In the previous essay vainglory[1] was described as pride’s pitiful little sister, both to stress its likeness to pride and its difference from pride.  At its worse, pride despises others and does not care what they think.  In contrast, vanity desperately seeks, even demands, the approval of others.

Rebecca DeYoung defines vainglory as “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.”[2]  “Excessive” simply means that one can hunger for praise too much.  “Disordered” means that one can want to be praised by the wrong people for the wrong things.  Both “excessive” and “disordered” imply that there is a proper human desire to be praised.

In the previous post pride was defined as an exaggerated sense of one’s importance and accomplishments.  As such, it was designated a sin against the truth, a false conception.  On the other hand, vanity is a disordered desire, a sin against love.

Jesus warns his disciples against the sin of vainglory in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them (Matthew 6:1).  By “piety” Jesus means the giving of alms (6:2-4), praying (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18).  The motivation for the desire to “be seen by men” (6:5, 16) is “that they may be praised by men” (6:2).

Jesus does not criticize these and other acts of piety in and of themselves, but rather the wrong motivation that causes the act not to be pleasing to God.  Those who perform these pious acts out of a desire to please men win their favor, which is the reward that they sought (6:2, 5, 16), but they have no reward from God (6:1).  The problem is that such acts are to be done primarily for God and not for men.  When done for the praise of men, it makes the person a hypocrite, one whose outward action looks to others as if it were done for God. Thus, the hypocrite is one whose external act contradicts his internal motivation and who acts just for himself.

In reality, such pious deeds were performed to enhance the doer’s reputation and not for God nor even for the human that benefitted from these acts. Vanity’s relation to others, even to God, is wholly self-centered. Vanity seeks its own glory.

The fantasies we create in our minds often reveal our vanity. Writing to monks, Evagrius captures well the dreams of a vain person. “It raises up a fantasy of demons shouting, and women being healed, and a crowd of people wanting to touch the monk’s clothes. It prophesies priesthood for him and sets the stage with people thronging at his door, calling for him, and even though he resists he will be carried off under constraint” (Praktikos, chapter 13). Substitute imagining the crowds praising you for hitting the winning shot in the NCAA basketball championship game or saving someone from a burning building and you get the idea.  Personally, I become so ridiculous that I get weepy thinking about all the wonderful things people will say about me at my funeral.

There is something pathetic about the vain person.  He is weak because he is dependent upon the praise of others to feel good about himself.  He does not have a strong sense of self-worth, and his perspective on his own value fluctuates in relation to the praise of others.  He enjoys no stable peace of mind but is constantly threatened by the loss of approval from others.  Dependence on the praise of others makes it impossible for him to do good in the face of opposition and can lead him to do evil.

Of course, the word “vanity” is related to “vainglory.” It signals another problem with the sin of vainglory.  The Latin word “vanus,” from which “vanity” is derived means “empty,” “that which contains nothing.”  Made famous in the English translations of Ecclesiastes 1:2 (“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”), it is used to describe the emptiness and futility of life without God. Vanity is “a striving after the wind” (1:14), a pointless dedication to nothings.

As Jesus points out, the vain person desires earthly treasures that will not last.  The externals of life—possessions as well as the praise of men—are subject to corruption and theft (6:19).  One pours oneself out on nothings and the self becomes empty.

Biblical faith believes that we have been made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).  Knowing through faith that we are creatures made in the image of God, we realize that our full humanity exists in relation to God.  It is proper, even good, then to seek praise from a source outside of ourselves.  However, the source must be fitting to mankind’s nature as the image of God.  In other words, we were made not only to praise God, but to be commended and honored by him.  Indeed, he has crowned us with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5).

Even on a strictly human level, while we should not praise ourselves (Proverbs 27:2), nor should our motivation for acting rightly be to receive praise, yet it is gratifying to be praised by others.  In fact, we ought to be praising one another.  The conclusion of the description of the virtuous woman makes this clear. “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her; ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.  Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:28-31).  The proper praising of another person is one way of loving them.

The two great love commandments make this clear.  As those who are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we naturally desire to please him.  For this reason, one of the deepest Christian hopes is that he or she will hear on the final day the words of his Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, “Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.”[3] Therefore, when we love God, we also begin to love ourselves through God as his image.  The result is that we then love our neighbors as ourselves.  John Calvin states, “we are not to look to what men in themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God, which exists in all, and to which we owe all honour and love.”  As we consider the image of God in our neighbors, “its beauty and dignity allure us to love and embrace them” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter VII, section 6). Thus, we love them as the image of the God whom we love.  Our knowledge of the honor we have from God as his image frees us from the slavish desire to be praised by others and allows us to praise and love them.

