Further and Smaller

Two years ago today I was halfway through a 365-day project in which I would wear only four “radically modest” outfits. I ran into a few hiccups (a ripped pair of jeans, a shirt that developed high profiles holes in the home stretch, a symbolic decision to stop wearing black), but basically I did it, and I changed for the better in the living of it. 

I planned to write a book about my adventures.

My friend Mitch is campaigning for me to re-visit the book. He works with teenage girls every year at camp and says he wishes he had something to hand them, words to help. Not because they dress immodestly—he never mentions that—but because they have troubled hearts, because they are so clearly unsettled about their clothes and appearance, about belonging and being beautiful.

Maybe he’s right about the book…

I mentioned to Mitch that one of the most bizarre effects of my year of “radical modesty” was that I’m no longer judgmental about what other people wear. He was surprised. I said I was surprised. I’d expected exactly the opposite. 

When I began this project, I felt terrible about myself, about the clothes I wore, about the clothes I wanted to wear, and about the amount of time I spent thinking about clothes. I was also irritatingly fussy about other people’s clothes. I felt like “modesty” was an impossibly high mountain, but one everybody should be forced to climb. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, leering at those who hadn’t climbed as high as I had.

I worried as I began my project that if I made it to the top I would forever be looking down on those who hadn’t. I figured at least I’d be better equipped to help them up. 

[There is going to be a mountain theme in this post. Stay with me.]

Last year I traveled to Washington State with my parents. We drove to what’s called Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park and climbed/walked to the highest point. What’s so stunning about Hurricane Ridge is that it’s smack in the middle of the Olympic Mountains. Everywhere you look, mountains, a crown of snow-capped peaks with you at the center. Pictures don’t do it justice.

Looking back on the last day of my four-outfits modesty project I remember it feeling a lot like that moment at the top of Hurricane Ridge, except I’d worked so much harder to get there. I remember looking out and down and around. Stunned. Not by the scale of what I’d done, although I was genuinely proud of the climb, but by my own smallness. 

I think the reason I’m less judgmental about modesty today than I was two years ago is that, in many cases, humility accompanies accomplishment.

Just look at Moses.

Moses climbed a lot of mountains. He saw God for the first time on a mountain in a burning bush. He saw God again on a mountain in a lightening-lit cloud. On a mountain in a rock cleft, he watched the backside of the Lord pass by. He held the very handwriting of God, etched on stones, on a mountain. He saw the Promised Land from a mountain.

I’ve always thought of Moses in the most elevated of ways: parting seas, negotiating with kings, leading a nation, speaking and listening to the audible voice of God. Moses is a hero, a man of outstanding, inimitable character, the friend and confidante of the Creator.

But do you know what the Bible says about Moses? It says he was the most humble man to ever live.

I couldn’t wrap my head around that for the longest time. How could so much God-given attention, power, and affirmation lead to humility?

 Lately, I’m starting to understand.

The more time you spend in the presence of God, the more mountains you top, the more land you survey, the more you realize you are very, very small.

Recently, reading through Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy I noticed that when Moses talks to God about the people of Israel, he almost always groups himself among them—even when they’ve committed egregious sin.

Maybe this is weird, but I picture Moses in a high school cafeteria, every day sitting at the lunch table of the least popular kids only to have God, again and again, invite him over. Every day, Moses seems genuinely surprised by the invitation.

He knows he is not like God. Because he’s seen God.

So, I guess that’s why I’m getting less judgmental. Because in having accomplished something, having come closer to the glory of God, I’m made aware of how little I’ve accomplished.

It’s like traveling toward the sun. The closer you get, the smaller you feel. But with God, the closer you get, the smaller you feel, and the closer you want to get.

When it comes to clothes and modesty and whatnot, understanding my smallness has helped me not look down on the smallness of others but rather recognize our common humanity. I see failings in others and am reminded of the failings in myself—maybe not the same sort but certainly the same size. Today, “immodesty” (in all its manifestations) stirs up in me a longing for the always-growing kingdom of God in its fullest and final manifestation, and, should the kingdom take its time in coming, for strength and grace in the meantime—for me and for them.