This blog now contains nearly 600 posts. The following post is from July 7, 2014. I am sharing it again because its message on the old sin of “vainglory” is much-needed in today’s political atmosphere.
A few months ago, my pastor mentioned during a worship service that this blog is the only one he reads regularly. The people around me turned, smiled, and gave a thumbs up; of course, I felt warm all over.
As the service went on, I kept returning to the compliment. Soon I realized that being pleased about having my blog mentioned was quickly turning into vainglory, “the need to have others think well of us in order to feel worthy” (p.143 in The Good and Beautiful Life). As I left the sanctuary that day, a good friend congratulated me and said she loved the blog, too. I saw others headed my way. I nearly ran out the door to my car. All this praise was feeding my addiction to one of my strongest false narratives: “I need the approval of others to feel loved – and really special.”
I’ve had conversations with others about this incident. Most people have said that I have a right to feel proud if the pastor likes my blog. Maybe so. But I knew in my heart that I was about to fall into the trap of believing that if others say we are good, then we are. As James Bryan Smith says, “The need for love is temporarily assuaged by admiration; it is the only substitute we can find. Unfortunately admiration based on our looks or performance is fickle and fleeting. We are only as good as our next performance” (p. 139).
A friend of mine shares my weakness for vainglory. He has memorized a lengthy scripture passage, and the worship leader asked him to share the passage during worship. He agreed and spoke the passage beautifully. Later when I mentioned how well it had gone, he ruefully said, “Yes, but while I was waiting to ‘go on,’ I was scanning the congregation to see who was there. I was disappointed because some people I looked for weren’t there, and they wouldn’t see me deliver this long passage of the Bible. Obviously I have not resolved the issue of vainglory!”
James Bryan Smith says, vainglory is the bane of the pious” and “a subtle trap for religious people.” After all in order to be proud, we have to have something to be proud about. In order to be tempted by vainglory, I had to have a decent blog for people to praise. In order to be praised for his memory of scripture, my friend had to do the memorizing. The teaching of vainglory challenges us to examine how pure our motives are when we practice our faith. Edward P. Sri, writing on the Catholic Education Resource Center web-site asks these important questions:
Do we worship God and serve the Church purely out of selfless love for God or is there a part of us selfishly seeking to receive attention and praise from men? Often, our motives are quite mixed. We may give time and money to the [church] or parish, but is there something within us hoping that others will notice our generosity? We may take time for prayer because we love the Lord, but is there a part of us also hoping our friends, our spiritual director, or the people we serve will notice and think better of us?
Vainglory leads to a cluster of other means of self-promotion which help us gain attention: name dropping (I must be somebody special if I sat next to Richard Foster at dinner); boasting (my pastor says my blog is the only one he reads!); gossiping (I’m in the center, if I know the latest scoop);hypocrisy (I pretend to be someone I’m not). Our attitude should be instead: “I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through—listen to this music (by Hafiz quoted on Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for July 6).
So what’s the cure for vainglory? Here’s a beautiful paragraph from The Good and Beautiful Life:
You are valuable to God. God loves you no matter what. Your worth is not dependent on your performance or on what others think of you. Your worth is found in the loving eyes of God. If you win, God loves you. If you lose, God loves you. If you fast and pray and give your money to the church, God loves you. If you are sinful and selfish, God loves you. He is a covenant God, and his love never changes You are precious and worth dying for – just as you are (p. 147-148).
It all comes down to the beautiful truth that “I am one in whom Christ dwells and delights.” We are special to God. We can bask in the warmth and brightness of that love instead of the manipulated pleasure that vainglory brings.