Seven Unholy Habits: Vainglory
Pastor Matt Sturtevant, on Ash Wednesday, 2/26/2020
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
How many of you have ever “given something up” for Lent? This has been a positive trend in the last several years, for someone to give up an unhealthy habit in order to focus more on their relationship with God. The last two years, the most common things that people said they were giving up were: social media, alcohol, and Twitter. Of course, this more recent trend is actually a part of a much longer Christian tradition of fasting during Lent. “Giving something up” is a way of fasting from something for a time, in order to sharpen our relationship with God and build a deeper trust in God.
All well and good, but I have noticed a secondary trend. If the number of people giving something up for Lent has raised slightly, the number of people who have announced that they are giving something up for Lent has grown exponentially! How common is it for someone to post on Facebook that they have given up Facebook for Lent. Or for someone who is giving up chocolate to go out of their way to tell everyone that they are giving up chocolate. “Oh, are you eating dessert there? I bet that tastes good…I wouldn’t know because I gave up dessert for Lent.” We find ways to bring it into the conversation, so that others know how strong our faith is.
I won’t ask you to raise your hands how many of you have announced that you have given up something for Lent, maybe even this year.
And, once again, we find that there is nothing new under the sun.
In Matthew, we find that Jesus is facing the same problem. There were these spiritual practices that were meaningful and important to the walk of faith, but people were finding ways to announce them with much more volume than they were practicing them. People would give to the poor, but they would find ways to make sure that everyone knew that they were giving to the poor. They would pray, but pray in order for others to hear their words. And they would fast, by making themselves look so miserable, and pious, and sacrificial. And Jesus saw all of this and just rolled his eyes!
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
Christians have taken these words from Christ, and from much of his message, and tried to name what it is that is a basic, or a universal human experience, that makes us want to put more energy into announcing our spiritual practices than actually practicing them. And the word that ancients have used to describe this habit is “vainglory.” This Lenten season, we are going to look at habits such as vainglory—and six of its cousins—as a group. Sometimes called the Seven Deadly Sins, theologians more rightly name them as “vices.” Sins are actions, but vices are characteristic traits or patterns of behavior that lead to sin. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung has written about these habits in a book titled, “Glittering Vices,” which will guide us over the Lenten season. DeYoung highlights the historic naming of these vices, including the vice of vainglory. She defines vainglory as, “the excessive and disordered desire for recognition and approval from others.” Just like those in Jesus’ day who desired recognition and approval for their giving and their praying and their fasting. And just like those today who are more worried about who will congratulate them for giving up Facebook for Lent, then they are worried about the practice itself.
But there is good news in the passage, as well. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” All that glitters is not gold, but there is a treasure. There is a holy way of living. There is a habitual way of life that leads to peace of mind and health and holiness. According to Jesus in the passage, there is a way of defeating vainglory in our lives. And DeYoung agrees. She calls it the way of silence.
When we practice silence, we are able to place our trust not in the things of this world, where moth and rust destroy, but the things of heaven. DeYoung suggests this practice of silence in several ways. I offer three tonight.
One, silence the call for approval. How often in our lives are we asking for, calling for, begging for others to approve us? Approve of our clothes, our behavior, our words, our children, our jobs, the list goes on and on and on. But what if we silenced that call? What if we were more worried about what God thought of us than what others think of us? Prayer, fasting, giving. These practices are good things, but not if we do it for approval. Then they get in the way of our walk of faith. They serve vainglory, and not our trust in God.
Two, silence the critics. Many of us struggle with the voices of critics in our lives. Perhaps our parents were very critical. Or our spouse is very critical. Or our boss, or siblings, or friends. Or even the voices in our own heads are our worst critics sometimes. So we spend our lives defending ourselves from these voices, inside and out. Again, vainglory is about living up to the approval of others. Silencing those critical voices offers us freedom to be who God made us to be!
Three, silence the commercials. Every minute of the day, we are bombarded by these messages in the media that we are not good enough. Not pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough, funny enough. If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you saw this over and again. And for people who want to sell you products to improve your image, they have a vested interest in you believing that you are not enough. Sometimes, says DeYoung, we need to escape those messages, or at least reject their premise. Silence the commercials in our lives.
Then, in the silence, we are finally able to hear the whisper of the God who know us. Hear the whisper, “you are loved.” The whisper, “you are free.”
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Ash Wednesday service is one of quiet and silence. As we begin Lent together, we do so with this practice of placing ashes on our foreheads. A way to remind us that we are all dying. A way to remind us that we all fall into unholy patterns and habits. A way to remind us that we are marked as God’s beloved.
We burn palm leaves from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration. It is a reminder that even the goodness of praise and worship can be turned to vainglory if it becomes more about our show, our celebration, our image. But when we burn these symbols and place them in the form of a cross on our heads, we silence the voices around us and allow God to whisper, “you are mine.”
Tonight, may the practice of Ash Wednesday remind us to align our hearts with the Holy treasure of God’s heaven.