I Bet You Think This Blog is About You (an examination of the sin of Vainglory)

Vanity Smurf The sin of Vainglory is the desire for inordinate glory. Despite this image of Vanity Smurf, Vainglory isn’t exactly the same as vanity. Vanity often implies an all-consuming narcissism; Vainglory longs for personal glory and the applause of others(hence: vain-glory). As Rebecca DeYoung puts it:

The vainglorious primarily desire attention, approval, and applause–preferably (but not necessarily) heard far and wide. The attention is necessary, and the approval is necessary, but they are both for the sake of generating the public acknowledgment–the applause.(Glittering Vices, 63-4)

Rather than Vanity Smurf (pictured above), an image of any number of smurfs could show Vainglory. Brainy Smurf’s incessant need to be the smartest of his peers; Hefty Smurf’s need to show off his incredible smurf strength; Smurfette’s enjoyment of her own feminine charms, style and appeal. Smurfs are a vainglorious bunch.

But we’d be wrong to assume that Vainglory has been properly quarantined in the Smurf village. It is rampant in our culture and in our own hearts. Everyday we see advertisements that promise that if we where their clothes, put on their makeup, drink their beer and drive their cars, we will be seen as having style, as beautiful, as having superb taste and swagger. We buy in, even though we can spot the lie, because we desperately want people’s praise.

Vainglory manifests itself in countless ways but the Christian tradition points to three biggies: hypocrisy, boastfulness and the lover of novelties (Glittering Vices,69-71). Hypocrites display an exterior image without the internal reality. They desire to appear holy without actually becoming holy. The boastful call attention to their best qualities so that others will take notice. The ‘lover of novelties’ names what we today might call ‘the early adopters.’ There are those who have the newest gadget, fashion, Apps, etc. because they want to be seen as a cutting-edge trendsetter.

Being a trend-setting hypocrite boaster myself I can see how I have been caught in the grips of Vainglory, but I’m not alone. Vainglory is sneaky and perverts even good acts of service. Roberta Bondi captures this well:

Vainglory is a particularly insidious passion in our modern era. It lies behind the notion that whatever your skills, it is essentially yourself you are selling to others. Women are trained to please as little girls, and many women suffer from it all their lives to such an extent that they are not aware of any needs of their own, except to be approved of or loved. It is a special passion for ministers and priests or teachers, and anyone else whose self-identity is bound up in the idea of service. It is deceptively easy to combine being liked with having done a good job. Vainglory is probably the root of a lot of burn-out as the desire for approval replaces the goals of the vocation; certainly an enormous amount of self-deception and hence blindness stem from Vainglory (To Love as God Loves, 75-6)

What do we do about our Vainglory

Vainglory, like Envy, comes from a place of insecurity and involves habits of wrong thinking which manifest itself in our actions. In order to overcome Vainglory we need an awareness of the ways this sin entangles are best efforts and re-train ourselves. DeYoung provides a list of practices(Glittering Vices,72-77) which I have adapted here:

    • Overcome (personal) boasting by boasting in the Lord (2 Cor. 10:17-18). If the problem with boasting is that it is a strategy to bring yourself glory, the way to combat that is to redirect it towards the one worthy of all our praise. Acts of worship, testimony of God’s goodness, prayerful adoration are all counter-practices of vanity.
    • Overcome hypocrisy by being personally vulnerable with others. DeYoung observes that Vainglory would win us praise by showcasing our best self and hiding our flaws. When we strive for applause we hide ourselves, when we share ourselves and shed our false facades we give ourselves back to community.
    • Overcome the need for approval by cultivating an interior life in solitude. Solitude frees us from the need to perform, to feel approval and to gain acclaim. It is when we are alone and spend time with God. As with the sin of Envy, the way to overcome Vainglory is by knowing God’s love and acceptance of us, the real us.
    • Overcome our culture’s obsession with image by ‘fasting’ from media, Ads, TV, the internet.
    • Cut Vainglory out at the root and deal with your Pride.

