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Glorious Things of Me Are Spoken: The Vice of Vainglory

“Vainglory” is an ancient name for showing off our goodness. Vainglory names the temptation to display our goodness in ways that undercut both it and the glory due to God for it.

Jesus says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (New Revised Standard Version, Matt. 5:16).  Then, just a few verses later in the same sermon, he says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others. . .” (Matt. 6:1). Have you ever thought about how paradoxical this advice sounds at first?  Have you ever wondered what it would look like to show our virtue without showing off?

“Vainglory” is an ancient name for showing off our goodness.  Vainglory names the temptation to display our goodness in ways that undercut both it and the glory due to God for it.  Think of the myriad ways we still fall into this familiar pattern.  The neighbor strives for claim to the greenest, most meticulously groomed lawn.  A teenager will only shop at certain stores for name-brand clothes.  A business executive wants to drive a certain luxury sedan to maintain credibility and the image of her position.  A woman decorates and displays her home for the approval and envy of competitors on Pinterest.  Professional basketball players out-dunk each other and decorate themselves with tattoos.  A college or company works hard to brand and market itself winsomely.  An academic prefers introductions that mention his degrees, book titles, and accolades.  Athletes pump their fists and parade around the field with a flag after a spectacular victory.  A student carefully decides what to include in various social media profiles and crafts just the right comments on others’ posts to elicit the laughter and approval of friends.  A pastor is renowned for excellent preaching and feels the pressure to put on an equal ‘performance’ week after week, even when the well of inspiration runs dry.

We all have reputations partly formed by the expectations and opinions of others, and we all have some stake in maintaining them—often rightly so.  But how easily this appearance-maintenance business can go awry!  We can become overly preoccupied with what others think, whether others approve, and whether our intended audience is appreciating or applauding us.  This is especially true if our daily work requires us to be up in the public eye.  What to do about such temptations? 

What’s the problem?

It’s worth naming them first.  Vainglory is a vice as old as the human race, and while there is nothing new under the sun, retrieving the ancient name for this vice helps us articulate what’s going wrong and why.  Think of it as getting an exact diagnosis for persistent but puzzling symptoms and a general sense that something is wrong, even if you can’t put your finger on it.  Getting a diagnosis that names your struggle can suddenly illuminate other places vainglory is damaging your life and relationships.  Accepting the diagnosis is also a necessary first step toward healing. 

Thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas catalogued vainglory’s various forms.  Try a few of them on for size: Sometimes we glory over “goods” we don’t even have—the “fake it till you make it” strategy of bluffing your way through conversations or interviews.  Other times we glory over goodness we genuinely have, but our preoccupation with others’ notice of it still seems overblown. Examples include everything from primping in front of the mirror to parenting scholarship-winning honor students to having a prestigious job title.  Another form, which I like to call being “notorious vainglorious,” shows us striving to win respect for evil exploits as if they were good, hoping to be seen as cool rebels.

One of the fourth-century Desert Fathers and spiritual masters, John Cassian, warned about what is perhaps vainglory’s most pernicious form for Christians: Using bona fide spiritual goodness as an occasion to direct glory to ourselves instead of to God.  Like the Pharisees Jesus calls out in the Sermon on the Mount, we sometimes try to make a reputation for ourselves out of godliness that’s sheer gift.  How do we get to the point of slapping grace in the face?

Usually it’s a slow slide. Imagine a case of genuine, hard-earned pastoral excellence.  Someone begins a pastorate earnestly seeking God’s face, and prayers for the spread of the gospel are answered in abundance.  More and more people are drawn into the fellowship and the church grows.  The pastor feels amazed and grateful.  As the months roll by, however, the pastor grows to expect the crowds, the warm appreciation, and the increasing ministry successes.  And then one day the pastor hears criticism of their leadership and finds that their first instinct is to respond defensively.  Wait a minute, they think—why are they feeling so threatened?  When did this ministry become about their good reputation as a leader?  Why is it so unthinkable that accurate criticism and even ministry failures on their part might also be a part of God’s work in that place? 

