Edward Griffin, 1770-1837
(Editor's note: Vainglory is inordinate pride in oneself or one's achievements; or excessive vanity.)
"Let us not be desirous of vainglory — provoking one another, envying one another." Galatians 5:26
The religion of the Bible is the only religion that ever taught men not to be desirous of vainglory. The poets and orators, and even the philosophers and moralists, of the heathen world, with one accord exhorted men to aspire to glory and fame as their chief object. The poets represented military fame as the highest good of all, and as constituting the principal happiness beyond the grave. And though in the more polished heathen nations orators inculcated love of country, and moralists prohibited men from "provoking one another" and "envying one another" — yet never did those moralists or orators utter a word against the pursuit of fame for its own sake. They ascribed to a man the highest virtue, provided he sought fame by lawful means — the pursuit itself was not condemned.
That men are to abandon self-aggrandizement, and bring, not only their lives, but their hearts, under the influence of unselfishness and humility, so that they shall not even desire vainglory, is a morality far too refined to have entered into the systems of heathen ethics. Such a principle is one of the peculiar glories of that religion which came from the God of purity and love, who "tries the hearts and thoughts" of men.
The lack of such a precept in other systems of morals, was a radical and essential defect. The desire for vainglory is among the principles which have the deepest root in the human heart, and the greatest influence upon human actions. It in a great measure governs the world. To leave so powerful a principle untouched and unrestrained, was an oversight so great as to prove at once the insufficiency of the light of nature — and the need of a divine revelation to teach mankind their whole duty.
He must be very ignorant of the human heart and of the history of man — who does not see the necessity of such a precept from Heaven. For not only was the pursuit of vainglory allowed by moralists in every heathen nation — but, after all the light which revelation has shed on the subject, it is still justified and recommended by the great mass of those who enjoy the instructions and acknowledge the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
It more commonly assumes indeed, the sophisticated name of ambition, and sometimes is called a sense of honor — but often it is praised and justified under its own proper name of pride. But whether denominated pride or a sense of honor or ambition — it is none other than that desire of vainglory which our text condemns.
This general pleading for the principle of vainglory, shows that the human heart is strongly attached to it; and the slightest observation of the conduct of men will convince us that all the restraints of divine authority are not sufficient to prevent vainglory from exerting a universal and momentous influence upon mankind. Even sanctifying grace and all the struggles of the pious heart — do not wholly subdue it.
No one natural principle (if we barely except the love of wealth) has so great a power over men — over even the best of men. The love of vainglory is almost the only passion which is addressed in the soldier's bosom, and it is the principal care of his superiors to blow this spark into a flame.
This passion for vainglory is the great engine of war. It is this which has stimulated every conqueror, from Nimrod to the modern Caesar, to lay waste provinces, to overturn kingdoms, and to butcher mankind.
This passion for vainglory is the ruling principle in the patriot and statesman. They talk of the love of country, and doubtless many of them are not wholly destitute of this generous principle — but do you think that most of them are governed by love of country? I confess myself one of those who believe there is very little true patriotism on earth, except in hearts sanctified by the grace of God; and that by far the greater part of those, in every age and place, who are loudest in their professions of love of country — are chiefly influenced by the love of vainglory.
It is the same passion which awakens that sickly sense of honor which renders men exquisitely alive to every affront. It is to this principle of vainglory, that we are to impute the splendor of luxury in all the variety of its forms. Indeed it is one of the most busy principles of the human breast. Not only is it displayed in the luster of gilded trappings — but it daily influences the farmer and mechanic in the choice of their apparel.
It is doubtless proper in some measure to adapt one's style of living to one's station in society, and therefore from proper motives men may distinguish themselves in this respect from those beneath them. But, alas! how little do such motives influence these distinctions.
It is this same passion for vainglory that gives ardor to the boy to excel his fellow in the dexterity of his sports, and to the mechanic to surpass his neighbor in the expedition of his labor and the beauty of his wares. It is this passion for vainglory which flushes the schoolboy's cheek with ambition to obtain the prize of honor.
How far the common practice of addressing this passion is a defect in the education of children and youth, or how far it becomes a necessary evil from the lack of more holy principles — I will not stop to inquire.