An Alternative to Vainglory: Magnanimity

Ambitious people are loved by God and used by him for his Glory. To condemn Vainglory is not to condemn ambition, but only the self-centered variety. We were made to achieve great things and not merely build temples of our own ego.

Let us strive towards the great things of God, radiating his Truth, Beauty and Goodness in all that we do. May we bring Glory to his name and do great things in His service.

You Are Better than Me and That’s Why I Hate You: An examination of Envy

Envy Giotto Envy is the consuming desire to have everyone as unsuccessful as you are –Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, 24.

Envy is another one of the deadly sins that has a hold on my heart. As a parent I envy you for having better behaved and smarter kids (theoretically). As a runner I envy other runners’ speed, stamina, commitment and technique. I think I am a pretty outgoing, friendly guy whose smart, caring and funny. The problem is I keep meeting people who are more likable, more intelligent, more sensitive, and funnier. I think I can lead well but there are better leaders with better ideas and much more follow through. And when I see them it tears me up inside because they embody qualities I want but don’t have. So I hate them.

This is worse when you consider that I see my life calling as a minister of the gospel. I am ashamed of the fact that when I hear someone else preach better, pray better and have deeper insights than I have, I feel the sin of Envy tighten its grip on my heart. When I am at the bedside of someone who is sick trying to listen, love and care for this person and someone else comes and does something more touching and thoughtful than anything did, I feel I am a complete failure as a minister. Rather than appreciating the gifts and characteristics of other people, I see only what is lacking in my own gifts, talents and character.

If you’ve felt these sort of feelings too than you know how Envy can poison your soul, steal your joy and cause you to dwell unhealthily on your own failings.The sin of Envy desires what another has. It ‘targets the inner qualities of another person, qualities that give a person worth, honor, standing or status (DeYoung, Glittering Vices, 43).’ Envy causes us to recoil at another’s good qualities because it reveals our own lack of worth and status. We are incapable of rejoicing with them for their success because they have shown us up for what we truly are: failures.

Of course we aren’t threatened by everyone. We are comfortable putting some people on a pedestal because their rank, social standing and aptitudes far outstrip our own. Those people we can appreciate, but the people who are like us but just a little better are rivals we want to see fail.

Why We Are Envious

When we look at others we are bound to see virtues and goods that we do not have. Somewhere along the way we got in the habit of comparing ourselves and measuring our worth against them. We think that because someone is better than us in some respect, they are inherently more lovable than we are. At our core we doubt the Love of God for us and that manifests itself in bitterness towards people because God must love them more. We might know, intellectually, that God loves us but we doubt it when we look at our neighbor. We are Peter perpetually pissed off because Jesus keeps saying John is the one that he loves. We wish we were the successful and they weren’t. Then we would be the lovable ones. Gollum

How to not Envy

Altering unhelpful thought patterns is a hard habit to break. How do we not Envy our better looking, smarter, more talented neighbor? Fulton Sheen once said, “The only way to overcome envy is, like the thief on the right, to show pity. (Victory Over Vice, 23). With due respect to the late Monsignor, ‘pity’ doesn’t mean what it used to. Today we think of ‘pity’ as patronizing and condescending. What he meant was compassionate action towards our neighbor. What if when we feel the pangs of Envy toward our neighbor we disciplined ourselves to actively respond in love? When we feel Envy towards others for their character, status and talent we can choose to act in love and care. Envy is a great enemy of real love but a practiced love weakens its grip on our hearts.

But there is more. We also need to grow in our knowledge of God’s love. I find that it is as I grow in my confidence of God’s love that I am freed to love my neighbor without feeling threatened by them. To love as God loves I need to cultivate my awareness of the God who is love. This is done through prayer. Taking time to thank God for his goodness, to extol the blessings he bestows on you everyday sets you free from the comparison game. You see more of who you are in God’s eyes: beloved.

As you continue your journey through Lent, may you turn your heart towards the Lover of your Soul and be freed from the tyranny of Envy.

