Vainglory and Pride
by Patrick Oden 11/28/2006 / Christian Living
For being such a bandied about word, there really is little consideration of the actual topic. We say sin and assume the word carries with it not only the three particular letters but also is packaged with an entire philosophy and meaning and definition. This is why talking about particular sins can be so much talking past each other. We all have our particular activities we consider vices and we all have our particular vices which we think aren't all that bad.
Yes, there are the lists. We can pick and choose from different traditions to build up our own list from which to condemn others, but these lists generally have the same sorts of goals. The problems with such lists of vices is that we become particularly snobbish about them. Especially the listings which we ourselves have overcome or have never fought. The higher ones on the list, the most pernicious, are often forgotten or ignored.
Hence the emphasis in Fundamentalist circles on the so-called “vices of the barroom”. The vices of the barroom are primarily about the two “lowest” levels of vice, namely gluttony and lust. These are the most obvious of sins, the sins of action and excess which speak, too many, of an absence of will. These sorts of vices can be pointed out without too much effort, prohibited in law or tradition, and create firm boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out”. Indeed, these vices are so weighted as to essentially define for many who is and who is not a Christian.
Other virtues and details of theology can be tricky to parse, so it's easier to watch out for how much and how publicly a person slips.
The Christian response to sin, then, is focused almost entirely on what is oft considered the first two levels of vice, leaving 3/4 of the sins still available for anyone's participation without regard.
In our era where the 1950s fundamentalism has given way to the more amenable Evangelicalism, and has influenced even those traditions which would on paper defy the Fundamentalist background this emphasis on the sins of the barroom still is at the foundation of much of our consideration of sinfulness. This isn't surprising because a person can still be an entire novice yet feel a strong superiority over those who still wrestle with these first two. Indeed, one can fairly strongly argue that it is not even the first two levels of vice, but only the second in the list, that of lust, which is considered the only “real” defining sin.
Overeating is not really at all seen with the same level of disgust as a wandering eye or body. But, the parsing of this is besides the point.
The real problem are the six other sins which are not considered very often in our discussions. Depression is seen as a decided negative but not really a sin. Spiritual depression, in which we feel the spiritual disciplines are a waste of time and learning about God leads us nowhere, is kind of a sin but it's a generally accepted practice that as long as someone feels bad about their state that's pretty much enough. These are both unacceptable in their way, but not so much as to be assaulted with any particular passion. Indeed, while negative my guess is very few people would consider them sins as such, let alone deadly sins. Still though, they are not encouraged and if seen they would prompt a response to help a person overcome them.
Anger and Envy are curious vices in terms of Church response. Officially they are denounced, unofficially they are often encouraged and can in fact drive a person to a lot of success if they are sufficiently clothed in spiritual sounding language and turned towards “appropriate” directions such as anger against heretics and sinners, or envy of those with more successful churches. For instance, Anger and Envy can spark crusades against evil or towards evangelism, and become embedded in those who would be appalled at any suggestion they are not fully reflecting God's righteousness in their endeavors.
Still, if unmasked envy and anger are not particularly encouraged, but they are allowed as long as someone doesn't go overboard and embarrass other people. Or they are allowed, as long as they are not found in someone a person is competing with. Anger and Envy hate seeing themselves in other people quite a bit. But, at the same time they are seen as quite stirring and inspirational for those above and below the person in question. Signs of passion and leadership, and whatnot.
This leaves the last two sins, and it is these two sins which are considered the most deadly of the deadly. They are Vainglory and Pride. The problem with vainglory and pride is they can have many faces and many expressions and many drives. They are inwards sins, meaning those most consumed with them may not have any outward expression, or very little.
I'm reminded a bit of the era of tall ships, especially of merchantmen. These were big ships, built of sturdy oak and other heavy wood, made to endure extremely harsh conditions for long periods of time. They were not built for racing or for fighting, but for carrying a large amount of stuff to distant ports. Occasionally, an old Merchant sailing ship would catch fire. Maybe a lamp turned over, or a load of coal spontaneously combusted, or some other cause started it. No matter the cause once started, a heavily laden ship was in fair trouble.
The interesting thing is that because of how they were built a fire could burn and smolder in one of these ships for a rather long time, burning below but never exploding or sinking the ship, though they would often burn so hot as to make walking on the decks a very painful exercise. Even if far away the hope was that such a ship on fire could still make it to a port, but this was often a very tricky proposition. Fire could continue to smolder or it could explode into something worse.
Vainglory and envy smolder deep within the soul, and are according to many one of the chief causes keeping otherwise capable souls from making it to port. Indeed, it is particularly because these souls are capable they are both susceptible to the effects of these sins and likely to rarely hear any denunciation of their smoldering flames.
It is these two sins which are the most difficult to discern because at their very worst they point to what is otherwise very good. They thrive when the virtues abound and they feed on good and noble works. They are to be especially watched out for by those endeavoring towards goodness and truth because these most pernicious sins engulf those who may, in fact, in all other respects be entirely unimpeachable. Vainglory and Pride are the sins of being right.
I am seeing this a lot lately, both outwards and inwards as I engage other people and engage my own tendencies. Being right has a lot going for it, being right after all. And being right means someone else is wrong. How could it be a sin, and thus wrong, to be right?
Because being right isn't the orientation of righteousness. God is the orientation of righteousness and our progression higher and upwards towards God entails a lot more than having facts on our side. Indeed, having facts on our side can prevent us from rising upwards because in our being right we may push aside those greater claims God has for us, and forget the fact that in being right we may at the same time be engaging in greater wrongs.
What are these greater wrongs which being right can inspire? According to Scripture it seems among the most dangerous and unforgivable acts is to deny the work of God or to actively prevent someone discovering the work of God. This is the explanation for much of Jesus' otherwise curious encounters.
Being right, asserting one's being right, expecting honor and attention for being wise and upstanding, are the fodder for vainglory and pride, which are pernicious because they are the most encouraged, the most applauded, the most celebrated even when most publicly expressed.
This is a tricky thing because it's not wrong to be right, but being right can lead to the most dangerous of the deadly sins.
Indeed, this is tricky because even in writing about this I may have just thrown coals onto the smoldering fire of my own vices.
Sin is a very difficult knot to unravel.
Patrick Oden lives and works in the mountains of Southern California. Education web design pays the bills. Writing and enjoying the beauty of God's Creation fills his soul.