Ultimately, the desire to be praised is fulfilled by God’s praise.  It is a wholesome desire and, directed toward God, has a reliable object, the very opposite of vanity.  Its object is not the self but the one who is fullness himself and in whom we live and move and have our being.  It is reliable because the one in whom it resides will never change, fail or forsake us.

In the next post we look at the thoroughly nasty sin of envy.

[1] I’ll be using “vainglory” and “vanity” interchangeably.

[2] Glittering Vices (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), p. 60.

[3] Works of Love, trans. Howard and Edna Long (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), pp. 112-113.

34 Responses to “Vainglory: Pride’s Pitiful Little Sister”

  • Chandler M Vincent:

    Dr. Isley,
    I was just jotting down some quotes from this reading that I found interesting, and I thought I would just put them here with either why I thought they were interesting or questions about them.
    1. “The motivation for the desire to ‘be seen by man’ [being fasting, praying, alms, etc] is that they might be praised by man'”. I thought this was interesting because it just really shows that motivation is the key to all things, yes pride is the root of all evil, but even pride is derived from what your motivation is with what you are thinking or doing. A question for this phrase would be, by thinking lowly of ourselves as humans and stating that out to others is that pride and vainglory? By stating that we are lowly we are being prideful in ways that we discussed in earlier classes, but are we seeking vainglory by maybe wanting people to say “oh you are not this and that” (whatever the person might have thought negative about themselves).
    2. “The hypocrite is one whose external act contradicts his internal motivation and who acts just for himself”, with this being a part of the vainglory section how can a person be seeking praise but only doing the action for himself? Do you mean this as in they are helping others for their own personal gain?
    3. “The Latin word “vanus,” from which “vanity” is derived means “empty,” “that which contains nothing”, I did not know the original root word that vanity came from. It is very interesting that it means empty. Do you think that is sort of saying the person seeking vainglory is empty, and trying to fill themselves up with others praise? (Obviously probably stemming from some childhood trauma of not being affirmed enough).
    Anyway, I think those are my most prominent questions on the reading, thank you so much for writing this. It was very good, very thought provoking, and very interesting.

    Have a good night!

    • Thank you, Chandler. You are right about motivation. The seven deadly sins are types of sins, but even more basic is the categorization of sins into attitudes and actions. Attitudes or motivation can, as you point out, determine whether a deed is praiseworthy or not. With regard to the second question, the vain person seeks praise from others for his or her actions and so they are doing them for themselves and not for others. When I described vanity as empty, I was thinking of the things a person sought that weren’t of value or at least, not to the extent that they thought they were. They are the nothings, but you are right that the person who is always seeking to be praised is empty.

  • Drew Sullivan:

    Does pride necessarily stem from vainglory or vice versa? Also, is it a bad thing to compliment someone too much? Where is the line where that person starts becoming dependent on the compliments to shape their self worth? For example I know someone who is complimented often for their faith and biblical knowledge, but he isn’t really vain about it, and does not seek to be recognized but is anyway. Is it wrong for those who often compliment him to do so?

    • Good questions, Drew. Thank you. If we accept pride as the essential sin, then vainglory stems from it. The difference is that the proud may actually value excellence but think too highly of themselves and their accomplishments. Perhaps they think that they are more excellent than they really are. The vain person is not so concerned with excellence. He or she wants praise, whether deserved or not. Some proud people do not care whether they are praised. They actually look down on the views of others. How often should we compliment people? There is no set rule. God’s Spirit will direct us. I think that we should all probably be more complimentary than we are, especially to those who are struggling with their sense of self worth.

  • Kassidy Napier:

    Before reading this article, I would have explained pride and vanity in the same way: being egotistical. When I think of pride, I think of a sports player thinking he is the “bees knees”. When I think of vanity, I think of a lady sitting in front of a mirror and distorting her appearance with various beauty products. This article made me think deeper about this scenario. I suppose the reason a lady would want to change her visage to get a complement. However, if someone went to compliment her, they would be encouraging her behavior. Since praising each other is a way to love each other, how do we see those who want our praise for personal gain? If we already have people in our lives like this, how do we go about “praising them”?