Hungry, Hungry Hippo: My life as a Glutton

Hungry Hungry DriscollHistorically Lent has been a time where Christians pay attention to where our appetites have led us astray. So I thought it made sense to start my reflections on the seven deadly sins by examining the sin of Gluttony (for information on my approach, track back to the last post). But another reason for starting here is more personal. I am a 7 on the Enneagram which means I enjoy life and all its various pleasures. When I am healthy, I am enthusiastic, imaginative and full of joy, but the sin I am susceptible to is gluttony. I am someone who left to my own devices avoids pain by self medicating. However I am not really alone. We live in a consumer culture which feeds our personal preferences, appetites and desires at every turn. When things are going well we enjoy the sensual pleasures of a well cooked meal paired with fine wine (or beer). When things are going badly we find our favorite comfort foods: ice cream, chocolate, Tapitio Doritos, homemade chili or spam musubi. We feed ourselves to cope with what can’t be changed and we indulge the guilty pleasures of too much far too often. This is personal issue for me but it is a broad cultural issue as well (statistics on obesity back this up). So while I may be tempted towards gluttony my whole culture conspires against me.

The reason that Gluttony is so prevalent in our culture is that we regard it as no big deal. The Christian tradition regarded Gluttony as one of the deadly sins. Today we regard some of the physical problems associated with over-eating deadly but do not really see Gluttony as a spiritual problem.

So how do you know you are a Glutton?

So I am a glutton, are you? How would you know? The assumption is that we all know gluttons when we see them because we’ve stood behind them at Taco Bell. Yet there is so much more to Gluttony than overeating. Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung says that in the Middle Ages Gluttony was described with this slogan, “Too daintly, too sumptuously, too greedily, too much. (Glittering Vices, 141). Overeating is Gluttony, But Gluttony is more than just overeating. How much is enough? It includes any sort of practice which involves letting your personal appetites run wild. Catering to your inner-foody or your delicate tastes is a form of Gluttony. As Deyoung observes, “It is possible to eat healthy and appropriate foods in a manner that betrays desire gone awry. The question is not whether we are fat or thin, polite or impolite, but whether we are eating to satisfy our own wants, in a way that elevates our own satisfaction above other goods (Glittering Vices, 145).”

DeYoung also observes that modern inventions such as chewing gum and Diet Coke are ways that we can give into our appetites and personal desires but minimize the physical impact of our choices. The result is that we eat and drink ‘guilt free’ but we are still eating and drinking for our own personal gratification (147). Sin isn’t just crouching at the door; Gluttony is squatting in the stall because we let it in and regard its presence as no big deal.

What to do about our Gluttony

In the Christian tradition one way to become aware of the ways we are enslaved to appetites and unhealthily feeding them is to fast. Fasting reveals to us the things that control us. This is why many of us give up coffee, chocolate or alcohol during Lent. These are all good things to be enjoyed in their place but fasting from them reveals the ways in which we have allowed our desire and dependence on each to rule us. So fasting during Lent is one way to set the reset button on our appetites so we can freely enjoy all these things properly without being mastered by them.

Kallistos Ware describes the value of a Lenten fast:

The Primary aim at fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence on God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food… involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we feel the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow confident in our own abilities, aquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency (quoted in Glittering Vices, 157).

The Virtue of Temperance

The goal of fasting is not simply to eat less but to be content in God. While I agree with Ware and DeYoung above about how fasting breaks the bonds of Gluttony in us, fasting is a step on the journey towards finding contentment in God. A severe fast would be an over-correction and would do little to reign in our appetites. The virtue of Temperance implies appropriate self restraint not heroic asceticism. John Cassian records some sound advice from one of the Desert fathers:

We must rapidly ensure that we do not slide into danger on account of the urge for bodily pleasure. We must not anticpate food before the time for it and we must not overdo it; on the other hand, when the due hour comes, we must have our food and our sleep, regardless of our reluctance. Each battle is raised by the devil. Yet too much restraint can be more harmful than a satisfied appetite. Where the latter is concerned, one may, as a result of saving compunction, move on to a measured austerity. But with the former this is impossible (John Cassian, Conferneces-Classics of Western Spirituality, 76).

