The Eight Patterns: Vainglory

... a desire for superiority.

A desire
for superiority

Vainglory is the pursuit of approval, praise, respect, and/or admiration from others. This is accomplished by either thinking too much of one's self or thinking too little of others. One does not develop a taste for vainglory until they (often unwittingly) experience it. By then, it can be so intoxicating that it becomes an obsession. Continually seeking approval consumes overwhelming amounts of energy, damage one's self-perception, and leads to either burnout or a breakdown.Ironically, spiritual victory is a leading cause of vainglory. Satan intentionally loses some spiritual battles to other areas to gain ground here.
with humility
Commonly understood
as self-esteem
Not to confused
with confidence
Other forms:
heresy, conceit, slander, desirous of praise, jealousy, belligerence, haughtiness, argumentativeness

A young woman asked her pastor for help in dealing with a particular problem. She confided to him that wherever she went, she noticed that she was always much more beautiful than every other woman she met. What should she do?

The pastor immediately recognized the source of her problem, and told her that he was not qualified to help her. He said that what she really needed was not a pastor, but an eye doctor.

Sadly, many who struggle with vanity are just like this young woman -- completely unaware of the true nature of their problems. They are so bent on looking good (often at the expense of others) that they wind up living insulated, isolated lives.

Vainglory and pride share much in common. Both can be performed without physical activity, and neither explicitly requires external provocation. These two patterns also move more rapidly from the moment of assent to captivity than do any of the other patterns (see the sidebar on lust).

No other pair of patterns mutually reinforces each other as well as these two do. Together, they are like thunder and lightning. Lightning (vainglory) precedes thunder (pride) and heralds its imminent arrival.

The differences between vainglory and pride are subtle, yet significant. Pride honors the self, while vainglory dishonors others. Pride asserts independence from God and others, whereas vainglory feeds off of feelings of superiority to God and others.

There are two basic forms of vainglory: carnal and spiritual. Carnal vanity focuses on one's things (wealth, power, appearance, prestige, influence, etc.), and says, "Look at how great I am!" On the other hand, spiritual vanity is fixed upon one's accomplishments (especially those of a spiritual nature, such as fasting, tithing, church attendance, etc.), and says, "Look at how good I am!"

Vainglory is a pattern of 1) pretense, 2) persistence, 3) presumption, 4) promotion, and 5) puffiness; or in other words, 1) affectation, 2) ambition, 3) arrogance, 4) advancement, and 5) aggrandizement.

He can be a 2) determined 1) hypocrite who 3) takes what rightly belongs to others while 4) furthering his own causes in 5) an effort to feel better about himself.

Vainglory and lust cannot coexist. The shame and dishonor of the latter preclude the self-interest of the former.

Vanity is very difficult to anticipate and identify. It varies wildly in its approach, and can subtly attack every area of life. It must be detected as early as possible in order to defeat it.

The chains of vainglory are preferable to the chains of every other pattern. This does not mean it is a trivial matter, but that it is often a lesser evil. If given a choice between failing to vanity and any other pattern, choose vanity.

The spiritually vain often take "pride" in their position as a child of God and look with contempt upon anything unclean. This kind of haughtiness can be a barrier to other patterns. For instance, the vanity of the Pharisees prevented them from plunging headlong into gross immorality. Spiritually vain people tend to serve more reliably, fast more strenuously, study more diligently, etc., because the esteem of others is very important to them.

Incidentally, this is the basic idea behind accountability partnerships. Because you do not want to disappoint your partner, you will fulfill your duties more faithfully. When this natural and helpful desire is perverted, it leads to vanity.

Vainglory is the "onion" pattern. Every time a layer is exposed and discarded, another one is right there. It can be difficult to tell if progress is being made, because each layer closely resembles its neighbors.

Vainglory is also the "iceberg" pattern. What can be readily seen is thought to be small and regarded as harmless, but grave danger lurks just beneath the surface. It has caused many to "shipwreck."

Vanity causes one to live in the future. The vain often start sentences by saying, "One day, I will have/be ..." In this, vanity is similar to greed.

Vanity will always remain a threat to every Christian, regardless of their level of spiritual development. This is unlike the first three patterns, which can be reduced through abstinence and defeated more easily as one spiritually matures. For example, the mature Christian is less susceptible to gluttony and more capable of resisting it with fasting. Unfortunately, there are no similar acts of renunciation that directly help someone in the struggle with vainglory.

In particular, vanity attacks spiritual novices by encouraging them to be proud of their:

gifts. This includes natural abilities, physical appearance, material wealth, etc. Some of these things might be quite outside of their own control, yet they still could take pride in them.

sacrifices. Some might imagine that they have made great sacrifices for God, when, in fact, they have not. These sufferers of "Martyr Syndrome" fool themselves into believing their problems are due to their "deep" spirituality. To illustrate, suppose a man is overlooked for a promotion. He tells himself, "The one who was promoted must have done something unethical. If only I had been willing to act dishonorably, then I could have gotten the job. God owes me one for being such a principled guy." Such reasoning is a clear example of vainglory -- tearing someone else down to feel better about yourself.

wisdom. The unteachable teacher is vanity personified. Someone who thinks they have much to teach and little to learn is both vain and foolish. Interestingly, the advice they dispense is almost always unsolicited.

