The Seven Deadly Sins (2) — Vainglory

You may have heard the story of the young man who grew up in a small town, then moved away to attend college and law school.  He decided to come back to the small town because he could be a big man in this small town.  He really wanted to impress everyone.  He opened his new law office, but business was rather slow at first.

One day, he saw a man coming up the sidewalk.  He decided to make a big impression on this new client when he arrived. As the man came to the door, the lawyer picked up his phone.  He motioned the man in, all the while talking, “No. Absolutely not. You tell those clowns in New York that I won’t settle this case for less than one million.  Yes.  The Appeals Court has agreed to hear that case next week.  I’ll be handling the primary argument and the other members of my team will provide support.  Okay.  Tell the DA that I’ll meet with him next week to discuss the details.”

Finally, the lawyer put down the phone and turned to the man.  He said, “I’m sorry for the delay. What can I do for you?”

The man said, “I’m from the phone company. I came to hook up your phone.”


Two weeks ago, we began looking at the Seven Deadly Sins.  And after introducing the topic, we talked about envy last week, which is not just wanting what someone else has, but wishing that they didn’t have it either.  And we saw that most of us tend to struggle with that sin.  I hope that tour prayer this past week has been, “Search me, O Lord, and see in there is any envy in my heart.”


This morning, we want to look at the second of the Seven Deadly Sins, and you’ll see that I have named it Vainglory, which is a change from how I had it on previous slides.  I had originally intended to use the word Pride because I think that’s a word that much more familiar to us, but after preparing this lesson, I thought that Vainglory was the better word to use to describe what this sin is, even though it’s not a word that we use very much.


Let me give you a little bit of background.  The original list of the Deadly Sins actually contained eight sins, because it listed both vainglory and pride.  Later on, Pride was dropped from the list to bring the number down to seven, but pride was assumed to be the root sin behind all the other sins.  That left Vainglory on the list.  But nowadays most modern lists of the Seven Deadly Sins use the word pride, and they fail to mention vainglory at all.


But after studying this subject, I have decided to follow the early Christian tradition and leave Vainglory on the list, because I think it is the better word to describe the sin that’s referred to.  So what’s the difference between Pride and Vainglory?


Summed up in just a few words, the difference is this.  Pride says, “I think I’m someone great.”  Vainglory says, “I want you to think I’m someone great.”  Vainglory is all about the human desire for honor and glory, recognition and approval.


What makes vainglory different from pride is its concern about what others think. Prideful people want more than anything else to be “number one”—they seek greatness and superiority.  Vainglorious people, on the other hand, don’t really care if they are the best, as long as other people think they are the best.  Vainglory will seek whatever will bring the most public applause, whether it’s deserving or not.  Vainglory is a desire for recognition and acclaim.


The whole point for the vainglorious is that others take notice. When we struggle with this sin, we need people to give us their approval.  Vainglory causes us to be more concerned with our reputation (which is what others think about us) than with what we really are.  For the vainglorious, image is everything.


Let me give you a couple of examples.  A prideful student takes delight in knowing he got straight A’s because that means he’s smarter than anyone else in his class.  Vainglory says, “I want the grades posted so that everybody else knows I’m at the top.”   A proud person wants be the director of the best show ever produced.  A vainglorious person would rather get rave reviews in the newspaper.


In vainglory, we seek only the “appearance of excellence.”  That is, we want more than anything else to be recognized.


And this is a strong temptation for us, because I think there is within all of us an innate desire, perhaps even a need for recognition.  Shaydon Ramey refers to recognition as “the cornerstone of self-esteem” and she says, “We all need to be recognized. It’s not a matter of pride, selfishness or immaturity. Human beings, from the earliest moments in their lives, absolutely need respect and affection from everyone around them.”


And we can see that that’s true in our own lives.  We all know what it’s like to want our boss to recognize the hard work that we do, or to desire public acknowledgment and approval for who we are or what we’ve accomplished.  There’s a deep part of us that seeks approval.


Take, for example, a stay-at-home mother’s work. Most of her work is not seen by others. Sometimes it doesn’t get even counted as work.  People will ask, “Do you work or do you just stay home with the kids?”  She knows in her heart that her investment in her children’s upbringing is worthwhile, but she often struggles because she doesn’t feel like anybody else recognizes it.


