John is a 38-year-old Christian man. He ends most days physically and mentally exhausted, having spent almost no time before God in prayer, Bible reading, or quiet reflection. Most nights, he feels guilty about being lazy. The thought occurs to him that, if after tucking in the kids to bed, he could just muster a final ounce of effort, he could read a chapter of the Bible before collapsing on the couch.
Yet a closer look at John’s life might lead us to question whether slothfulness is the bottleneck restricting spiritual vigor. If someone were to zoom out from narrowly observing John’s life, he would see the following: that years ago John chose an especially demanding career not to make a living, or from a sense of calling, but in hopes of meeting the expectations of his parents and wider family. Four times a week John punishes himself for an hour in the gym, not to sustain health or to clear the mind, but because a thick chest wins bonus points in the office; that the time spent shuttling kids from sports practices to violin lessons is not driven by a desire to please God but the pressure to shoulder the merciless yoke of middle-class America.
Now stand back and appraise the big picture. Is John lazy? Not at all. He is hardworking and goal-oriented, a virtuoso in getting things done. The leak in his heart is not idleness, but vanity. Vanity is driving this man, like so many other Christian men and women, to pawn off peace, strength, and a close walk with God for nothing more than the ho-hum of fitting in.
Vanity is the impulse to measure the value of my person by illegitimate standards. In truth, there is only one valid standard for measuring the worth of a human being, the holy love of God. 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 the Almighty when we set out to ascertain our net worth. Instead, we reach out for crooked rulers closer at hand. We use jobs, bank statements, cars and homes, resumes, the vicarious performances of children, and the superficial reflection of a mirror to indicate what only God can rightly judge. This instinct is not nameless or new. It is the old and deadly sin of vanity.
Vanity is fed by two simple lies that 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 high prices to enter the circle of those who did. Of course, this created a social crisis. Once every sneetch had a star, there was no way to signal eliteness. Thus ensued a vicious cycle of adding and removing stars, all for the sake of satisfying vanity and entrenching pride.
While the story is comic, the application is unnerving. The sad truth is that Christians are hardly better than non-Christians when it comes to wasting time, energy, and money trying to conform to the arbitrary values around us. Think of the example of John. How much of the stress and tiredness of his life is generated by nothing more than the effort to be a star-bellied sneetch? How much is joyful fellowship with a loving God sacrificed to garner the acceptance of an indifferent world?
The second half of the stanza is equally revealing: ‘If I succeed, I’ll be respected.’ The keen-eyed social critic David Brooks has said that the greatest myth of American society is that success can make us happy. Why do so many believe this myth? What is it about success that is so alluring? The answer is that a lot of Christians at their core are distressingly insecure. Instead of comfortably wearing our identity in Christ, we buy into the myth that social acceptance is self-fulfillment, and thus the hamster wheel of finding a star for our bellies commences.
The Danger of Leaving Vanity Unmortified
Why is vanity dangerous? The answer is because, like all sin, vanity produces spiritual death (Romans 6:23). In the case of vanity, this death is felt in four ways.
First, discontentment. Vanity is 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 winning a corner office, 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 to keep moving on the treadmill of acceptance.
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.
A third consequence of vanity 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 be a faithful member of my church, achieve fitness in the gym, experience the latest trends of pop culture, keep up the front yard to the standards of the neighborhood, grasp the next rung on the corporate ladder, and so on and so on. To be driven by vanity is to be thrown onto a circus stage and told to juggle a dozen pins at once.
Fourth is shame. Vanity divides the world into two categories: winners and losers, which means that on the playing field of vanity, there are, ultimately, only two types of people: the proud 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, Forbes, and the Navigators, all at the same time.
In summary, the danger of vanity is that it stunts our spiritual growth. By sending us down the rabbit trails of life, we lose the path to maturity and wind up lost, confused, and dissatisfied without being able to put our finger on the root of the problem.
The Antidote, Please!
What can be done to resist the riptide of vanity? Like any riptide, attempting to overcome vanity by sheer effort is an act of folly. A different movement is required. In the case of vanity, this movement is a change of focus. The power of vanity is the weightlessness of the ego, the sinful instinct to anchor my self-worth in the thin air of me. For as long as I play by these rules, I will hopelessly be insecure. The only way to avoid being swept away by the currents of vanity is to fasten my self-worth to the solid rock of the person and work of Christ. Only by seeing the beauty of his person, by tasting the sweetness of his love, and by discovering a status I could never earn, am I protected from waves of fashion and freed up to drop out of the race to keep up with the star-bellied sneetches.