A Brief Examination of Vainglory and Humility
The current environment across much of contemporary western civilization lives and breathes within the context of a vainglorious seeking culture. From the moment a person awakens from their slumber, it seems that they are plagued with a dire need for attention, affirmation, and applause. Vainglory comes in all shapes and sizes and does not discriminate on who to prey upon. It could be the individual that draws attention to themselves with the perfect tan or the person that feels the need to raise their voice above a crowded restaurant in order to attract an audience. Anyone who has experienced the lure of “like me” on Facebook or the “retweet my tweet” trend on Twitter to determine one’s social standing has heard or even succumbed to, the siren’s call of empty and hollow glorification of self. Vainglory is no light matter and is to be taken quite seriously. John’s words in the gospel states, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” John’s statement shows that vainglory is often preferred over the Creator. Therefore, a better understanding of vainglory and how it can negatively affect our relationship with the Creator is necessary in order to see how a virtue such as humility can play an integral part in tempering this portion of humanity’s fallen nature due to sin.
Pride and vainglory have often been confused with each other. One of the main reasons is that they are both spiritual vices. Jane Austen gives a clear distinction between the two when she writes, “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us. The key to our understanding of vanity is that it gives the power of our own value over to others.” To draw a further distinction between the two vices, a look at history’s most villainous victim of pride, who is no other than Satan himself, should be sufficient.
Satan, in all his pride, does not seek the approval of God, nor does Satan desire the approval of man. When the tempter requested that Jesus the Christ worship him, he was not seeking Christ’s approval rather he was seeking Christ’s destruction. Vainglory, on the other hand, is reliant upon the approval of others, and this approval of others, as Satan knows full well, is an instrument that has the power to distort the relationship between man and Christ. Paul asks the question to his audience, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man. I would not be a servant of Christ.” Furthermore, and to solidify the distinction between pride and vainglory, Austen’s statement implies that pride generally comes with a high view of self, whereas those who have the characteristics of vainglory typically hold a low view of self, which is solely reliant upon others.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung defines vainglory as, “The excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” This is a perfectly suitable definition; however, accepting it at face value does conflict somewhat with the notion that innate to all humanity is the desire to be known and approved of, and additionally, humans long to have this desire acknowledged. A quick overview of the triune God should clear up any tension between vainglory’s excessive and disordered desire for recognition and that of man’s God-given natural desire for recognition and approval.
The desire to be known and approved of is no accident and can be accredited to the Holy Trinity. The Trinity shows that God is very much a God of relationship, which means He is known and desires to be known. God the father is known and loved by the Son and both extend their love outward to the Holy Spirit. Additionally, the Father approves of the Son; “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” Humans are made in the likeness of the Triune God, which is revealed in Genesis 1:26. Therefore, man’s desire to be known and approved of is rooted in the Trinity. From this we can deduce that humans were designed to seek their ultimate approval from God, which also happens to be the most fulfilling kind of approval because God loves us unconditionally. However, humans tend to seek, and often times prefer, to be known and approved of by each over the ultimate approval and relationship from an all loving God. This, of course, is a consequence derived from the Fall, which explains why DeYoung introduces her definition of vainglory with the phrase, “excessive and disordered desire.”
Vainglory leads its victim in a downward spiral toward a self-centeredness that is totally dependent upon the approval of others. The quality of the approval they rely on carries little weight and can be as hollow as a simple “like” on social media or as narcissistic as a politician who yearns for the flattery derived from rising poles in order to determine their standing with the masses; notwithstanding what the people truly think because vainglory is all about popularity. It can consist of false attention like taking the credit where credit is not due or it can show up in a person having to have the latest novelty. Vainglory is everywhere in today’s world. As long as the person is receiving some sort of flattery all is good. This proves one strong point – When there is no God-center everything is self-centered. This means that the vice of vainglory, if not kept at bay, has the propensity to affect one’s relationship with God. After all, if one is so excessively focused on self to the point of obsession then what sort of leftover praise is reserved for God? Is it possible, then, to move from the pull of self-centeredness over to a life based on other-centeredness? Yes, there most certainly is, and in order to do this one must make the transition from vice over to virtue.
The virtue of humility is the antithesis to the vice of vainglory. Humility requires a low view of self, but not in the way most think of a low view. The term humility has often been defined as one who has a low opinion of oneself; however, this definition is incorrect. Humility, which is the quality of being humble, “involves a realistic appraisal of one’s positive and negative characteristics in relation to others.” Francis Chan draws further clarification when he stated in a lecture, “Humility is not self-degradation. Putting yourself down is all about self. Humility is about thinking of others – considering others more important than yourself.” The best example for humility is Christ.