Aquinas once said, “It seems to belong to a natural appetite that one wish one’s goodness to become known.”  But this natural desire so easily gets out of control.  When we caught in the vice of vainglory, we depend too much on this need for approval.  So much, in fact, that we will sometimes accept that approval whether it is deserved or not.  And we are tempted to vainglory in a wide variety of places — at home, at school, on the athletic field, in the workplace.


And as the early church fathers pointed out, perhaps our greatest temptation from Vainglory comes when we have virtue and good character, because it seems to bothers us most when our virtue goes unnoticed, or when we deserve honor that is not actually given to us.  Aquinas quotes John Chrysostom as saying that “while other vices find their abode in the servants of the devil, vainglory finds a place in the servants of Christ.”


In fact, as we look to the scriptures for examples of vainglory, it is among the most religious that we find this sin most frequently.  There are examples in the Old Testament.  I think all of the people I listed last week as being guilty of envy were also guilty of vainglory – Cain, Rachel, Haman.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was vainglory that led them all to the sin of envy.


But I think the best example of vainglory is found in the New Testament.  Jesus directly confronts vainglory in his Sermon on the Mount.  And he warns especially against the religious form of vainglory.  Because it is sometimes tempting for us to try to look like a better Christian than we really are, in order to win approval and acclaim from others.


Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.  Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.…


            “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:1-2,5)


Jesus is obviously targeting the Pharisees here.  He calls them out for the motivation behind their public prayers and their giving.  He said they do this “in order to be seen by others.”  They wanted people to whisper to one another, “Did you hear that prayer?  That was awesome.  I don’t know anybody else who can pray as good as that.”  Or, “Look at how much he put in the collection plate!  He’s one of the most important members of this synagogue.”


But Jesus makes it clear what the result of vainglory is.  He says, “If you’re doing what you do so that other people will talk about how wonderful you are, then you’ll get what you want.  But that’s all you’ll get.  A life spent craving human glory and praise, full of empty-hearted acts for the sake of appearances and audiences, will bring only the fleeting applause the world can give.


Some of Jesus’ harshest words were for the Pharisees, because they were more concerned about the appearance and outward observances of religion than a heart truly dedicated to worshipping God.  He said in Matthew 23,


“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.  (Matthew 23:25-26)


Imagine this.  You go into a fancy restau­rant, the kind of place you only get to go to on special occasions like your anniver­sary.  You’re seated in this restaurant.  The atmosphere is wonderful.  There’s a fireplace in the room and a piano in the corner playing romantic music.  And in front of you is a linen tablecloth and the absolute finest porcelain china.  It’s beautiful.


But after you drink your coffee, you look down into the cup and there’s a gob of mud with a slug crawling out of it.  I understand that’s extremely gross but it’s exactly the sort of image Jesus wanted to convey.  And if that were to happen to you, I don’t care how nice everything else was, there is absolutely no way you’re ever going back in that res­taurant again.  Because the cleanliness on the inside is much more important than the cleanliness on the outside.


But Jesus said that was exactly what the scribes and the Pharisees had done.  They went through all the right motions of religion, they gave the appearance of pious devo­tion to God because that was the part that everyone could see.  Everyone could see how they went to church every week and they fasted and they prayed and they gave lots of money when the collection plate came around.  And people would be amazed at how righteous they were.


But on the inside, their hearts were absolutely corrupt.  They had the appearance of being righteous, and they were recognized by everyone around them for their righteousness, but it was all just a show.


Before we come down too hard on the Pharisees, allow me to bring Jesus’ point a little closer to home, so watch out for your toes because they may get stepped on a bit!  Let me ask you a question – How much time did you spend getting ready for worship this morning?  Think about everything you did to get ready – brushing your teeth, getting a shower, combing your hair, shaving, putting your make-up on, all the other things you did to get ready.  Altogether, think about it, how much time did you spend getting ready this morning?