ASPIRE. Focus on intense, humbling prayer while recognizing the dangers of intercession, which can invite additional temptations to be vain (i.e., "look how spiritual I am because I am interceding for someone else when I have such serious problems of my own.").

Ask yourself, "who do I really want to hear my prayer?"

Be aware of the high price to be paid for progress. There are many that want a better position, yet fail to recognize the extra responsibilities that comes with a promotion. In typically vain fashion, they want the prestige, yet are largely unaware of the added burden.

Shun recognition and deflect praise. They are poor substitutes for the rewards given by Christ to those who have done a job well.

Do not brag. It feels good to receive some attention, but the act of boasting does more than invite a pat on the back. It also draws unwanted attention.

Imagine a tourist getting lost in a seedy part of a very large city. His clothing, accent, posture, and bewildered expressions would encourage thieves to take advantage of him. Similarly, boasting boldly announces that you are an easy target. It is, by far, the most effective way to show your spiritual naivety.

Be careful when seeking counsel or aid from a fellow Christian. Do not create opportunities for bragging. For example, asking people to pray for you to have strength during a fast can degenerate into an attempt to impress others. If you are asking for help merely to amaze your friends, then you are vain.

Still, it is important to talk to others about spiritual matters. Doing so promotes humility. Whenever you learn something from someone else, it reminds you of how much you need others. You can even learn deep spiritual truths from unexpected sources. For instance, parents can gain insights from their children.

Do not be "puffed up" by knowledge. Being smart is such fertile ground for vainglory that intelligence has something of a poor reputation. This is unfortunate, and does not have to be the case. It is possible to be both intelligent and humble, but not without being vigilant as well.

If vainglory fails to inflate your ego on account of your incredible knowledge, then it might tempt you to take pride in your ignorance. Many times, those who lack certain knowledge will try to minimize the significance of their ignorance by either dismissing it as unimportant or mock those who are not ignorant.

Be consistent and content. Consider the following activities: adding an extra room to a house, buying a larger car, undergoing cosmetic surgery, upgrading to a newer computer, and working out in the gym. There are many valid reasons to enlarge or improve something, but the "bigger and better" mentality can be a dangerous vanity trap. If these decisions do not serve a truly useful purpose, then they are merely vain, ego-boosting monuments to the self.

Try to treat everyone the same way. This is often difficult to do because some people are just more likable than others. Also, people often can put up barriers to being loved. To correct the tendency towards preferential treatment (favoritism is a form of vainglory), treat everyone as if they were Jesus Christ Himself (see Matthew 25). After all, they do bear His image.

"Grab your ankles." This is what one of my elementary school teachers would say before swatting a misbehaving student with a paddle. Likewise, God wisely chastens His children to correct their wayward behavior. When it comes to vanity and pride, He is more apt to use the "paddle" than He is with regard to any of the other patterns. Being disciplined is never pleasant, but failing to submit to discipline greatly aggravates the problem.

Sidebar: Dangers of Victory
In most cases, spiritual victories weaken the grip of the particular pattern that was defeated. For example, every victory over gluttony equips you to better resist it in the future. Spiritual success makes you stronger.

The temptation of vainglory is very different from all of the other patterns. Instead of growing weaker with each victory (regardless of the pattern defeated), the temptation to be vain grows stronger. With every spiritual victory, there is a follow-up temptation to think of yourself more highly than you ought.

Satan is aware of the pitfalls associated with success. He may intentionally lose a lesser battle if it will lay the groundwork for him to be successful with future temptations. He may also try to cheapen your victory by making you feel cheated or empty. For example, defeating lust is always a good thing, but doing so can often leave you feeling hollow inside.

Once Satan has firmly entangled people in their own vanity, he is quite unlikely to use any other form of temptation on them. He does this to preserve their illusions of strength. For example, many people imagine themselves to possess self-control, purity, generosity, etc., but they are deceived. Why should Satan risk exposing their weaknesses by tempting them in these areas? They might discover the truth and attempt to address it.

It is not uncommon for Christians to be intimidated by the prospect of victory. They are afraid to grow spiritually because they do not want added responsibilities. To their untrained eye, it appears that mature Christians suffer more than mediocre Christians do. If a natural consequence of victory is the potential for greater trials and temptations, then why risk drawing unwanted attention to yourself? Reaching greater heights now appears to simply create more opportunities for spectacular failure in the future.

This is a seriously flawed way of thinking. Victory might create opportunities for failure, but refusing to grow up is abject failure (no "might" about it). There is nothing to gain, and much to lose, by failing to even try. The life of a mature Christian is abundantly full and satisfying. Granted, there is risk, but the return on the investment is incredible beyond description. It is always right to choose right.

