Vainglory: the forgotten vice
By John Frye
Is there a soft contradiction in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:16 Jesus says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” It’s clear Jesus has visible good deeds in mind as a definition of light. We’re to do good works for others to see. Yet, in Matthew 6:1 Jesus says, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” It sounds like Jesus is saying, “Don’t make your righteous acts visible for others to see.” To see or not to see? that is the question. These verses are raised by Dr. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in her book Vainglory: the forgotten vice (Eerdmans: 2014). Dr. DeYoung is professor of philosophy at Calvin College. Her former book, Glittering Vices: The Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, is a must read for every pastor, yay, for every Christian. Recently, Jonathan Storment did a chapter by chapter review here at ‘Jesus Creed’ on DeYoung’s book Glittering Vices.
Vainglory seems archaic, like an old Kings James Version word. Maybe this is why it’s “the forgotten vice.” Being forgotten does not mean at all that the vice is absent from our lives, our church communities and our vainglorious culture. Rebecca DeYoung is a scholar of the Desert Fathers, early Church Fathers, especially Aquinas. She brings an historical depth to what are tritely called and culturally mocked as “deadly sins.” Please note that Dr. DeYoung labors to help us call them “capital vices,” not mere deadly sins. The list is about entrenched sources of habitual sinful patterns. Greed is good according to a Hollywood film. What about lust? If I don’t act on my impulses, I am not true to myself. Why should I live as a suppressed hypocrite? Why is “super-size me” such a big sin anyway? Gluttony? You gotta be kidding me!
What if in the trivialization of virtue in our culture and in the comfort of our feel good Christianity, we all are unwittingly prancing around as if we were God. I can see you draw back. “Who me?! No way!” you scowl. Yeah, you, and me. Pastors are so susceptible to vainglory and they don’t or won’t recognize it. Vainglory hangs out in the realms of consistent, authentic spirituality. The Desert Fathers defined and analyzed this vice in the context of monks fleeing the city to live in the desert like Jesus was.DeYoung is a culinary chef of the soul. She is so skilled in peeling back the onion of vainglory until we are all crying; and hopefully repenting and being transformed. The danger of vainglory is its ability to be obviously present without any recognition. Glory to the souls of humans is addictive. Growing in Christlikeness (sanctification for DeYoung) is a process. We’re invited into a cooperative relationship with God’s Spirit to train to be godly. DeYoung deftly rescues our progress into Christlikeness from the “fake it ’til you make’ criticism. How is growth in Christlikeness to be affirmed without sliding into the swamp of vainglory? Read Rebecca’s insightful spiritual direction. It’s good stuff.
Some basics. Glory is goodness manifest, made visible, shown. All goodness finds its source in God. Any good, then, is sourced in and should reflect back on the Giver. Vainglory, at its simplest, is detaching the good (the gift) from the Giver (God). Rebecca illustrates vainglory by writing about the young lady who coldly walks away with the diamond ring her lover gave her with no regard or respect for him, the loving giver. We talk and write about “gifted for ministry” and may unwittingly yearn for the “glory” (the good made visible) that goes with it. All this with no regard or reference to God.
Dr. DeYoung points out that we are driven to vainglory out of two energies: pride and fear. For example, if I identify as a talented pastor and commendable communicator, people may praise me for these goods. I can ‘aw shucks’ this all I want, but what if I do not receive this affirmation? Is my spirit hurt or even resentful? Public ministry can become about me apart from recognizing that the goods, the gifts are sourced in and for God and for others, not for me. I can become a Pharisee (Matthew 6:1). On the other hand, what if I’m not as gifted, as well-known, as effective as that other pastor across town? Out of my fear and smallness (you’ve got to read Rebecca’s definition of pusillanimity), then I may assert myself as worthy in some negative, destructive ways. I will criticize or gossip; I will find fault and be obstinate, becoming hardened against God’s goodness expressed in and through another person.
Help, Doctor! Dr. De Young, keeping the discussion of vainglory in the greater context of God’s grace, offers the age-old, time-tested and proven worthy disciplines of silence and solitude. She reminds us that these are not cushy, me-time practices. They are a flaming furnace of the soul that burns at and burns up our vainglorious selves. She offers the Fathers’ recommendation of magnanimity. Read, my friend. Read Vainglory: the forgotten vice and save both yourself and those who hear you.