I’m reading Rebecca DeYoung’s new book Vainglory. The problem with reading a book on sin is that it can hurt as you reflect on your own life and see the sins come to the forefront of your thinking and realize there it lies deep in your own heart. She is acutely aware of this and writes early on that her purpose “is not to bog us down in sin or overwhelm us with a sense of failure, but to prompt desires for health and promote responses that bring healing.” (p. 7) But in the very act of trying to rid ourselves of sin, and this vice in particular, we can fall into vainglory more easily than could be imagined. She explains:
“In fact, temptations to vainglory may well be worse for the genuinely virtuous person. For those who make real progress in virtue, vainglory becomes more of a possible downfall not less of one. Why? Good people are truly worthy of the renown and approval they get. Their goodness makes them more likely to receive recognition and praise from others, because outstanding character, virtue, and sanctity naturally attract attention. . . Cassian warns,
‘We shall lose the fruits of all the works that we have accomplished at the behest of vainglory [because] we wronged God by preferring to do for the sake of human beings what we should have done for his sake. [Thus we are] convicted by him who knows what is hidden of having preferred human beings to God, and the glory of the world to the glory of God.’
“Be especially careful when you are good, Cassian writes, for ‘We are in danger of falling [into vainglory] when we are victorious [over sin] and particularly after triumph.’
“Imagine that you are a monk who hears that advice from Cassian. When you back to your spiritual disciplines and prayers and Scripture reading, you face a dilemma: If you undertake these labors openly, you run the risk of others noticing any spiritual progress that you make and giving you glory for it. They you will have to worry about getting too attached to having that attention, knowing that vainglory is ‘enlivened . . . by the virtuous successes of the one whom it assails.’ On the other hand, if you keep your virtue a ‘hidden treasure’ because of your concern for vainglory, you know that this also is something good that you’re doing, and you can congratulate yourself for doing such a good job of resting on the approval of God alone. Cassian’s teaching Evagrius sums up the problem: ‘It is difficult to escape the thought of vainglory, for what you do to rid yourself of it becomes a new source of vainglory.’ The trouble in these sorts of cases is that the slide toward vainglory starts from being good. Cassian’s metaphor is striking: ‘Such is the enemy’s [i.e., the devil’s] clever subtlety that it causes the soldier of Christ, whom he could not overcome with hostile arms [i.e., vices], to fall by his own weapons [i.e., his own virtues].’ Aquinas describes this process as a degenerative one in which we move from desiring virtue to desiring that others respect us for it to simply desiring recognition and renown, whether it attaches to virtue anymore or not.” (pp. 30-32 Bold is mine for emphasis.)
Vainglory is from Eerdmans. It is a paperback with 157 pages and sells for $14.00.
Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is professor of philosophy at Calvin College. Her previous books include Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. She has published and lectured on many other vices and virtues, including sloth, despair, envy, gluttony, fear, magnanimity, and hope.