So I recommend for you and for me that we overcome Gluttony through gentle discipline, curbing our appetites so that they do not master us. I personally didn’t give up anything food related this Lent, but in small ways I am looking for ways to guard against Gluttony and enjoy God’s good things without being controlled by them.

This is not Mark Driscoll

What’s in a Word?: Why I’m not ‘Driven’ and You Shouldn’t Be Either

This is the first of an occasional series where I critique the words that we Christians use. I know what you’re thinking, “James you are an overly critical and cranky man who thinks you are smarter and more holy than the rest of Christendom.” Guilty. Well, not really. I admit I am a little neurotic about some of these things but I also really think words matter. Yes the Spirit of God can shoot straight arrows with the crooked arrows of our words but the metaphors by which we habitually describe God, faith and the spiritual life shape our understanding and experience. Some of the words that we use are actually damaging and do injustice to both God and ourselves. I submit that one such word is ‘driven.’

I am not sure that I can blame Rick Warren for entering driven into our spiritual lexicon but he certainly popularized it with his wildly successful books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life and various purpose-driven spin-offs. But Rick Warren with his warm smile and Hawaiian shirts is not the only offender. A search of titles with ‘driven’ in the title from Christianbook.comreveal that many are clamoring to join the herd. There are books with titles like: Family Driven Faith, Driven by Eternity: Making Your Life Count Today & Forever, The Gospel-Driven Life, A Proverbs Driven-Life, The Passion Driven Sermon, Text-Driven Preaching, Spirit-Driven Success, Values Driven Leadership, The Spirit Driven Leader, Jesus Driven Ministry, The Values Driven Family, The Market Driven Church(I think this one is a critique), Character Driven, The Wisdom Driven Life, The Passion Driven Youth Choir, The Mission Driven Parish, The Spirit Driven Church, Driven by Hope: Men & Meaning, A Love Driven Life, A Passion Driven Life and From God-Given to God-Driven.Bull Whip Cattle Drive

Without critiquing the content of these books (some I am sure have great stuff to say and others just have stuff) this list shows how pervasive the word ‘driven’ is in the Christian publishing world. But the book title doesn’t even begin to reflect how much authors use this word within their books to speak of the sort of life we all should be living. This is picked up by pastors, blogs and every tweep from here to eternity. This is where I have issues.

What does it mean to be driven? It is obvious to me that the people who use it are trying to get at what are motivation is but this is bad language to be using. The dictionary defines driven as, “being under compulsion to succeed or excel.” I understand a personal ‘drive’ towards excellence but I get worried about what we mean when something outside of ourselves is the one said to be ‘driving us.’ Are we under compulsion by our families and values? Are we ‘driven’ by our commitments? Does God, the Spirit, Jesus ‘drive’ our spiritual life? What does that say about us and God?

I think this term stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the spiritual life. Hear the good news: In a world where we are driven by the will to succeed, the will-to-knowledge and the will to power, in a world where we are under the compulsion of a thousand demands internal and external, you don’t need to be driven anymore. You are being invited by God to enjoy the good things he has stored up for you. Listen to these words From Isaiah 55:

    “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
    and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
    Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
    Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

This is fundamentally different from having any sort of ‘driven life.’ What if we understood our spiritual life less in terms of its demands and more in terms of what we are being invited into? What if we didn’t speak so much of ‘being driven’ but spoke of where God is drawing us?

The reason why I am so passionate that ‘driven’ is a bad word in the spirital life is because I tend to imbibe its message. I load on myself heroic spiritual disciplines and feel guilty about where I have failed to do all I am supposed to do. When it comes to drive I’ve got it and then some. What I haven’t always understood is that my life with God is more joyful, freeing and wonderful than I can imagine.

Marva Dawn’s hymn Come Away From Rush and Hurry capture for me the reality of the post-driven life:

Come away from rush and hurry
Marva J. Dawn

    Come away from rush and hurry
    to the stillness of God’s peace;
    from our vain ambition’s worry,
    come to Christ and find release.
    Come away from noise and clamor,
    life’s demands and frenzied pace;
    come to join the people gathered
    here to seek and find God’s face.

