You’re So Vain (Glory): The Pastor’s Sin

Jonathan SBy Jonathan Storment:

When I look back on 2015, the greatest thing I think the LORD has shown me this year are how relevant the seven deadly sins are to my life and ministry.  Today we are coming to the last one, and it is the one that I have saved for the last because it is the one I struggle with the most.  And since this is a blog that a lot of pastors read, let me say, in my experience this may be the one that pastors struggle with the most.

When Mark Driscoll was asked to step away from the church that he started, the elders of Mars Hill pointed out that he was being asked to resign, but not because of any moral failing.  Shortly afterward, John Ortberg wrote a piece that asked the question, Since when is pride not a moral failure?  I understand what the leadership of Mars Hill was trying to say, moral failure has become a short-hand code for sexual immorality but this moment in American Christianity kind of encapsulates one of our biggest problems.  We can’t see, name, confess, and repent of our sin very clearly, especially this one particular vice:  vain-glory.

I know that vain-glory sounds like such an archaic and dusty term, but once we understand it, we will see it everywhere.  Rebecca DeYoung describes vain-glory as the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.

It can take a thousand forms, crafting a Facebook or Twitter status for maximum likes, or posting the picture on Instagram that makes your life seem so put together.  Name dropping at the party, or diving deeper into debt to make sure your wardrobe makes your friends think that you are successful.  For pastors, more often than not, it involves an over-attachment to your identity in ministry.  You begin to think of yourself in relationship to your church’s size, or your church’s mission, or your ideas about the Gospel.  The irony of this vice is that you will begin to actually care less about those things actually flourishing, and more about making other people think they are flourishing.

That is what makes this vice so dangerous, it is a vice for people who care about doing good.  According to the desert fathers, vain-glory is a problem especially for Christians who are making progress in the spiritual life — that is, especially for the virtuous and holy.  Because the more progress we make, and the more virtue we attain, the more we have for others to notice and admire.  That is why it is so difficult to escape, because whatever way you try to get rid of it, that in itself can become a new source for this vice to flourish.  For example, I could humbly brag about the ways I have worked against vain-glory in my own life this year.  I could tell you the strategies that I have taken to defeat it, and you might think Wow, what a spiritual person.  I probably would want you to.  But I won’t do that, because I have learnedthat vain-glory is my greatest vice, one that I haven’t escaped from yet, and I think maybe I am not the only one.

When I started to read about this earlier this year, I began to see it everywhere.  I actually wrote an entire blog series about how I think vain-glory has shaped American Christianity, but I am not writing this post to save American Christianity, I am writing this because I think there are plenty of pastors out there who intuitively know that this is a problem they struggle with, but they just don’t know how to name it.

If this vice has you in its grips you will feel it.  You will be very sensitive to criticism, you will be quick to conform to whatever is popular (in whatever group you need to accept you), and you will be terrified of being shamed.  And, chances are, you will still feel alone.  That is the great tragedy of this sin.  It kills community and isolates you.  Because no matter how good we get at mastering the art of impressing other people and spinning the story to gain other people’s applause or protect our reputation, the word for what we are really doing is hiding.  After all, to be praised by others, often means there are things we cannot let them see.

But over time, the sort of acceptance we win begins to feel more and more hollow, because we know the person that others are accepting and cheering for isn’t the real me.  I know that I am honestly not as good as the hype I get (thanks mom!), or as bad as my critics think.  And that realization has been a gift.

So it is Advent, the time of year where we tell the story about a God who became a baby.  It is interesting that one of the dominant words in the Christmas stories…is glory.  It is interesting because Jesus’ life is really not that glorious when you think about it.  At least not the way we define it.  Jesus is consistently shamed, he dies naked, exposed as a failure.  And at the end, even His friends leave him, shamed by their mere association with Him.

But according to Scripture and Christian tradition, that is the Glory of God.

Real glory, the kind that has substance underneath it, may invite shame, criticism and risk.  But I have come to believe that the people who have made the biggest positive impact on history, have been ones who were concerned mostly with the glory of God.

  • I think of those desert fathers who withdrew from Rome and all her politics, and went into the wilderness to fight the devil and become holy, and how eventually, a line of politicians made their way to visit them to learn their secrets.
  • I think of Julian of Norwich tucked away in her tiny room in a church writing about her life with God and struggle to become holy, unaware that God is going to use her prayers and writings to shape Christian history.

•I think of Bach, writing piece after piece of music, careful to include at the bottom of each Solo Dei Gloria (For the Glory of God Alone)

•I think of Dr. King fighting for the dignity of everyone, even though it meant being arrested over 100 times, and ultimately cost him his life.  Today Dr. King is cool, but in his day, his reputation was anything but that.

  • I think of Dallas Willard allowing a belligerent student to win an argument, even though he was wrong and Dallas was right, because Dallas was practicing the art of not having to have the last word.
  • I think of the scores of people in my life who have practiced generosity and kindness using the ancient Christian discipline of secrecy.  Or I think of the small churches around the world without a grand vision or mission statement, who aren’t trying to win a culture war, or to change the world but are just faithfully stewarding the way of Jesus wherever they are.
  • I think of Christmas and I begin to understand how God works, and I begin to understand what real glory means.  And I want to be a part of that.  Even thought it may cost me everything, at least it is not in vain.
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.