Pure motives turn sour when people become overly attached to positive feedback and the way it feeds their reputation with others, and even their own image of themselves.  Is the false self and its infinite need for attention and affirmation subtly manipulating and managing your life?  Do you trust God to make something of your life even when you face humiliation and failure?  Or do you want human approval so badly you can’t let go of appearances even when you should?  Augustine once confessed that his friendships became a dangerous game because he was so interested in pleasing his peers and winning their love that he was willing to walk away from God. 

Thankfully, that is not the end of Augustine’s story.  It’s not the end of ours, either.  The Great Physician promises healing and wholeness.  Ending our vainglory story begins with him.

Removing the mask

God knows our hearts.  He knows that we long to be known and loved.  Listen to him speak to you in Psalm 139.  He even gives us a human community, the church, to speak to us as living echoes of his Word. 

We’ve seen how our desire to be loved can go wrong.  But how do we get glory right? The Desert Fathers recommend practices of detachment when we find ourselves overly attached to the opinions of others.  Habitual periods of silence remove the main tool we use for image management: the tongue.  And habitual periods of solitude teach us to function without an audience.  Who are we without anyone to perform for, without any roles we are expected to fill?  Do we know how to rest in God’s presence just as we are?  What does a life of receiving mercy rather than projecting competence feel like?  (I’ll confess, that question still makes me cringe a little.)  Solitude also weans us from our own self-images.  Our value and identity often rest on those images, which simply cannot bear the weight of our need to be known and loved unconditionally.  Only an infinitely loving God can do that.  His word to the vainglorious is, “You are precious in my sight, and honored” (Is. 43:4), one “crowned . . . with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).  These disciplines of detachment help us to stop trying to engineer for ourselves what has already been given and to learn to rest in that gift.

Along with practicing detachment from disordered loves, we need to form healthy attachments and rightly ordered loves.  As with the rhythm of fasting and feasting, the Spirit leads us to put layer after layer of the old self to death, but at the same time raises and recreates us for a new life that is free and full.  That new life includes practices of growing in gratitude for God’s good gifts—in ourselves and in others—and encouraging all to use their gifts to bless the church and the world. 

God transformed Augustine’s gifts for worldly oratory into a gift of preaching the Word.  When Augustine faced his congregation from the pulpit as bishop of Hippo, he confessed that he still struggled with vainglory.  He longed to preach well, for the sake of their edification. But he also worried about falling in love with their praise for that good preaching, especially if it was well deserved. 

Reflecting, not deflecting

Augustine invited his congregation—as he invites all of us in the church—to do two things.  First, he wanted people to see him for what he was: “a waiter serving bread from the storerooms of the Master.”  He was fed on the same bread as his congregation: the Word of God.  His preaching serves this bread to others, since it was not only a gift, but a gift meant to be shared.  He was, however, the steward of this gift, not the owner or giver.  His point?  All goodness is a gift from God.  Still, we need not in false modesty deny having or sharing these good gifts with others.  Rather, we can celebrate the gifts provided and thank those who share them with us while offering our gratitude ultimately to God. 

Second, Augustine invites us to share the burden of handling glory well.  This task is not only for leaders in the limelight, but also for their audiences.  We have all been formed by cultural expectations for sensationalism and instant gratification.  The church can become a community that re-forms us by grace and the Spirit.  Can we learn to encourage and appreciate others without putting undue pressure on them to consistently perform to our high expectations?  How can the church create a culture in which even the broken and flawed—all of us—are welcomed in the name of Jesus and not tempted by envy for those who put on a better show? 

It’s a blessing and a worthy mission to appreciate each other first and always as God’s good gifts.  I can imagine that God is delighted when we delight in each other, naming and celebrating each other as the beloved gifts and gift-givers we are made to be.  When we the church are good glory-givers, by this our Father in heaven will be glorified.  So let your light shine.