It is nothing better than a love of vainglory, which renders the ostentatious Christian desirous of being known to enjoy extraordinary communications from God. It is this which influences him to give alms to be seen of men. It is this wicked principle which induces a preacher to aim at elegant dissertations and popular addresses — instead of wholesome illustrations of gospel doctrines and solemn appeals to the conscience. It is this which induces him to pursue a course of study and conduct more calculated to exalt his own name as a scholar — than to bring souls to Christ and to edify the Church.
Alas! How universal is this contemptible desire of vainglory!
As the wind is constantly moving the leaves of the forest, and not a tree nor a leaf is still; so this light wind of the soul is universal and constant in its action upon the race of men, and no individual but is daily moved by the breeze — if not tossed by the whirlwind.
Surely a system of morals would be very defective, which should take no notice of a principle so universal and so influential upon the actions and happiness of men. We may therefore be sure that the Scriptures have paid a marked attention to this passion. Do they then condemn it? Or do they, like heathenish Christians, approve and justify it? We shall see. But that I may proceed orderly on so delicate a subject, I will:
I. Define the principle which our text is supposed to condemn.
II. Prove that the principle defined, is the one condemned.
I. I am to define the principle of vainglory.I understand it to be precisely this: A desire to excel in anything for the sake of being esteemed superior to another. It is the love of human admiration and applause — for the sake of the personal glory which it brings.
Without incurring the imputation of this weakness — a man may desire the approbation and love of friends whom he esteems virtuous and wise. It is inseparable from love, to wish to be beloved by its object — and a tender conscience is naturally pleased with the approbation of the wise and good. Both of these principles seem to be approved by Solomon when he says, "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold." "A good name is better than precious ointment."
But to wish for the "loving favor" of those we love and "a good name" among the virtuous and wise, is quite a different thing from a general thirst for distinction — a sickly craving for admiration and applause.
Again, there is a virtuous sentiment which may perhaps be called a sense of honor; but it is very different from that sense of honor which dwells in souls inflated with pride. It is that exquisite love of purity, which a delicate and conscientious mind feels when it shrinks with horror from the touch of pollution. There is no pride or thirst for distinction in this emotion. That sense of honor which is motivated by revenge — is infinitely different from that sense of honor which angels feel. One is rank pride — the other is the dread of moral pollution.
Again, a man without the desire of vainglory, may, in the conscientious pursuit of duty, merit and obtain military distinction, provided he believes in the lawfulness of war. He may ascend through all the grades of political advancement — for the sake of decency he may, in some measure, adapt his style of living to his station in society, conscientiously believing that by this means his usefulness will be promoted.
For the same reason, if he is a public speaker, he may give his style a form that will excite the least possible disgust, and make the strongest impression of truth.
But in all these things it is the MOTIVE by which the man is to be tried. One man seeks these distinctions from pride — another from holy love; one from supreme regard to himself — another from supreme regard to God; one from a desire for vainglory — another from respect to the authority and glory of his heavenly Father.
Now what I would impress upon your minds is, that to seek or affect any of these distinctions from pride, or a supreme regard to self, or for the sake of the mere pleasure of being exalted in the eyes of men, or for any other purpose than to be more useful — is offensive to God.
II. The point thus explained, is now to be supported by proof.
I have defined the offensive principle, to be a desire to excel in anything for the sake of being esteemed superior to another. It is the love of human admiration and applause — for the sake of the personal glory which it brings.
In such a desire, it is plain that a man does not love his neighbor as himself, but sets up his own interest in opposition to that of his neighbor. And what is this but base, contracted selfishness, which is devoid of every social and generous feeling? It is the same principle, carried to a greater extreme — which robs and murders.
It is said by some that self-exaltation may be sought for its own sake — if it is sought by lawful means, or by the promotion of valuable qualifications in ourselves. But the pursuit of an object cannot be lawful, whatever means are employed to obtain it — unless the object itself is good, and such as virtue delights to pursue. If the object is bad, then the pursuit is bad — whatever means are used.
If the exaltation of one's self in the eyes of men is the simple object — then the actuating principle is a desire of vainglory, whether one seeks it by means of virtuous or wicked qualifications. The qualifications, as the supposition is, are not valued at all — but only the glory. The qualifications are nothing but rungs in the ladder, by which the man ascends. Whether the rungs are wood or iron or gold, they equally raise him to the desired height, and he regards them only as means of such elevation.