    • Good questions, Kassidy. Thank you. I think that it would be interesting tomorrow for the students to share what they picture when they think of vanity. By the way, don’t they call a place where cosmetics is put on “a vanity.” I wonder whether we should think that a woman distorts her appearance with beauty products. Couldn’t they enhance it? Of course, the motivation is crucial. Here, I’ll need you ladies to help me out. Is it just to get a compliment? We just had photos taken at CPLS. It would be interesting to discuss why we dress up that day and not others. Could not a woman just want to look her best for herself or maybe even for her Lord? The latter might be a reason to dress up on Sunday for church. Your point about complimenting others is one that another comment touched on. I think that we need to pray for discernment for the person. Tomorrow’s class should be interesting. Thanks again.

  • Halle Pavlik:

    Dr.Isley, this is a very relatable article because of all the examples given. One thought that I had while I was reading this, is one that I think is worth sharing. I thought, there must be a fine line between vainglory and receiving glory for something that is worthy of praise. I think it all has to do with the feelings and intentions of the person receiving the glory. But, does it rely on self-worth? If someone was to do well on a test and their studies are something that they do normally exceed in, I feel that it should be okay to igknowledge that and accept this praise. On the other hand the question could be raised, is it only vainglory if one seeks out the praise? It is all just confusing to me but I love your comment about seeking glory from God does help clear some things up! I can’t wait to dive deeper into this in class!
    P.S. Sorry for all these questions and the unorganized words in this comment, I cant wait to hear your response though. 🙂

    • Thank you, Halle. Your comments and questions are fine. I think that we’ll see that the feelings and intentions are crucial. Remember the cycle that Mrs. Gossard taught us. With regard to self-worth, if we see ourselves as made in the image of God and as his children, even though we do fail, we’ll have a self-worth based upon what God says, and he can never lie and he never changes. It is fine then to accept others praise for doing well, but you’re not dependent on their praise. The vain person wants and probably needs the praise of others, whether his or her actions merit it. This is not good. However, I would add that such a person may have been hurt by the way others have treated them; so, we need to be patient with them and maybe they should get counselling to help them overcome the negative feelings others have created.

  • Sophie Cather:

    Upon reading this post, I immediately connected it with our school’s theme verse, Colossians 3:23 (“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men”). The fact that our motivation, as Chandler said, is the beginning of all things is quite frightening. Sin in its external form seems to be obvious, but the fact that we can unconsciously sin because our internal motivation is skewed adds another layer of tension. That being said, would humility be the appropriate counterpart of vanity, as it is for pride?
    I thought it would be interesting to add that the antonym of “vanus” is “verus,” which means “true and genuine.” Not only is a vain person empty in the sense of pursuing things of futility, as you said, but they also are deceitful because they are portraying that which is not, is.
    In response to Drew’s question, I think that it is not wrong to encourage someone by means of compliments. You can even redirect your compliments toward God by saying, “the gifts you possess glorify God when you do this.” They are ultimately the ones who decide what their motive is, and if they are solely seeking the praise of man they will not be satisfied.

    • Thank you, Sophie. Your comments live up to your name! The issue of motivation and unconscious sin does add a significant layer to our walk with God. Two Psalms help me. Psalm 19:12 says, “Who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” We need to be asking God to forgive us even of those unconscious sins. And he does, of course. Later in verse 14 the psalmist asks, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” We pray that the thoughts of our hearts are acceptable to God; that is, by his grace. The other is Psalm 51:6, “Behold, you desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” We need for God to teach us wisdom in our secret heart, and he can show to us both where we need to improve and where we have had victory. Another related passage (I’m up to three now!) is Psalm 139:23-24. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I love your comment on verus being the antonym of vanus and that truth here means “true and genuine.” It sounds like Great Ideas and the biblical view of truth, doesn’t it? It is great too that you are interacting with the other comments. Thanks, Sophie.

  • Jaley Barkley:

    Vain glory is a big struggle I feel for many people because getting attention from others helps you assure your self worth. But really the only praise you need is from God. God is the only one who can really fill us and assure our self worth. That can be a hard thing to remember some times. This article really opened my eyes to how easy it is to commit vain glory and vanity. Dr. Isley where do you think the line is crossed with thinking highly of yourself and receiving people’s praises. Because if you are truly better than someone else at something than can’t you think that you are better than them, and if you did do something that was worth praise should you get attention? Is it truly just where your heart is at and if you were just doing something to get the praise from it?

    • Good question, Jaley. There is nothing wrong in accurately assessing your skills and accomplishments, but we should remember that these come from God and give him thanks for them. Nor is there anything wrong with getting praise from people when you have done something worthy of praise. The motivation of the heart is truth the key. If you’re doing something just to get praised by others, then it is vanity. I hope this helps. Understanding is, however, not as easy as practice.

