28 February 2017
22 February 2017
Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (19)
You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom
Vain glory seeks self-exaltation, rather than the exaltation of God, and will do almost anything in order to achieve its goal. The vain glorious person seeks fame purely for its own sake—that fifteen minutes of fame—and will spare no expense, including the jettisoning of any and all self-respect in acquiring it: mass shootings, making and “leaking” sex recordings, the shameless posting of sexual exploits on such social media venues as twitter and tumblr. Also, the law of diminishing returns working as it does, we may engage in ever bolder, more outrageous acts, in order to receive the praise and attention we desire.
One difficulty with vain glory is that in many cases it seems like it would be easy for the vain glorious person to be ignorant of the fact that he is overcome by this passion. One should usually have no difficulty knowing one is angry, or that one is lusting after another, or is gluttonous. I think one reason for this is that vain glory can easily hide behind activity which, on its face, is virtuous, such as work.
For that reason, vain glory often pervades our work environments. Some people struggle to be diligent at work, perhaps because work is an interruption of their lives, or because work is only the means to make just enough money to finance play time. Many are diligent from moral conviction, summed up in the adage, “A day’s labor for a day’s wages.” Others, however, are diligent in their work only because they are driven by selfish desires to be successful, or simply so that the income may be spent on various pleasures (see James 4.3). Often they neglect their families and have no concerns about their souls, or eternity. These matters are forgotten in the race to glory, fame, power, wealth, accomplishment, or success, however one wishes to express it. To glorify one’s self is the ultimate objective.
Sadly, vain glory is frequently present in the worship of our churches. For example a member of a church choir may be accustomed to having a microphone near him, or even in front of him, during Sunday morning worship. Let's say there was no particular reason for the microphone to be where it was; it was just there. One Sunday morning, he enters with the other members of the choir to find that the microphone has been moved. He is offended, or his feelings are hurt. Why was it moved? Did someone in the congregation ask that it be moved because they don't like his voice? Was it moved simply because the person who moved it didn't like him? The real question is this: Why does it matter where the microphone is? For whom do the choir-members sing, the congregation, or for God? If for God, then it doesn’t matter: God hears very well without our microphones. But if the placement of a microphone really matters, then God is not the choir-member's intended audience. And that, to put it gently, is not good. The purpose of the microphone is to be heard by men. And, to the extent that singing in a choir is a good work (since it is an act of worship), it is spiritually dangerous to do our works with the primary intention of being seen, or heard, by others (see Matthew 6.7).
Avoiding vain glory does not mean we should go about our lives indifferently or that we should not pursue excellence in all we do. God expects diligence of us. The issue is motivation. What is our purpose? If our purpose is the glorification of our selves rather than the pursuit of excellence in those activities to which God has called us, then we are wrong, esteeming ourselves too highly. If we are called of God to sing in the choir, then we must answer that call with humility and sing to His glory, in which case it will never matter where the microphone is. If we are unwilling to humble ourselves before others and before God, our success, if any, will be empty and meaningless. If we are driven solely by ambition, we will be easily tempted to sin in attempting to get what we want at any price, having defined success incorrectly.
For a Christian, success is to fulfill God’s will. Returning to the choir member, above, success isn’t making sure your voice in the choir is heard, making sure you have the microphone; success is not to be found in receiving praise for your voice from the congregation. A successful choir member is heard, above all, by God; a successful choir member has God’s approval and praise. The vain glorious choir member is heard, or desires to be heard, and praised by the congregation. When his desire is achieved, he has his reward, such as it is.
It is true, as I suggested above, that vain glory can have certain positive effects. A choir member’s vain glory can drive him to excellence in his singing. Vain glory can drive us to excellence in our work. It can even help us overcome greater sins, such as lust. Abbot Serapion, citing Isaiah 48.9, (Conferences, 5.12) said:
But in one matter vainglory is found to be a useful thing for beginners. I mean by those who are still troubled by carnal sins, as for instance, if, when they are troubled by the spirit of fornication, they formed an idea of the dignity of the priesthood, or of reputation among all men, by which they may be thought saints and immaculate: and so with these considerations they repel the unclean suggestions of lust, as deeming them base and at least unworthy of their rank and reputation; and so by means of a smaller evil they overcome a greater one….
This can also work the other way round. Abbot Daniel (Conferences 4.15) suggests that the temptation of lust can keep one humble who might otherwise become proud and vain-glorious over their achievements:
[I]n the matter of chastity and perfect purity, when by God's grace we see that we have been for some time kept from carnal pollution, in order that we may not imagine that we can no longer be disturbed by the motions of the flesh and thereby be elated and puffed up in our secret hearts as if we no longer bore about the corruption of the flesh, [lust] humbles and checks us, and reminds us by its pricks that we are but men.
Of course, that cannot work forever. Eventually, lust must be dealt with also. Likewise, we will also have to deal with vain glory in a more permanent fashion. Moreover, we need to deal with vain glory, as with all our sins, simply because we are commanded to do so:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2.3-8).
A correct appraisal of ourselves begins with a comparison of ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is a man - the eternal Word become flesh - who let go his divine prerogatives and became a servant, humbled himself for our sakes, dying, which is humiliation enough, on a cross, like the worst of all criminals. This is such an offensive notion that Muslims and Jews stumble over it. Muslims, adhering as they do to a power religion, are offended at the notion that the divine nature would unite itself to the human. Jews are offended at the notion that Messiah would die - for goyim above all people.
But what does this point to, if not the humility of God in love? For those He loves, God the Father Almighty is willing to humble himself first by incarnating his eternally begotten Son in human flesh and then permitting His sinless son to be put to death by humans who are not sinless. Then too, there is the humility of the eternally begotten Son, taking upon himself human flesh and submitting to His Father's soteriological purpose and going to his death.
We can only deal with our pride and vain glory by comparing our self appraisals with the humility demonstrated for us, and to us, by our great God and Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. And we must be honest when appraising ourselves. Let me conclude by quoting some counsel from Abbot Moses on the goal of the monk (John Cassian, Conferences 1.22, The First Conference):
[W]henever we do anything with a view to human glory we know that we are, as the Lord says, laying up for ourselves treasure on earth, and that consequently being as it were hidden in the ground and buried in the earth it must be destroyed by sundry demons or consumed by the biting rust of vain glory, or devoured by the moths of pride so as to contribute nothing to the use and profits of the man who has hidden it. We should then constantly search all the inner chambers of our hearts, and trace out the footsteps of whatever enters into them with the closest investigation lest haply some beast, if I may say so, relating to the understanding, either lion or dragon, passing through has furtively left the dangerous marks of his track, which will show to others the way of access into the secret recesses of the heart, owing to a carelessness about our thoughts. And so daily and hourly turning up the ground of our heart with the gospel plough, i.e., the constant recollection of the Lord's cross, we shall manage to stamp out or extirpate from our hearts the lairs of noxious beasts and the lurking places of poisonous serpents.
- James Frank Solís
- Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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