be modest in speech – aware of the way we talk. I taught it although I didn’t fully understand the tie to modesty. “We avoid telling the truth,” I would recite dryly, “because we are afraid people cannot handle the truth when spoken in love.” I wasn’t sure how this pillar of modesty fit into the equation, but when the room echoed with applause at the end of the speech, my mind quickly erased the dissonance and I set my notes aside for another year.
I lived within the scope of that definition of modesty. Personally, there was no reason for me to really make any changes in my life, because I was modest enough. But my narcissism somewhat blinded my ability to see true modesty revealed around me, and, equally important, where I lacked. I considered myself to be modest because I did just enough. I volunteered – occasionally. I didn’t brag about my career accomplishments – that much. I gave time and energy to others – when it was convenient.
The moment I was hit with the reality of modesty came in the most inconspicuous setting. Over Chinese food with my family one night over the Christmas holiday, my mom, dad, sister, and brother engaged in a discussion about New Year’s goals. Expressing my desire to lose weight, I anticipated an encouraging nod or two and nothing more. But my family pressed me. What was I willing to do to lose weight? Was I willing to change my diet? Was I willing to give up drinking? Was I willing to focus on exercise and my mental health more than I’d been doing so? Did I think I had a problem with drinking too much?
Through my nods, I passionately dissented in my head. My irate and emotional reaction was masked with my ignorant humility. They were berating me with the right intentions, I reasoned, and would impress them with my submission. I thought about my accomplishments and the great control I had on my life, but answered politely and, as I viewed it, modestly. The intent was to get past the dinner on good terms, not so much to implement any life changes. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t drink too much, and I had a grasp on my health. I could take a beating to humor my family.
But my family was dead right. Long-overlooked issues were slowly eroding my mental and physical health. Not that I was perpetually depressed or anxious, but I was doing nothing to combat my mental health issues (an ongoing struggle which I address in depth in an earlier post). My diet was unjustifiably poor. I drank too much, too often, and ignored its contributions to my weight and health issues. But I had never been challenged on any of my lifestyle choices – only reinforced by making jokes on Twitter and laughing off colleagues’ remarks about my expanded waistline.
I left the dinner smiling and hugging my relatives but still fuming about my unfair treatment. My infuriation on my drive home slowly gave way to a subtle pride in my poised reaction. Thinking I was the only person still dissecting the discussion, I was a bit alarmed to see an incoming call from my father. It was an hour since I’d left, maybe two. Curious about the nature of the call, I listened as he offered a sincere and heartfelt apology for holding that conversation on my last night in town. He feared I felt that everyone had ganged up on me, and he wanted to fully assure me of my family’s love for me and pride in my accomplishments. When my father explained that he couldn’t stop feeling badly about our conversation in the hours that had passed since dinner, something hit me. A line flashed in my head. “Sometimes we avoid telling the truth because we are afraid people cannot handle the truth when spoken in love.” Was I humble in my acceptance of their words? Perhaps. But my family was more than humble. They were vulnerable. They spoke truth, out of love, and put themselves on the line. Being on the receiving end of the conversation was tough, but I started to realize it had to be ten times harder to be on the delivering end.
Humility certainly plays a large role in the scope of modesty. But there is an additional element to modesty, to dying to oneself, one which I didn’t realize until I was staring it down. To be modest is to be vulnerable. To die to self is to risk certain repercussions to speak necessary truths. To be modest is to love in action.
I haven’t yet thoroughly thanked my family for their words, but I have been working towards better health and better habits. I’m drinking less, I’m running more, I’m taking deliberate steps to improve my mental and physical health. Like any process, I have good and bad days still. But after meeting a few of my fitness goals, I started realizing the need to appreciate the sacrifices each of my family members made at the dinner table that night. Thank you, Mom, Dad, Maura, Trey. Thank you for being willing to put yourselves in a position of vulnerability because of your love and care. And thank you for giving me some better content for next year’s presentation. Because I intend to accept “humility” as an answer to a modesty synonym, but I fully intend to add the word “vulnerability.” And instead of blandly reciting a passage about fear of speaking the truth, I can provide one of the clearest and most powerful examples in my own experience. I can speak about a moment in which I listened to hard truths, truths which doubtlessly took courage to express. Truths which took modesty to express. And that, I can confidently tell the audience, is spoken out of love.