Philippians 2:6-8 states that Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!” This beautiful passage shows Christ’s unconditional love for us. While we were still sinners, God, through Christ, accomplished man’s reconciliation back to God. How exactly is this a ceasefire on the vice of vainglory? Simply put, realizing God’s unconditional love has the power to shift a person’s focus off of self and onto the cross of Christ. Once a person’s focus is set on Christ, the Holy Spirit will transition that person from self-centeredness to a person of other-centeredness. Of course, one must submit to the promptings of the Spirit in order to accomplish the will.
The truly humble person, as Christ exemplifies, attributes nothing to self. The humble take no interest in decorating or enhancing their own self-worth because they understand their worth to be priceless, that is, worth dying for. In summary, when one truly finds Christ that person no longer seeks the approval in others because that person now finds the cause of their joy in the magnolia Dei – the glory of God.
Of course, the virtue of humility is often hidden to those caught up in the vice of vainglory. A biblical approach of combatting this particular vice is useful for a person interested in a life of holiness, but unfortunately, this approach is far removed from those that are far too attached to this world. This is where Christians are called to be the light in the world. Christians can show unbelievers the difference between empty glory and God glory. Unbeknownst to many, probably because of their worldly behavior, but unbelievers are very much like believers; we all seek affirmation from others and we all seek to be loved. Is there anything more good, true and beautiful than being a recipient of the unconditional love of God?
It was already mentioned that vainglory does not discriminate on who to prey upon. This means that those who strive for holiness are just as vulnerable. Those who struggle with this vice need to seek God’s voice in prayer and Scripture, and they also need to hear God’s voice spoken through the mouths of other people as well. In other words, it is important to have virtuous relationships from people who mirror their lives after Christ. Having relationships that focus on Christ keeps the focus off of self. Paul gives a beautiful example of Christ-like relationships where he states, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.”
Jesus Christ warns us about vainglory in Matthew 6:7 before teaching us how to pray to the Lord. John, as already noted, addresses vainglory in his gospel (12:43) and Paul exhorts his audience in Galatians 5:26 where he writes, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” The vice of vainglory has history and it will continue to enjoy it whenever and however it can. It is undoubtedly an instrument of Satan to drive a wedge between man and God. DeYoung rightly states, “Devoting oneself to a life that ‘glorifies God and enjoys him forever,’ and receiving our own good and others’ good as a gift, takes humility and the yielding of control.” Let us all, then, practice the virtue of humility by giving all glory to God. It is entirely appropriate to close with the words of the apostle Paul, who was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit to write, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 25.
. John 12:43 (English Standard Version)
. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, ©2009), 62.
. Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd, eds., Virtues and Their Vices (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 251.
. Luke 4:5-7
. Galatians 1:10 (English Standard Version)
. DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 60.
. Mark 1:11 (English Standard Version)
. DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 60.
. Ibid., 70.
. Wade C. Rowatt, Alison Ottenbreit, K. Paul Nesselroade Jr., and Paige A. Cunningham, On Being Holier-than-Thou or Humbler-than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 41, No. 2, 2002) 227.
. John Piper and David Mathis, Thinking, Loving, Doing (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 113.
. Philippians 2:6-8 (New International Version)
. Romans 5:8
. Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Humility: Wellspring of Virtue (Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, ©1997), 68.
. DeYoung, Vainglory the forgotten vice, 101.
. DeYoung, Vainglory the forgotten vice, 101.
. Philippians 2:3-4 (English Standard Version)
. DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 73.
. 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, ©2009.
DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
Piper, John, and David Mathis. Thinking, Loving, Doing. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011
Rowatt, Wade C., Ottenbreit Alison, Nesselroade K. Paul, and Cunningham Paige A. “On Being Holier-than-Thou or Humbler-than-Thee: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Religiousness and Humility.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 2 (2002): 227-37. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1388005.
Timpe, Kevin, and Craig A. Boyd, eds. Virtues and Their Vices. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Humility: Wellspring of Virtue. Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, ©1997.
Very interesting piece, inspiring self examination. I never before made the distintinction between pride and vain glory, but see it clearly. I had always thought that my seeking approval from others was pride, but it is really my need for validation. Your point that when we realize that we are fully validated by Christ dying for us, we can then move away from our desire for validation from others is quite liberating. Thanks for sharing!
Michael – thank you taking the time to read and comment. Before I began research I shared the same notions that you had regarding the distinction between pride and vainglory. Although there are certainly other virtues that could be put forth as an antithesis to the vice of vainglory, I found that the virtue of humility was the most combative of all, especially due to vainglory’s close proximity to pride. If you are ever interested, the book Glittering Vices By Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is quite fascinating. It’s not an in depth look, however it reveals how each vice has made its way into our very fabric.