    In the pastures of God’s goodness
    we lie down to rest our soul.
    From the waters of his mercy
    we drink deeply, are made whole.
    At the table of his presence
    all his saints are richly fed.
    With the oil of his anointing
    into service we are led.

    Come, then, children, with your burdens –
    life’s confusions, fears, and pain.
    Leave them at the cross of Jesus;
    take instead his kingdom’s reign.
    Bring your thirsts, for he will quench them –
    he alone will satisfy.
    All our longings find attainment
    when to self we gladly die.

As we enter into this season of Lent, what is God inviting you into?

When I saw this book I thought of you (A book review)

Our Favorite Sins Okay sinners, here is a book for you. Todd D. Hunter, author, Anglican bishop, adjunct professor, and authority on sin has written a helpful book on dealing with the problem of temptation (or dealing with the problem of ‘not dealing with temptation).

What makes this book so good is Hunter eschews strategies for handling sin that don’t go to the root of the problem. He isn’t interested in simply helping you modify your behavior; rather he want you to do the hard inner-work of looking at where your desires are disordered and are causing you to be tempted in certain ways. He writes:

Disordered desires are a tyrant. This is why we struggle against them, striving to overthrow them in our hearts like the little despots they are….Our disordered desires are ruling our hearts and minds, and we don’t know what to do about it (7)

Hunter is adamant that we can only be tempted when a desire that we already have inside matches something that comes to our attention. Thus temptation is not an outside problem; it’s a heart problem.

Using research from the Barna group, Hunter addresses the five chief areas where contemporary people are tempted: anxiety, procrastination, overeating, media addiction, and laziness. While he has some practical insights into each temptation, he primarily uses these issues as case studies to explore how various strategies do not really get at the core of our sin problem.

Hunter’s proposed plan for dealing with sin involves the recovery of ‘Ancient and Fruitful’ practices such as the abstaining disciplines of silence and solitude, retraining your desires to desire the Kingdom first, liturgical prayer & the daily office, the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist and the Lectionary. He urges us to hold on to hope, carry a vision and make a plan to overcome temptation, but also to make use of the resources we have in Christ and the Holy Spirit. The bottom line is that overcoming temptation will require inner-work retraining disordered desires and cultivating a vision and hope for the Kingdom and a relationship with the triune God.

Each chapter closes with a prayer exercise taken from one of the prayers from the Book of Common Prayer or the Celtic prayer book. I really appreciated these prayers (they also feature prominently in several chapters). This made this book more formational than merely informational for me. The book is an invitation into cultivating the sort of inner life which can stand up in the time of trial. There is a lot of wisdom in Hunters words. His reliance on prayer, sacraments and spiritual practices point the way to victory from the sin that so easily entangles us.

One question I would have is what role does the community have in helping us pursue holiness? It is true that some of the practices he commends are communal (liturgical prayer, the sacraments, etc.) but the theme of mutual accountability is underdeveloped. Maybe he’s right that wrestling with sin is personal inner work but I also crave the intercession of the saints, particularly those who know me as I am (not just a general confession). I also have experienced hearing the words of absolution from those who knew my tangled heart in all its tawdry details and it broke the power of my shame. It seems like an important dimension of this.

The appendix of the book includes Barna’s survey which provides the statistic data used by Hunter in the chapters. Frankly I am not sure that the Barna study adds a whole lot. Hunter makes use of the statistical data, but on one level he’s rather ambivalent to it. He hones on the five particular areas of temptation that most of the respondents struggled with but he is clear that even if these are not your areas of struggle, the remedy of inner work, spiritual disciplines, prayer, sacraments and the larger story of redemption provides you the way to freedom.

These small caveats aside I highly recommend this book for you if you are self aware enough to know your struggle with sin and temptation. Otherwise I’m sure you know someone particularly sinful whom you could probably gift this book too. Give it to them and say, “When I saw this book, I thought of you.”

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me with a copy of this book. I was asked to give a fair and honest review, and that is what you just read.