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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.


Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s recent volume, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, provides a necessary exploration of vainglory, a vice absent from contemporary discussions on the deadly sins, yet ubiquitous in modern society. From celebrity culture to social media to a competitive spirit in work and relationships, vainglory is not merely present but valued in contemporary culture. Still, is the desire to be recognized always sinful? Is there any possibility of resisting this vice when it drives modern culture? DeYoung engages the desert monastic tradition, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Thomas Aquinas to provide insightful answers to these questions and many more.

To understand vainglory, it must be viewed in light of the positive counterpart it distorts, glory. In Scripture, glory is most commonly associated with God: “They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom” [1]. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” [2]. Yet when applied to humans, Scripture speaks negatively about glory: “They loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God” [3]. “It is not good to eat much honey: so for men to search their own glory is not glory” [4]. While such verses suggest it is good for God to receive glory, but sinful for humans to receive glory. Yet Scripture has its exceptions. St. Paul calls man “the image and glory of God” [5]. DeYoung, drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, defines glory as “goodness that is displayed” [6]. According to her definition, God’s declaration of humanity as “very good” at creation [7] is a positive example of glory. Any display of goodness[8], then, is an example of glory and reflects back to God the Creator, the source of all genuine goodness [9].

The negative portrayals of glory in Scripture stem not from glory itself, but from its corruption, referred to in the Christian tradition as vainglory. Vainglory occurs whenever a display of goodness reflecting back on the Creator is disordered [10]. Glory can be disordered in two primary ways. First, glory can be pursued for vain objects, specifically for false virtue an individual does not truly possess or pursuing glory for things “not worthy of attention or acknowledgment”, whether that be for “fluff” or for evil deeds [11]. Second, and more subtly, glory can be pursued for vain objectives. Glory is sought for genuine goodness, but only for the sake of the person him or herself rather than to reflect the Creator [12]. DeYoung references St. Augustine, who critiques this form of vainglory as “idolatrous. To make themselves the ultimate locus of praise was prideful” [13]. This is a particularly insidious trap: "Good people are truly worthy of the renown and approval they get. Their goodness makes them more likely to receive recognition and praise from others, because outstanding character, virtue, and sanctity naturally attract attention….The better you become, the more recognition typically comes your way; and the more recognition that comes your way, the more susceptible you can become to expecting it and becoming excessively attached to it-to wanting your goodness to be recognized, noticed, affirmed" [14].

Vainglory never stands on its own. It gives fruit to other vices, of which the most notorious is hypocrisy, famous as Jesus’ preferred criticism of the Pharisees [15]. Hypocrisy “means pretending to have good qualities that you don’t actually have so that others will think well of you” [16]. For an individual who covets glory for glory’s sake, feigning goodness is a viable path to achieving recognition. However, there is a fine line between hypocrisy and the spiritual disciplines required for spiritual growth. In Aristotelian language, DeYoung points out that many actions are done according to virtue rather than from virtue [17]. Formation requires practicing virtue, even when an individual is not fully virtuous. Even in hypocrisy and human failings, God can form individuals in virtue, leading them from impure motives to pure ones, using external pressures to lead to internal transformation [18]. “‘Acting as if’ cannot simply be conflated with hypocrisy; rather…it is a process of moral formation in which we deliberately practice actions that we endorse, hoping that they will eventually feel natural and gradually become part of our character” [19].

While hypocrisy is a fruit of vainglory, vainglory is itself a fruit of pride. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is commonly considered the root of all sin. Yet the vices of pride and vainglory are particularly intertwined and are often confused [20]. DeYoung draws on St. Thomas Aquinas to distinguish the two. "Aquinas articulated the distinction between pride and vainglory in the following way. Pride is the inordinate desire for excellence, where “to excel” indicates being better than or superior to someone in some way….So pride is really about the superiority of one’s goodness. Vainglory, on the other hand, is a disordered desire for the display of one’s goodness. Put simply, the prideful person desires to be greater than others, whether others recognize this or not, while the vainglorious person wishes to attract other’s notice and applause, whether she is better than them or not" [21]. Pride initiates a desire for superiority which inevitably leads to the desire for recognition and attention, vainglory [22].