What is a man's ultimate object? What is his motive? These are questions which decide the moral character of every action. If his object or motive is worldly aggrandizement — then his pursuit is selfish and vainglorious, whether he seeks his end by means of virtuous qualifications or wicked ones.
We must not therefore suppose that personal exaltation must be sought by unlawful means in order to become vainglory. Vainglory is worldly glory, and is called vain because it is unsatisfying and transitory. And this worldly glory we are commanded not even to desire. Certainly then it is not lawful to make it our object, and to seek it by promoting even good qualifications in ourselves.
Pride, the first-born of selfishness — is, in all its degrees and modifications, most markedly condemned in the Word of God. It was pride which thrust the angels out of Heaven. Pride is mentioned as the leading sin which drew down vengeance upon Sodom. And many such sentiments as the following are found upon record: "I hate pride and arrogance!" "When pride comes, then comes shame; but with the lowly is wisdom." "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." "A man's pride shall bring him low — but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit." "Those who walk in pride, he is able to abase." "The pride of life is not from the Father, but is from the world."
Now, what is pride? What if it is not the very principle which has been described? If a desire to excel in anything for the sake of being esteemed superior to another — if the love of human admiration and applause, for the sake of the personal glory which it brings — is not one of the definitions of pride — then I confess I know not what it is.
There is something unspeakably base in making the aggrandizement of one's little self the great object of desire and pursuit of life — in opposition to the infinitely glorious God and the interests of His immense and holy kingdom. Yet this is the degraded nature of the carnal heart. The natural propensities of man, and the spirit of the Christian religion — are as perfectly opposite as light and darkness. The former are called the flesh — the latter the spirit. The opposition between them is strongly marked in our context.
"For the flesh lusts against the Spirit — and the Spirit against the flesh. These are contrary the one to the other. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy." [The most of these are the malignant effects of pride and a desire of vainglory.]
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. Those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. Let us not be desirous of vainglory, provoking one another, envying one another."
And in another place: "Fulfill my joy, that you be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory — but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." Then follows a luminous description of the unselfishness and humility of Christ, set forth as our example.
James also marks the opposition between the pride and malignity of the natural heart — and the meek, unselfish spirit of the Christian. "If you have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, do not boast. This wisdom descends not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy."
From these passages, it obviously appears that to be a Christian is to have the whole bent of the soul changed, and to be influenced by views and motives of which the man before had no conception. The prominent features of his present character are love, unselfishness, meekness, and humility — principles which are wholly opposed to a desire of vainglory, and to all that strife and malignity which it engenders.
Paul, before his conversion, was eagerly pursuing vainglory — but what was his language after that event? "Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ!"
Before his conversion, he was glorying in his worldly distinctions and honors — but what was his language after that event? "God forbid that I should glory — save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world." "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." "We glory in tribulation also, knowing that tribulation works patience."
He tells us that the purpose of God in the Gospel, was to humble the pride of man, "that no flesh should glory in his presence — that, according as it is written, He who glories — let him glory in the Lord."
Here you see illustrated the noble, unselfish, meek, humble spirit of the Christian religion — and may contrast it with the selfish, proud, aspiring temper of the world.
Against these sentiments I think I hear an objection raised: What could men do without ambition for vainglory? What could the soldier do? What could the schoolboy do? What could any person do? All would sink together into inaction and sordid indifference to every wholesome pursuit, and be reduced to blocks.
I reply: Were those principles removed which naturally impel men to action, and no others substituted in their stead — then men would indeed sink into sloth and stupidity. But the Gospel, while it removes the pride of man — furnishes new motives to action — more powerful and far more sublime. In the place of selfishness and pride — it substitutes the love and fear of God! These principles excited all the labor and self-denial of the blessed Jesus, awakened the enterprise of the holy apostles, and fortified the martyrs with unconquerable strength.
Cannot rational beings be excited to action without pride? What then impels to action the holy angels, those unwearied spirits who dart like flames of fire to execute the will of God in different worlds? There has been no pride in Heaven since Satan was cast out. The same motives which move the angels — the Gospel inculcates on men.
