There are some professions in which notoriety is simply unavoidable. If you are a pastor, you may stand up in front of a congregation each week and proclaim the Christian gospel. If you are a professor, you have formal engagement with students to whom you impart knowledge and teach the skills of critical thinking. If you are a writer, you produce books, articles, or blog posts for public consumption. Some practices and vocations simply place us in the public eye, and presumably we also receive some affirmation as a result. In fact, the more success we have, the more affirmation we are likely to receive, and—here is the dangerous part—the greater the temptation for us to focus on ourselves, rather than God.
Humility is a desirable virtue for anyone, but for the Christian it takes on an extra level of meaning. In Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung argues that Christians should not only avoid self-aggrandizement, but direct the glory we might receive for what we do toward God. “The things we get glory for,” she writes, “are good, and the glory for them can be a good, but things still get fundamentally twisted when their goodness becomes disconnected from the source of goodness. When we disregard their signaling or reflecting function, we have lost sight of what they—and we—are for” (124). When this happens, the glory or praise we receive for a certain good becomes vainglory. (As an aside, because this book touches on several important aspects of the Christian life, I’ve also mentioned it in a couple of other posts, which you can read here and here.)
Sometimes vainglory is easy to spot: click bait, sensationalistic arguments, and the willingness to sacrifice truthfulness in the interest of generating “buzz” are obvious indicators of self-glorification. We can all think of overt examples of this. Often, however, vainglory creeps up in subtler ways that take more self-examination and prayer to recognize. As DeYoung points out, “Vainglory is not a sin that specially plagues secular glory-seekers; it is, in an important way, a vice that plagues the Christian life” (6). Each Christian, then, must guard against this vice. It doesn’t matter whether one is a layperson, pastor, professor, or bishop, each of us must engage in practices of self-examination to root out the glorification of self, which inevitably supplants than the glorification of God.
The really nasty thing about vainglory is that we often begin a particular task with the best of motivations. A pastor starts a new ministry in the service of Christ, it takes off, and she gains notoriety. A professor writes an important article or book about some crucial aspect of the Christian life, and he begins to receive invitations for speaking engagements. A blogger writes a passionate post about goings-on in the church, and it generates five or ten times the number of hits she normally gets. We like this affirmation; it’s only natural. And soon, while we began our work to serve Christ, slowly and subtly, the service of self can supplant our original motivation.
How do we prevent vainglory from taking root in our lives? Well, we could try to live anonymous, unremarkable lives, but that might result in either (a) the failure to use our talents to their fullest or (b) our humility itself becoming a source of notoriety. DeYoung recommends two specific practices to keep vainglory at bay: silence and solitude. Silence, she notes, “cuts us off from a major mode of managing our self-presentation…. Practicing silence teaches us to stop using words to project a limelight-worthy self” (94). The practices of being silent can take many forms: “Practicing silence can mean maintaining complete silence during a weekend retreat at a monastery, or setting aside one ‘quiet day’ each week, or being silent for a shorter time (an hour before bedtime) each day. It might involve intentionally spending time in prayer, listening to and soaking up Scripture, not talking about our own needs or wants, not talking when it’s not necessary for work—or even refraining from gossiping or passing along tales about others” (94).
Solitude, she writes, “is a powerful way to break out of the patterns and expectations of audience feedback” (97). The practice of solitude is particularly difficult in this age of cellphones and social media, but it is therefore all the more important. Like Christ retreating into the wilderness to pray, we should also retreat at times in order to draw closer to God and escape the trappings of our egos.
Vainglory hurts us in many different ways, but, as DeYoung points, out, “the reason to care about vice is that it keeps us from drawing closer to God (and other people) in love” (6). I strongly recommend this book, not because most people I know are particularly vainglorious (they aren’t), but because this vice can so easily and surreptitiously follow upon the heels of our successes.