  • Skylar Ball:

    While reading this, I was wondering if it was possible for someone to desire to be praised by others but to not realize that they are doing that? Like they subconsciously do it without the understanding that they are committing a sin. I also thought that it was interesting that vanity means empty, and so when people try to get praise from others to fill that emptiness it does not work because only God can fill the emptiness truly.

    • Thank you for the good comment on emptiness, Skylar. Only God can truly and fully fill our hearts. That’s the way we’ve been made. If you’ll look at my reply to Sophie’s comments about unconsciously sinning, you’ll see three passages from the Psalms that talk about that problem and how to deal with it.

  • Melissa:

    This is a great write up Dr. Isley. I particularly like the perspective of hypocrisy that gets us examining where our heart motivations lie in this type of praise we seek. (Or rather whose praise we seek). The last part also spoke loudly to me in how pathetic and unstable trying to find our self worth is in others praise. As you said there is no peace in this. It doesn’t draw me closer to my God but further away from Him. I find the answer to this conflict is in the hourly training of seeking to please and praise my Father in all I do and then trusting he will transform my sinful motivations. I am indeed a work in progress. Thankful for His sweet grace.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    What did you mean by vanity is a disordered desire?

    • Making sure of the meaning of words is crucial. Thanks for asking, Kylie. “Disordered” means that one can want to be praised by the wrong people for the wrong things. A “ordered” desire is one in which we want what we should for the right reasons and to the proper degree. Augustine’s theology can often be seen as the quest for the proper ordering of our loves. Thanks and keep asking.

  • Tess Ewing:

    I enjoyed this blog post because I fee like I finally got a good contrast between vainglory and pride. Thank you Dr. Isley! I did really enjoy the part about the virtuous women that you added in, because it reminds me of something good to strive for. I’m the beginning of your writing, you talked about how Jesus was calling them out for practicing piety in front of others, and the things that he was calling them out for was stuff like alms and fasting, etc. What would be some examples of piety now-a-days? I still was also a little confused on what you were meaning by how vainglory is a disorder against love. Because take me for example, I know that I am made exactly how God wanted me to be, but sometimes I still like it when people complement me on something, so how is that a disorder against love?

    • I’m glad you found this post helpful, Tess. We can still see similar examples of false piety today. There is nothing wrong with public prayers, nothing at all. However, if someone prays in a church service so that others will think how godly he is, that’s vanity. If we go on a missions trip so that people we’ll think we’re godly and not go for God’s glory and to minister to others, that is vanity. Does that help? I think that I wrote that vanity is a sin against love, a disorder desire. By that I mean that one loves to be praised by others rather than or more than to please God. Vanity then is a kind of self love rather than loving God and our neighbor. There’s is nothing wrong with liking it when people compliment you on doing something well. I think God has made us to be that way. We just need to make sure that getting the compliments is not the motivation for doing something well or a good deed.

  • Kylie Cleverdon:

    As well, is it bad to want to do your best and do well for not only yourself, but also others? Because you said that vanity is a striving after the wind. I took that as striving after doing well.

    • Another good question, Kylie! Vanity is a striving after the wind in that it is pursuing the praise of men rather than God. When Ecclesiastes uses the phrase “under the sun,” it is describing life lived as it there were no God. The vain person seeks to please others so that they’ll praise him. God is not in the picture. Working hard for excellence because we value something being well done and also for God’s glory is a great good.

  • Jude Borchers:

    Before reading this one of my biggest questions was the difference between pride and vainglory. I was very glad when this post cleared that up in two sentences. I do have a question with regard to our fantasies revealing our vanity. Is it wrong to want to be praised? It mentions early on that there is a proper desire to be praised, but then later it talks about fantasizing over a desire to be praised is vanity. I’m just not sure where the line is drawn between the two. One final point that stuck me was that vanity is instability. You have no stability when your foundation is literally a person’s opinion of you. This just emphasizes our need for God as our foundation.

    • Thanks, Jude. The problem with fantasies, as I was using the word and, more importantly, as Evagrius was describing vanity, is that fantasies are empty dreams. They’ll never lead to action and the point isn’t to do something great, but rather to picture oneself at the center of everybody’s praise. You are quite right about needing to have God as our foundation. Only then can we be strong against opposition.

