Vainglory: The Sin You Didn’t Know You Had

This is part of a 7 week series on how we internalize and externalize the concept of the seven deadly sins. Please note that I use the term “sin” as a convenience, not for the literal meaning.

Researching vainglory couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I look at myself and my thoughts in a very different way now. I think most of you will look at yourselves and your actions differently, too.

But before we get personal, let’s talk about what vainglory is…

Acting for the Sake of Impressing

In modern times, we shorten vainglory to vanity. That abbreviation is in and of itself a symptom of the sin. By focusing on vanity, we hone in on the shallow aspect of the problem, rather than acknowledge the darker and more internal underbelly of vainglory.

Vainglory has a few incarnations. But they all have the same source. It is about wanting to be acknowledged as the best simply for the glory of it.  This differs from envy, which is about wanting to take that position from someone else. With vainglory, you seek the approval of others.

You do not act for the sake of the action. Your actions are driven by the positive approval of others. Everything is about impressing someone else.

The Easiest Way to Impress

Starting off from the most well-known incarnation, let’s look at vanity. What we’re really talking about here is craving popularity – whether you deserve it or not.

The easiest way to gain popularity is through physical attributes or wealth – the ideal of the glamorous life. We view these as the most accessible ways to feed vanity because our culture makes them seem easy. You buy these clothes, act a certain way, follow this trend and you will be well liked.

Vanity drives our desire to be outwardly beautiful, not because it makes us feel good about ourselves, but because it will make us look good to others. Likewise, we crave wealth, not because it gives us security and allows us to give to those in need, but because others will want to be near us because of what we have – which, in a weird way, means that we want people to take advantage of us.

To be clear, making your appearance an important part of your life is not vainglory. It might be how you express yourself or make yourself feel better. Likewise, striving to be financially secure to support yourself and those that you love, even in extravagant ways, is not necessarily vainglory. Those things only step into that territory when we do them for praise we expect others will give us.

“The desire for recognition isn’t wrong in and of itself. It’s the excessive and empty ways in which we seek to satisfy this desire.”  

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung

Vanity Steals Your Goodness

The above are things that give glory without merit. You haven’t really done anything to deserve them (in the case of wealth, I’m referring to the glory we get for having money, not in the glory from the hard work we did to get the money). But it is possible to be guilty of vainglory even if you’ve done something of note.

We’ve all done great things for which we’ve never been acknowledged. I think we would all be lying to ourselves if we said this lack of acknowledgement didn’t hurt our feelings sometimes.

That’s vainglory.

It seems so innocuous doesn’t it? After all, isn’t it only fair that others acknowledge our successes and positive contributions?  Of course it is. It is wrong of them to not celebrate in your accomplishments. However, it’s also wrong of us to let their oversight affect us on a deep level.

As DeYoung points out in her book The Glittering Vices,

“When we are a light to the world, we are not shining a spotlight on ourselves.”

When those feelings come up, we must ask ourselves “did I do this for me or for them?”

If you don’t arrive at the latter answer or if you can’t let go of your hurt, then your contributions did not come from a good place. They came from selfish vainglory.

This is really something to think about isn’t it? I’m sure we can all think of countless times that we’ve engaged in this kind of negativity.

These kinds of thoughts take away the goodness from our actions. Are we acting to be seen as good more than we are acting to be good for the sake of goodness?

Of course, sometimes, there was never any good to begin with.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them so that you may be praised by others by heaping up empty phrases to be heard by your many words.”

– Matthew 6:1-8

We give to charity so that others will see us as charitable. We help friends so that others will see us as selfless. We go to church and talk about our religion so that others will see us as pious. We excel at our work so that others will see us as the best, etc…

We don’t want to do these things because we love them or even believe in them. We do them because we want the adulation that comes from doing them.

An Even More Subversive Layer

I’m a perfectionist. At times, I’m a bit of a control freak. When I first started blogging professionally it would take me four hours to write what should’ve only taken one.

It wasn’t because the work was difficult. It was because I was difficult.

I was so afraid of not doing a good job. I was worried about how my work would be viewed. It went beyond meticulousness. It was insecurity. It was vainglory.

I wasn’t thinking about the work. I was thinking about how people would view me because of the work.

When I first started researching this sin, I had just started a new freelancing job writing app reviews. As with any new job I start, I immediately became self-conscious. I feared what my work would say about me.

I immediately slipped into vainglory.

Uncovering this aspect of the sin was the most startling part of my research. Realizing that the truth of perfectionism isn’t to do well, but to be seen as having done well, has completely altered the way that I approach my work.

There’s a gift in learning that behavior you thought was positive is, in fact, negative. Now that I know, I can let go of it.

I’m free of it.

Give Yourself the Freedom to Be

As vainglory is all about outside approval, you lock yourself into a cage of your own making. You don’t feel free to act as you wish. Instead, you act only to please others and receive recognition. The cage of vanity is paralyzing.

You trap yourself in a false persona built around what you believe will make you popular.

You trap yourself in anger over your lack of recognition.

You trap yourself in fear of your imperfections

We don’t need to keep ourselves in that jail cell.

The freedom lies in taking ourselves out of the equation, allowing our actions to exist as things in themselves – unattached to our identity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on vainglory. If you feel comfortable, share in the comments how you feel it’s affected your life.

Also, read my previous post in the Sevens series on envy.

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Comments

  1. this is very well thought out. I believe that most of what you say is true, however consider this. What if you secretly gave without telling anyone. what if you helped out because you cared. I.e. what if your intention was not any of the above. would that make it a sin?

    • I’m completely confused by your comment. I don’t need to consider it – I already have. That’s the whole point of this post. We should act without self-interest.

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