Carly Simon sang about vanity in her song, “You’re So Vain (1972*).” Its stinging refrain is “I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you.” These are the words of love lost, with vanity a destructive wedge. Note the consequences:
You had me several years ago when I was still quite naive
Well you said that we made such a pretty pair and that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved
And one of them was me
Why even bother to think about vanity? Perhaps it is because it is helpful to think about the song of our life: is the melody pleasing, do the words harmonize with our finest qualities, and who owns the copyright?
Simon’s song is a good place to start a consideration of vanity for it summarizes in very few words a profound concept and the inherent tension it creates in our lives. Vanity is defined in biblestudytools.com as:
“…excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements. The biblical usage describes vanity as having no ultimate meaning, a concept shared with some philosophies. Vanity is recognizing only the accomplishments or appearance of oneself without the humility to appreciate the merit of others, including God.”
One simple way to understand vanity is that it pushes out God and inserts us as god.
Explicit use of the word in the Bible is found in Psalm 119:37 (King James Version) “Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken thou me in thy way.” We may derive an expanded meaning from Ecclesiastes where we find references to meaninglessness of efforts (expressed as “chasing after the wind”), foolishness (acting against wisdom), creating and storing treasure but not in heaven, and considering only outward appearance and not what is in the heart.
The great preacher, Charles Spurgeon, delights us with these words, phrased in his unique style:
“There are divers kinds of vanity. The cap and bells of the fool, the mirth of the world, the dance, the lyre, and the cup of the dissolute, all these men know to be vanities; they wear upon their forefront their proper name and title. Far more treacherous are those equally vain things, the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. A man may follow vanity as truly in the counting-house as in the theatre. If he be spending his life in amassing wealth, he passes his days in a vain show. Unless we follow Christ, and make our God the great object of life, we only differ in appearance from the most frivolous.” (Charles Spurgeon, Morning And Evening)
So, What Do We Make Of Vanity?
One contemporary note, (startling because it comes from popular actress Florence Pugh who, one expects, would think of herself as highly polished and in the vainest way) is sounded by these refreshing and self-deprecating words of radical self-acceptance; “Yes, I can put makeup on and look good for a premiere. But at the end of the day, I still have hair on the top of my lip and I still smell after a workout and I still get spots when I’m stressed.” (Vogue)
So, is there hope that vanity can be managed, that is, can the crescendo of life forces that propel us in one direction or another be tamed and orchestrated for the greater good? Dear friend Peggy Sands makes this thought-provoking observation:
“I have long pondered at what point self-confidence actually derives from vanity. When is assertiveness an engine of pride, and when is it simply needed to get the job done? How can we as mere humans be sure that we are not acting out of vanity but out of a desire to help others or promote the greater good?“
The Song Of Our Life
God created each of us as unique songs to be sung—as lives to be lived—to His glory. He is the songwriter, He owns the musical score, and he calls us to sing it—live it—harmoniously. Vanity has no place in this song, for our true life is “not about us” but about our relationship with our creator God and our neighbor. Carly had it right but didn’t take it far enough. Psalm 119 does; “quicken thou me in thy way”—Lord, open my senses to behold the beauty of the masterpiece you have written for me then energize me to perform it to your glory.