Consider a typical Christian man age 38. He is physically and mentally exhausted with almost no time to spend before God in prayer, meditation, and solitude. What is the source of his problem? If you were to study his week, you would see that he is not only attempting to make a living; he is trying to succeed in a career. He is not only maintaining his health, he is actively pursuing fitness. He may or may not be faithful to disciple his kids. Nonetheless, he toils day and night to make sure that they have the happiest of childhoods and that they tick all the entry requirements to get into a prestigious university. Now stand back and looking at the sum of the evidence. What is the underlying problem that is draining the strength of this man? Busyness? No, something deeper is at work. Vanity. Vanity is driving this man to pawn off his peace and spiritual vigor in the hopes of nothing more than fitting in.
The Nature of Vanity
Vanity is the impulse to measure the value of our persons by illegitimate standards. In truth, there is only one valid standard for measuring our worth, holiness. Only by viewing ourselves in the presence of God, and through the eyes of God, can we understand our value. Yet, rarely do we begin with God when we set out to ascertain our net worth. Instead, to measure our weight, we use a ruler; for our height, a scale. We look to our possessions, to our resumes, to our job titles, to our bank statements, to our waistlines, or to the achievement of our kids to indicate what only God can appraise. Why do we do this? The answer is vanity.
It is worth asking the question where vanity comes from. The source can be identified and remembered by the stanza, ‘If I fit in, I’ll be accepted/if I succeed, I’ll be respected’. First, vanity is a desire to fit in. Dr. Sues once wrote a children’s book about sneetches. Some sneetches had stars on their bellies; others did not. Those without were willing to pay good money in order to fit in with those who did. Of course, this created a problem. Once every sneetch had a star, then there was no way of indicating eliteness. Therefore, some sneetches began to pay to have their stars removed, initiating a vicious cycle of adding and removing stars, all for the sake of generating an inner circle of superiority.
While the story is comic, the application is lethal. The sad truth is that Christians spend an ungodly amount of time and money trying to conform to the arbitrary values around us. Think of the 38 year old man in the example. How much of the stress of his life is generated by trying to be nothing more than a star-bellied sneetch? How much fellowship with God is sacrificed in order to garner the acceptance of an indifferent world?
The second part of the poem is a lie of equal danger: ‘If I succeed, I’ll be respected’. David Brooks has said that the greatest myth of American society is that success can make us happy. Why do we believe this myth? What is it about success that we hope will lead to self-fulfillment? The answer is that we long for admiration. We crave self-worth like a miser covets gold. We are zealots when it comes to building our resumes, willing to forego spiritual development, character growth, friendship, and innumerable other goods if only we can have the holy grail of modern aspiration – achievement in the eyes of our peers.
Yet, why is this the bedrock of our scale of values? Where does this lust for achievement come from? Certainly, our society does nothing to prevent this lust from growing. Nonetheless, the source of the problem is not in culture, but in the heart. Vanity is the answer. Rather than look to God to appraise our value, we use our peers to measure our worth. What starts with a mistaken audience ends in faulty criteria. Seeking the acclaim of men, not God, we end up pursuing the hollow values of our age instead of the holy values of our Lord.
The Danger of Vanity
Why is vanity evil? The answer is because, like all sin, vanity produces death. In the case of vanity, this death takes the following guise. First, discontentment. Vanity is in essence discontentment. Driven by vanity, I feel like I am missing out, like there is some inner circle of people that I need to be included in. The lie of vanity is that by purchasing a new car, trimming body fat, earning a million dollars, or getting a promotion I can attain peace and security. However, vanity will no more allow for contentment than lust will allow for satisfaction. After one merit badge there will always be another that I must earn in order to be complete.
Second, vanity produces envy. The vain ego laments to see the success and prosperity of other people. Therefore, I inwardly mourn when my peers advance further than I do. The reason for this is that vanity always follows the logic of a zero-sum game. For others to increase, I must decrease, and the vain self cannot be humbled and happy at the same time.
Third is busyness. Vanity can never pursue a single aim because the world does not advertise a single good. To fit in, I must advance countless agendas at once. I must fit in at church, at work, in the gym, on social media, and in the neighborhood. Thus, anyone being driven by vanity feels like a juggler trying to keep a dozen plates in the air. There is no rest for the vain. Their ego is too insecure to lag behind a single trend.
Fourth is shame. Vanity divides the world into two categories: winners and losers. This means that on the playing field of vanity there are, ultimately, only two types of people: the egotistical and the shamefaced. The majority of people fall into the latter group since few are endowed with all the gifts and opportunities required to meet the ideals of GQ.
Finally, vanity produces spiritual immaturity. The reason for this is because vanity sends Christians down the wrong path in life. No student will advance far in school if he makes entertainment his final goal in life. Equally, no Christian will progress far in spiritual matters if he designates fitting in or achievement as his highest aspiration.
In Praise of Humility
What, then, is the virtue that ought to replace the weakness of vanity? The answer is humility. There is a long tradition of Christian writers who have noted that true humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking of oneself less often. This detachment from self-obsession is a mortal blow to vanity. Vanity feeds off narcissism. The vain man can think of little besides himself, which is why he ceaselessly tries to fit in and achieve. Once a man becomes self-forgetful, vanity is suffocated. Unshackled from ego, a man is liberated to pursue objectives that aim higher than himself. He is weaned from the need to be liked. He is set free to be loved by God. If insecurity and restlessness are the offspring of vanity, peace and contentment are the fruits that bear witness that true humility has sprung to life.