Yet pride is not the only root of vainglory. DeYoung argues vainglory is also a fruit of fear [23]. A person who fears he or she may not have goodness will instead feign it or glory in vain objects [24]. “Maintaining a mask for others is fundamentally a self-protective maneuver executed when you fear an audience and its power to reject you” [25]. In this case, vainglory is “not a show-off vice for excellence, but a cover-up maneuver for its acutely felt absence” [26]. While pride leads to glory for vain objectives, fear results in glory for vain objects. Pride professes to have goodness which vainglory desires to be recognized for. Fear assumes an imperfection which vainglory seeks to cover over. A fearful person seeks glory for a virtue he or she does not have or “fluff” to protect his or her perceived lack of goodness.

So how can individuals avoid vainglory? DeYoung suggests the classic spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence [27]. Fellow disciple of the Desert Fathers, Henri Nouwen, writes, “Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self” [28]. The false self, for Nouwen, is the one fabricated for approval, the one seeking vainglory. Richard Foster describes the true self, formed in silence and solitude before God: "If we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart" [30]. Solitude separates individuals from the demands of the world to achieve and from opportunities to seek after vainglory. In solitude, the only voice available to provide approval is that of the Creator, the One whose approval all humans need.

Similarly, silence prevents individuals from asserting themselves and their own goodness. After a class exercise in silence, DeYoung said, “The practice of silence…showed us that we were far less aware of our habits of self-aggrandizing communication than we ever imagined and much more in need of such regular disciplines than we could have expected” [31]. Too much of human communication is a pursuit of vainglory and silence is an opportunity to recognize that. Yet silence is not a mere fast from self-aggrandizement. It is an opportunity to hear a Word from God, the declaration that those made in His Image are created “very good” [32].

While solitude and silence are practiced by individuals, DeYoung also insists communities are needed to assist individuals to resist vainglory. Since vainglory is encouraged by modern society and, in turn, warps society, a countercultural community is essential for mortifying this subtle vice [33]. After fasting from ill-forming relationships in silence and solitude, comes “a ‘feast’ of appropriately up-building, true, God-glorifying celebration and grateful encouragement within the Christian community” [34]. The Christian community can serve as a “good audience”, providing positive affirmation and recognition of individuals’ genuine goodness which, in turn, reflects back to God [35]. As humans made and remade in the Image of God with dominion over His good creation, Christians have a particular responsibility and ability to celebrate goodness wherever it occurs [36].

Vainglory is the insidious offspring of pride and fear and gives birth to various other vices. It separates individuals from community with others in favor of competition and self-aggrandizing. Yet the practices of silence and solitude and the influence of the Church community can form individuals in the self-giving love that Christ has shown to His people in His death and resurrection on their behalf. Christ has already freed His people from the vice of vainglory. The work of the Holy Spirit through other Christians and the disciplines of silence and solitude teach individuals to walk and grow in the victory accomplished by Christ.

[1] Psalm 145:11-12 NRSV

[2] Isaiah 6:3

[3] John 12:43

[4] Proverbs 25:27 KJV

[5] 1 Corinthians 11:7 KJV

[6] DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, p. 14.

[7] Genesis 1:31 NRSV

[8] DeYoung, p. 14.

[9] Ibid. p. 16.

[10] Ibid. p. 26.

[11] Ibid. pp. 26-28.

[12] Ibid. pp. 29-30.

[13] Ibid. p. 30.

[14] Ibid. p. 31.

[15] See Matthew 23.

[16] DeYoung, p. 38.

[17] Ibid. p. 63.

[18] Ibid. p. 64.

[19] Ibid. p. 67.

[20] Ibid. p. 42.

[21] Ibid. p. 43.

[22] Ibid. p. 44.

[23] Ibid. p. 41.

[24] Ibid. p. 48.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. p. 94.

[28] Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Way of the Heart. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003, p. 15.

[29] Ibid. p. 13.

[30] Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2018, pp. 96-97.

[31] DeYoung, p. 96.

[32] Genesis 1:31.

[33] DeYoung, p. 116.

[34] Ibid. p. 119.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

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