In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus addressed several vanity-related issues. In particular, God values humility and is displeased with hypocrisy.

"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." – Matthew 5:19

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." – Matthew 6:1

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." – Matthew 6:5-6

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." – Matthew 6:16-18

The vainglorious have their own agenda, and foolishly fail to appreciate the skills of others.

"There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." – Proverbs 14:12

"Do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom of your words." – Proverbs 23:9

Taking advantage of others for personal gain is a surefire indicator of vanity.

"'It's no good, it's no good!' says the buyer; then off he goes and boasts about his purchase." – Proverbs 20:14

Receiving praise is not sinful. Quite the contrary, it can be rather helpful and encouraging, but it does become a sin when you are the one singing your own praises.

"Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips." – Proverbs 27:2

A reality check is an effective antidote for vainglory. It is preferable to put yourself in your own proper place than to oblige God to do it for you. Remember: He is God, and you are not.

"All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." – Isaiah 40:6-8

"Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a 'fool' so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: 'He catches the wise in their craftiness...'" – 1 Corinthians 3:18-19

Humility talks, thinks, acts and loves in a way completely unfamiliar to vainglory.

"Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise." – Jeremiah 17:14

"Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." – Galatians 1:10

"Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other." – Galatians 5:26

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." – Philippians 2:3-4

"The monk afflicted with vainglory is an unpaid workman; he understands the work but gets no pay." – Evagrius Ponticus, Eight Thoughts VII.4.

"A thrown stone does not reach the sky, and the prayer of one who loves popularity will not rise up to God." – Evagrius Ponticus, Eight Thoughts VII.8.

"Acedia loosens the tensions of the soul, and vainglory strengthens the mind that has fallen away from God; it makes the sick person healthy and the older stronger than the younger, only if there are many witnesses present. Then fasting, vigils, and prayer are light matters, for the praise of the multitude rouses the enthusiasm." – Evagrius Ponticus, Eight Thoughts VII.20.

"Happy is the man who thinks himself no better than dirt. Happy is the monk who views the welfare and progress of all men with as much joy as if it were his own." – Evagrius Ponticus, Prayer 121-122.

"A monk is a man who considers himself one with all men because he seems constantly to see himself in every man." – Evagrius Ponticus, Prayer 125.

"Do not measure yourself against your brother, saying that you are more serious or more chaste or more understanding than he is. But be obedient to the grace of God, in the spirit of poverty, and in love unfeigned. The efforts of a man swollen with vanity are futile." – Anonymous, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, XV.55.

"The sun shines on all alike, and vainglory beams on all activities. For instance, I am vainglorious when I fast, and when I relax the fast in order to be unnoticed, I am again vainglorious over my prudence. When well dressed, I am quite overcome by vainglory, and when I put on poor clothes, I am vainglorious again. When I talk, I am defeated, and when I am silent, I am again defeated by it. However, I throw this prickly pear [of vainglory], a spike stands upright." – John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Assent 22.

"A vainglorious person is a believing idolater. He appears to honor God, but he wants to please not God, but men." – John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Assent 22.

There are so many similarities between vainglory and pride that Scripture occasionally substitutes these terms for each other. To determine which pattern is being mentioned, one must examine the context. In the interest of clarity and accuracy, I have tried to maintain the sharp distinctions between patterns by careful use of these terms.

Be sure to study these patterns together so you can better understand which forms of temptation fall under each pattern.

Vainglory is also known as "idle glory."

Godly sorrow, when it exceeds its usefulness, leads to vainglory.

In comparison with the other patterns, vanity tends to cause relatively less damage, but holds its victims in a tighter grip.

Whenever the list of patterns has been retooled, vainglory and pride are almost always combined into one pattern (e.g., the Seven Deadly Sins). Interestingly, whenever additions to the list are considered, this is also the area where new patterns most often emerge. Cassian considered adding two new patterns to his list by adding heresy (a form of vainglory) and blasphemy (a form of pride). Evagrius occasionally referred to jealousy as a possible ninth pattern, and places it between vainglory and pride.

When the serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit, he appealed to her vanity ("your eyes will be opened"). When Satan tempted Christ in the wilderness, he made another appeal to vanity ("jump off the Temple and show everyone how important you are to God"). Thus, vainglory plays a prominent role in two of the most noteworthy Biblical illustrations of temptation.

An old desert maxim says, "fly from women and bishops." This may sound like a bizarre warning, yet it still contains a valuable principle: escape vainglorious temptations by avoiding those you are likely to want to impress.

Vanity can cause people to brag about the depths of sin from which they have been delivered. When they share their conversion stories, they emphasize how bad they were before they came to Christ. This allows someone to camouflage their immaturity by artificially lengthening their spiritual journey. They justify their lack of progress by saying, "but look how far I've come!" These testimonies often reek of one-upmanship and glamorize the sin rather than glorify the Savior.

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