Are You Vainglorious?

I don’t typically look for signs from God, but when I discover a discussion of the exact same concept in two unrelated books within the span of a week, I think it’s wise to have a listen. In this case I have encountered rich descriptions of the sin of “vainglory” twice in the past week. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such in my previous 39 years.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the loss of a virtue tradition in Western culture is that we have also lost the vocabulary that enables us to reflect deeply upon moral character. In order to understand what goes on deep within the complex recesses of the human soul, it helps immensely to have names for it. The medieval virtue tradition supplied the moral imagination with wonderful words like “pusillanimity” and “vainglory”–words that have now fallen out of use. The problem is that the realities these words signified are no longer recognizable without the words.

Typically, we would identify what Thomas Aquinas would have called “vainglory” as “pride.” In fact, pride is the umbrella term that we use today to refer to any form of self-exaltation. But “vainglory,” for Aquinas, was a very specific form of pride. Chris Armstrong gets at the difference in his book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians when he writes:

When we indulge in the vice of pride we really want to be better than anyone else. In fact, there are things that we do and are that may be worthy of pride in the positive sense. But when we indulge in vainglory we don’t care whether we are good at something–we just want to be perceived as good. In other words, it is a particularly flashy and empty form of pride; it’s about display, fame, and the adulation of the masses.

Vainglory is all about appearances. It’s the notion that “image is everything.” Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung calls it “perhaps America’s favorite vice.” It’s that nagging feeling we get when something exciting happens but we forget to share it with the world on Facebook or Instagram. It’s that impulse we feel to keep checking back to see if anyone liked our photo or thought our post was clever. It explains the rarely noticed disconnect between the actual substance of our lives and how we try to appear before the watching world.

DeYoung, when teaching college students about the virtues, assigns an exercise to drive the point home: No talking about yourselves. She asks students to go a period of time without offering opinions, sharing stories, posting on social media, complaining, or excuse-making. She claims that this exercise tends to surprise students who had no idea how much of their lives revolved around reputation-management.

My point here is that spotting vainglory is difficult without a clear word in our everyday vocabulary for it. Yet, I’m convinced that all of us need this word, because all of us live in a culture that doesn’t just prize vainglory, it rewards it.

While DeYoung’s suggestion is a good one, let me recommend another. Take a break from social media. How long can you go? Why is it so hard not to look? Can you enjoy a day with your family without posting about it to the world? Can you go a week without feeling like you are missing out?

It is only in attempting to resist that we begin to notice when we have a problem. Moral awakening often occurs in the context of opposition to the norm. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet'” (Rom. 7:7). When Paul tried not to covet in obedience to the law, only then did he discover how big of a coveter he was. Want to know if you’re vainglorious? Try not to give in to vainglory.

The point of this exercise, however, is not to wallow in the misery of your own sin. Paul’s self-reflections on his own covetousness led to the conviction that, under the law, he was condemned. However, this revelation led him to call out to Christ for deliverance (Rom. 7:24) and to rest in the eternal truth that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Even the vainglorious person finds redemption in Christ.

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