I recently went through a phase, as Alex would call it (in fact, he DID call it that), where I became nearly obsessed with modesty. I wanted to respect my body as God’s temple, and I spent a good deal of time researching what others had to say on the subject of modesty.
Finally, I read something that helped me get back down to earth. Someone pointed out that modesty is actually about one’s attitude and intention, and not one’s outward appearance. She pointed out that one can be wearing a burlap bag and seductively gaze at a married man, hence being completely immodest. Then of course there are those who pride themselves on their modest apparel, which immediately disqualifies them from being considered modest. I didn’t want to become one of those people.
In the end, I realized that I became what in Catholicism is called scrupulous: so fixated on a single issue that I failed to see the bigger picture, and in the process forgot that my actions are to be honoring God, not perfecting me. On one hand, I’m already perfect in the sense that I am a child of God, and if this is the way God made me, then this is good enough for me. On the other hand, I will never be perfect this side of heaven, because I continue to live in a sinful world. Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), so nothing I do will take His place. The decision to dress modestly is to glorify God by respecting our bodies, His temples, not to brag about our holiness.
Yet, there are people who insist that it is not only possible to make oneself perfect; they also believe that they are being successful at it. There are several problems with this attitude. 1) Our standards of holiness and God’s standards are very different, so the likelihood of us truly being saints as God intends for us to be is not great. Besides, saints do not go around believing that they are saints. A constant acknowledgement of room for improvement is one of the markings of a true saint. 2) Even if we truly are doing all the charitable and sacrificial and merciful things that God asks of us, to think that we are able to do so out of our own strength, without God’s help, is a fallacy that fails to recognize who God is and who we are. 3) When we focus on how great we are, we inevitably fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others, who by necessity must fall short of our accomplishments to make us feel worthy of our holiness.
First of all, it takes more than being “good enough” or “better than others” to please God. St. Paul wrote in James 1:26-27: “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Some people do indeed take interest in the wellbeing of others, and therefore, they may think that this gives them the right to take pride in their religiosity based on this verse. However, they are fooling themselves.
They may think that their accomplishments – whatever those may be – are thanks to their own hard work and good attitude, but they never think twice about where that desire, ability to discern between right and wrong, and the virtues to withstand societal pressure and do the right thing anyway come from. Surely they don’t think that they are the source of all good things in their lives? We are reminded by St. Paul in James 1:17: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
Even our very faith in God and what He’s revealed to us is a grace – a free gift – not something that we ourselves have earned. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). If we are able to be kind to our neighbors; generous with our time, talents, or treasures; or willing to sacrifice for the sake of another, we ought to praise God for that ability! Jesus said in Matthew 19:26 that “with God all things are possible”. It is God who enables us to accomplish great things, and it is God who has the final say regarding how and when all of our hard work will be rewarded.
If we think that our goodness is our own doing, then it is a logical next step to look at others whom we deem not as holy as us, and blame them for their shortcomings. The moment this thought enters our minds, we commit a sin against the virtue of charity, for we judge our neighbor unjustly. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 7:1-5, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
I know some very kind people who have a chance to truly be saints if they would just have a slight attitude adjustment. If we see someone like this, a would-be saint, then I believe it would be a great act of mercy pleasing to God for us to help this person on their way to holiness. One way we can do this is by removing their urge to meet the inherent human need for appreciation and acknowledgment by self-praise. The only way we can do this is to recognize their good works in order for them to feel worthy.
Now, in the end, this person would do well to refocus their energy away from themselves and towards the Lord, their creator, sustainer, savior, and the source of all their virtues. Only then will the person truly feel worthy, when having recognized that their good deeds are not meant to bring glory to them but to God, they can rest in the knowledge that no matter their success, God loves them.
I still try to dress modestly, but it does not consume my life the way it did when I first started thinking about it. I’ve accepted that I will inevitably fall short of God’s hopes for me, and that the quickest way to pick myself up again is to simply extend my hand to Jesus, Who is always ready to pick me up and dust me off and set me on the right path again. The goal in my life is no longer to try to be good. Jesus Himself even said in Luke 18:19,“Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” My goal is to seek to please God, and the way I can do that is by fixing my gaze on Christ and comparing myself only to His example. Needless to say, I have a very, very long way to go.
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.