OK, now…how much time did you spend preparing your heart for worship?  How much time did you spend praying to God, asking him to make you receptive to His Word?  How much time did you spend asking God to provide you with opportunity today to edify and encourage someone else when you got here?  How much time did you spend confessing your sin, and asking God to remove anything in your heart that might prevent you from being able to fully worship God this morning?  Now, add it all up.  Altogether, how much time did you spend getting your heart ready for worship this morning?


You see, we can criticize the Pharisees, and feel good while we’re doing it, but the truth is, we all struggle with the same thing.  We all have a tendency to clean the outside but neglect the inside.  Because it’s the outside that everybody else sees, and we want to make sure we make a good impression on everybody around us.


Then Jesus used another illustration.  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beauti­ful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  Even so you outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28).


Now, this isn’t a very familiar image to us, so allow me to explain what Jesus was talking about.  Every spring, the Jewish people of the first century carried out a ritual.  I suppose you could call it their spring cleaning.  By that time of year, the spring rains had ended.  And those rains had washed away quite a bit, including any whitewash that had been used on their walls and houses.  So, as part of their spring cleaning, they would put a fresh coat of whitewash on their homes, on their walls and especially on the limestone caves and tombs where people were buried.


They began doing this in the spring just before the Passover feast when Jews would be traveling from all over the world to Jerusalem.  There were a couple of reasons they did this.  First of all, they wanted to make the community more attractive.  But perhaps even more important, they wanted to keep a traveler on his way to Jerusalem from accidentally touching a tomb and becoming defiled.


So the Jews very carefully marked all the tombs with whitewash.  Sometimes the entire tomb was painted and other times, bones were painted on it to mark it as a sepulcher.  Because of all the whitewash, it is said that Jerusalem and its surrounding area glistened in the sunlight during the Passover season.


But even though the tombs were whitewashed and they may have looked beautiful, that didn’t change what they were.  Today, you can go to any cemetery and you will find tombs that are absolutely beautiful, made of granite and marble, with intricate carvings and statues.  But, on the inside, they’re all alike.  They’re all full of rotting flesh and bones.  Jesus said the same thing was true of the Jewish leaders.  They may have looked good on the outside, but on the inside their hearts were corrupt.


One of the primary reasons that Jesus constantly warred with the Pharisees was that their religion was merely one of externals.  Outwardly, they showed respect for their dedication and their commitment to the law.  But they did it out of Vainglory.  They only did it so that everyone would recognize what great men they were.  But on the inside, they were as far from the spirit of God as they could possi­bly be.


The Pharisees were obsessed with their image.  They wanted to be looked up to and respected.  They loved the praise of men and the status that it brought.  They were guilty of vainglory.


But that’s enough pointing of fingers at others.  Let’s take a look at our hearts for a bit and see how vainglory can manifest itself in our lives.


How does vainglory manifest itself in our lives?



  • Going along with the crowd just so that we will “fit in”


Augustine tells a story about his teenage years. One night he and some friends were hanging out with not enough to do. They decided to steal pears from a neighboring farmer. They didn’t need the pears.  They didn’t even want the pears.  In fact, they ended up throwing them to the pigs. They took the pears just for the fun of stealing.


As he thought back on this crime, Augustine tried to figure out what it was that fueled his desire to sin.  And he came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t have done it if he had been alone.  He did it because he wanted to impress his friends.  How often have we done the same thing, either as teenagers, or as adults?  How often have we felt pressured to do something that we knew wasn’t right, just so that we could maintain our standing among our friends or co-workers?



  • Exaggerating


It would be hard to find someone who has never exaggerated something he has done, or made up something about himself to impress those who are listening.  A recent survey of business owners showed that 62% of them had caught applicants in lies, embellishing their skills or capabilities.  We do it in the stories we tell.  That’s why that fish we caught last summer grows longer every time we re-tell the story.  We exaggerate because we think that doing so will make other people think more highly of us.



  • Gossip


We all know we shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs, but sometimes we can’t seem to help ourselves. Whether we’re among family, at work or with friends, a few spiteful words shared in confidence can give us such a boost.  Saying bad things about other people makes us feel good.


