One afternoon, my younger brother took a picture of the two of us. When I saw it I asked him to delete it because I looked “fat.” He looked at me surprised, “Do you hear yourself? You talk to other girls about this very thing… about body image, about looking at yourself the way God looks at you. You ought to practice what you preach.”
Truth be told, I go in waves of struggling with vanity. I would wager we all do, to a degree. Lately, I’d been acting particularly vain. My brother was right. So off to confession I went, fully aware of my need for this sacrament to reorient my heart and mind back to God and away from myself.
What Is Vanity and Why Is It a Sin?
I think a lot of people often use the terms vanity and pride interchangeably. However, there are slight nuances to both that are important to distinguish. Pride is thinking too highly of oneself. Vanity is the over concern of other people’s opinions.
When I think of pride, Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, pops into my mind. A guy who thought he was the manliest, strongest, most attractive, most achieved man on earth.
And, when I think of vanity, I think of the wicked witch from Snow White, seeking affirmation from a magical mirror, saying, “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Vanity manifests itself in many ways. Maybe you may spend too much time worrying about your appearance and your physical beauty. Or perhaps you are consumed by what other people think of you and your reputation. You might be concerned with your status in life and whether or not you appear to be living a seemingly successful life.
Today, we live in a society that is so consumed with self gratification and glorification, that it’s hard not to fall prey to vanity. It can be easy to get caught up in this way of living–checking Instagram for how many likes our latest picture got or comparing our social lives to our friends on Facebook. But the reality is, this does not help us in the fight against vanity.
So why is vanity a sin? It is a sin because we become consumed by other’s opinions of our self, rather than concerning ourselves with the opinion of God. Indeed, vanity assures us that the cares of the world are more important than those of God. When we begin thinking this way, we are drawn away from God. And that’s exactly what any sin does, it separates us from God.
How Do We Overcome Vanity?
Overcoming vanity, like any sin, takes time, effort, perseverance, and of course, the grace of God. But I’ve found these three habits helpful in my fight against this sin:
For me going to confession routinely is really helpful. Confession puts me back at the feet of the cross, reminds me of the amazing mercy of God, and in receiving that unceasing mercy and love I am humbled. And let me tell you–opportunities to be humbled are key to overcoming vanity.
Full disclosure: About one week before I was asked to write this blog post, I was kneeling in the confessional, confessing…. you named it…. vanity. (The irony that I was asked to write about this very topic–why it is a sin and how to overcome it–was not lost on me. God really does have a way of answering our prayers in the most unexpected ways.) For my penance, the priest told me to pray Psalm 8. As I read, I was struck by verses 4-6:
“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place—What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor.”
How true are these words. One of my favorite things to do during the summer is to lie on the beach at night–with the vast ocean crashing before me, the millions of grains of sand beneath me, and the trillions of stars above me–I am reminded just how small I am in the midst of all of God’s glorious creation, and there is such peace and comfort in that smallness. And then I marvel that our God, who created the oceans and the stars and the earth, has created each of us– you and me–in His image–and I am practically brought to my knees.
Be in constant dialogue with God. He knows all of your thoughts already, so you might as well be honest with Him! If you are struggling with body image, or what other people think of you, turn it over to God in prayer. Ask Him for the grace to grow in the virtue of humility…and be prepared to be humbled! Pray to be free from the fears of judgement, free from the bonds of perfectionism, free from the fear of other people’s opinions of you.
3. Works of Mercy
Pope Francis, in a homily on vanity, asked “What about your life with the Lord? How do you pray? Your life in the works of mercy, how’s that going? Do you visit the sick?” It’s a question worth pondering.
Consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, visiting the elderly in a nursing home or spending time with a grandparent, getting involved in your parish’s prison ministry, comforting someone who is grieving. Vanity is egocentric, focusing only on the self. One way to move outside that is to shift our gaze and focus outward, towards those who are in need of God’s love and mercy.
“When we busy ourselves with the things of God, we learn to look beyond ourselves to serve those whose needs are far greater than ours.” I recently stumbled over these words from How to Find Your Soulmate Without Losing Your Soul, and the truth of that sentence resonated within me. We overcome vanity by dying to self, by seeking God, every single day.
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