While all other systems of morals, ancient and modern, seize on the pride of man and employ it as the chief engine to move him to noble deeds — the Gospel substitutes in its stead, the love and fear of God and good will to men. These motives are essentially necessary to make a truly godly man — to give energy to his virtue against the whole array of temptations which assail his selfishness — to exalt his virtue into a noble and beneficent principle of action — to give it power over the passions of his heart and over the acts of his secret hours — to make it a uniform and persevering principle under all the changes of life, under the discouragement of disgrace, and even in the decline of life, when the glow of ambition becomes extinguished by the frost of old age.
These things, pride could never do. It is wholly inadequate to be the grand moving principle of virtue. Ever variable and unstable, no calculations can be made of the direction it will give the mind, except that it will always move as the opinions of men and apparent self-interest sway. It cannot produce that fixed and stable integrity on which you can confidently rely. It is rather calculated to form a base, trickish, time-serving character, on which no dependence can be placed. It is itself a cold, unsocial, repulsive principle — totally devoid of all interest in the happiness of others. Instead of uniting mankind in amity and peace, it contains in itself the most powerful causes of dissension, and needs nothing but temptation to throw the world into confusion, and kindle it to a general flame. It is the torment of the mind in which it dwells, producing little else than the restlessness of insatiable desire — and the mortification of defeat. It is ever making torturing comparisons, which awaken, as our text suggests, the throbs and pangs of envy.
"By pride comes nothing but strife!" Proverbs 13:10. Pride conceives all the affronts, and is the parent of all the strife and animosities and wars which convulse the world. It needs all the restraints which have been thrown around it — all the authority of reason and conscience, added to the dread of punishment and the eagerness of men for self-preservation and peace — all the authority of true religion, all the exertions of moralists and divines, all the laws and institutions of society. All these are found necessary to fence around this baleful evil, to restrain it from disturbing the whole order of society. Were it not thus powerfully counteracted — pride would leap every barrier and overturn all the harmony and happiness of man. And even all these restraints put together, do not prevent pride from agitating and convulsing the world.
A principle which needs so many restraints cannot be good in its nature or tendency. And is this to be the great engine to give impulse to virtue? No, it is itself an odious and filthy vice — lying at the worst extreme of sin! Pride excited the first rebellion in the universe — and has been the parent of most of the crimes and miseries which have since agitated the dominions of Jehovah. And is it thought unreasonable to separate this pollution of pride, from the principles and motives of virtue? Is it strangely thought that virtue would suffer by such a divorce from pride? In its feeblest and most latent movements, pride cannot be anything but sin! The more completely it is banished from the hearts of men . . .
the purer will be their virtue,
the more heavenly their piety, and
the more affectionate and happy will the world be.
The objection being thus removed, the injunction returns upon us with all its weight and authority: "Let us not be desirous of vainglory, provoking one another, envying one another." Let us not indulge and inflame our pride — by seeking the admiration and applause of men.
Content with the approbation and love of the virtuous, the testimony of a good conscience, and the friendship of God — let us not seek for fame, or the distinctions which a gawking world are so eager to seize. Let us cultivate the unaspiring meekness and sweet unselfishness of Christian love. Let us cherishing a noble, yet not haughty, indifference to the opinions of the world. With an eye steadfastly fixed on the glory of God — let us laboriously and meekly pursue the business of life and the duties of religion, and convince the world that the fear and love of God can give sufficient impulse to a virtuous soul without the aid of pride.
Thus we shall imitate the meek and lowly Jesus, whose "food" it was "to do the will" of His heavenly Father "and to finish his work" — who, though He was a stranger to pride, was laborious and unwearied in the service of God and His generation.
My brethren, "the fashion of this world passes away" — and all its glory is transitory and vain. But soon the splendors of everlasting day will break upon the humble Christian! The honors of Heaven will cluster around his brow — and crowns, such as angels wear, will adorn his beauteous temples. He will sit upon a throne of glory and reign in all the dignity of a son of God — while the luster of his glorified body will "shine forth as the sun, in the kingdom of his Father."
Christian, can you not wait for this, without panting after the vain distinctions of the world? Wait a little longer amidst the neglects of strangers who know you not — who know not the Father that begot you, nor the family to which you belong. "Let patience have her perfect work;" and soon your honors and your reward will come, and no man will take them from you. "Seek the honor that comes from God alone!" It shall be no grief of heart to you, that you were unknown on earth — when you shall sit at God's right hand, and kings and emperors shall be chained beneath your feet! By patient continuance in well doing — seek for this glory, and honor, and immortality — and you shall obtain eternal life! Amen.