And even though we would all disapprove of gossip in theory, it’s very common behavior.  It has been estimated that about 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone else who isn’t present, and most of those conversations involve passing judgement.  We all know it’s wrong to gossip, and no one wants to be malicious. So why do we indulge in this guilty pleasure?


Part of the reason we gossip is to get our friends to think that we are funny or entertaining, or to think that we are someone important because we have information that nobody else has.  It’s vainglory.



  • Hiding our true self


It’s ironic that the art of impressing others and gaining applause involves carefully hiding ourselves just as much as it involves showing ourselves off to advantage. To be lauded by others, there are things we cannot let them see. Winning their approval and praise requires not only that we put forward a false facade, but also the flip side of the coin: that we carefully conceal the ugly truth about ourselves.



  • Doing good to be noticed


Doing good is always a good thing to do.  But we need to look at our motive.  Do we do something good with the expectation that others will notice it?  Or do something good that others didn’t notice, and feel disappointed by that?  If nobody noticed, would we still do what we did?  And If you don’t think this is something we all struggle with, then try this experiment – this week, do something nice for someone anonymously and see how hard it is to not want to tell someone, anyone.  That desire is vainglory.



  • Constantly asking, “What will people think about me if I do this?”


This is one that I struggle with and I have to constantly remind myself of what Paul said in I Corinthians 4:3, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you.”  Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “As for me, it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you.”



  • Boasting


Boasting simply means “to talk with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about one’s achievements, possessions, or abilities.”  It makes sense that this sin is connected with vainglory because the only way you can be impressed about what I’ve done is for you to know what I’ve done.  And if nobody else is going to tell you, then I need to do it.


The apostle Paul quoted Jeremiah saying, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.  For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”   (2 Corinthians 10:17 18).  In order words, it doesn’t really how great we think we are.  All that matters is what God thinks of us.


So what would it look like to seek God’s approval and praise first and foremost, instead of human glory?  And I think that question may be a little more complicated than it first appears.


In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.(Matthew 5:14-16).


And then just a few verses later, Jesus warned us, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1).  So we should do our good works in a way that they will be seen, but we shouldn’t do our good works in order to be seen.


The point Jesus is making is that whenever people see what we are doing, they should not be led to say, “Look how great you are!”, but “Look how great God is!”


Because when you get right down to it, the reason vainglory is vain is because it wants to put the focus on us instead of on God.  Thomas Aquinas once said that the worst sort of vainglory occurs when we fail to give due glory to God as the source of our good.   When we fail to recognize that everything we have and everything we are is just a gift from God and we but stewards of “borrowed goods”.  And so, any glory that is received needs to be directed beyond us to God.


To give up vainglory means that we got to relinquish our place at the center of attention — to admit that from beginning to end, “it’s not about me. ”  Johann Sebastian Bach is remembered not only for writing beautiful cantatas, but also for writing on every manuscript “soli deo gloria.” (Glory to God Alone).



            How do we overcome the temptation to vainglory?


I think this is tough because it’s hard to even imagine living a life in which we care more about what God thinks of us than what others think.


One of the best things we can do is probably one of the hardest, and that is, we need to learn to be quiet.  Richard Foster suggests letting our lives and actions speak for themselves by silencing away all our self-made “spin.”  Instead of elbowing into the conversation to justify ourselves or reframe the situation to make ourselves look better, to simply be quiet.


If we are silent, we can recognize this anxious seeking for others’ approval for what it is, we can acknowledge our need to constantly put ourselves in the best light and create an approving audience for ourselves, and meditate instead on God and ask him to take away our desire for recognition and acclamation.


We can start small, trying to take the spotlight off ourselves.  What if we made the decision just for one day to let our actions speak for themselves, without defending ourselves when we think that others are being critical?  What if we decide just for one day to listen to others, while refraining from conversation about ourselves, without telling stories about ourselves, without recounting our own set of events, or offering an account of our own feelings?


I challenge you to do this, because if you will make a concerted effort to do that for just one day, it will reveal how much mental effort and conversation and activity we devote every day to enhancing our image in the eyes of others or calling attention to ourselves to make others approve of us.


This week, may your prayer be “Search me , O Lord, and see if there is any vainglory in my heart.”15


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