  • Lauren Drum:

    While reading this passage, it kept referring to vainglory with people, like how people want praise as mentioned when you score the winning goal. But can God be placed in any of these situations? These might be dumb questions and probably not worded right to make sense but you might understand. So 1, would seeking praise from God be considered a form of vanity? Like instead of trying to please those around you, could you try and “over please” God? And 2, can vainglory be towards God or for God? Like if you were a devoted Christian and people knew that and praised you for that, is that vainglory? It might not be that you are necessarily wanting that praise, but you enjoy it, does that matter? These were just in my head and I didn’t know how to answer them and I thought maybe you could help. Otherwise, great post! Can’t wait to learn more!

    • Thanks, Lauren. I do understand what you mean. Many of the others are asking the second question, but I don’t think anyone asked the first. I believe that we were made to glorify and please God; so, it is natural for us to want to please him. One very serious error would be to think that his love for us is based upon our doing praiseworthy deeds. He loved us even while we rejected him and he continues to love us even though we as Christians fail him. With regard to the second, God made us as social beings and as those who by nature want to be holy; so, when someone rightly praises us for our godliness, we naturally enjoy it. We just need to remember that we shouldn’t do it to please men rather than God.

  • Taryn Durbin:

    I found it fascinating how pride and vainglory compared. I never really thought about how different pride and vainglory were. Pride is when you think too highly or too lowly of yourself and you don’t care about what other people think. Whereas vainglory is when you constantly seek the approval of others. This caused me to reflect more on my own inner thought life and fantasy life. This process helped me to better understand where I tend to struggle with vainglory and where I tend to struggle with pride. An example of vainglory in my own life is my desire to want to gain likes from something I post on social media. The healthy part of me likes the fact of just seeing connection from other people with responses but the unhealthy part of me cares more about the number of responses than the connection. What seems to help the most for me in this reflection is the man/God/man paradigm because by putting God into all circumstances begins to eliminate the problem of pride and vainglory.

    • Thanks again for another well-written and thoughtful reflection, Taryn. Your stress on the inner life and our fantasies is exactly what I was getting at and your example about “likes” is perfect. You’re right too about Kierkegaard’s idea of God being the middle term. That is crucial to combating pride and vainglory.

  • Adolphus Ghoston:

    Upon reading this blog the question that to mind was does vainglory really go into more of having a lesser view of yourself and that is why they need the praise of others? It seems that someone who has a greater view of themselves wouldn’t care about the praise of others. Can someone who has a greater sense of self-worth even have vainglory? Thanks for writing this blog Dr. Isley I appreciate it

    • Yes, I think that the vain person who so needs the praise of others, even if it is not deserved, does have a weak self-image. Someone with a strong self-worth would not have this weakness, but they could also be arrogant and so think far too highly of themselves that they looked down on others and didn’t care what they thought.

  • Hadley T.:

    On the topic of motivation, what do we do with ‘mixed motivations’? By mixed motivations I mean, at least in my personal experience, doing something initially or partially for the wrong reasons and then later, before or during the action, adjusting your motivation or trying to focus on a good motivation. (Ex. working out in order to be more attractive vs. doing it also for health vs. doing it only for health) What do we do with the middle ground.
    Also, praise is a wonderful thing to receive, but what does one do when it becomes an ‘addiction’ or a great desire? I think the article said to turn and praise God, and I see where that would work, but what do you do about that desire? It doesn’t magically disappear.

    • Good questions, Hadley. Some mixed motivation is fine. For example, eating food is good for the health, but there is nothing wrong with being motivated to eat because we enjoy it. We need, however, to order our desires properly. Health is more important than the pleasure of taste, but both are good. I would say the same with your example of exercise. There are of course bad motivations, such as working out so that you can beat somebody up. The desire to be praised is not wrong in my opinion, but it needs to be directed primarily toward God. Nevertheless, sincere praise by others for a job well done is a good thing and should be enjoyed, as long as it does not lead to pride.

  • Hadley T.:

    On the topic of motivation, what do you do with gray or muddied motivation? An example of this would be a woman working out partially for health, partially for a personal aesthetic goal, and partially for attention from men. These motivations are all muddled together in the person so is working out a sin for them or no?Also, how does one not get addicted to praise? I think the article mentioned turning and praising God, and I see where that would work, but what is to be done with that great desire?

    • This seems to be similar to your previous comment. I’ll add that a symptom of being addicted to praise is that you seek it more than the excellence of the work itself. In other words, you do something so that other people will praise you, rather than because you value a job well done.

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