The Word of God describes clothing as having four uses, the moral, the practical, the aesthetic, and the religious. You will recall, I discussed that previously in this series here. The first of those uses, the moral, is to cover up the body. We discussed the ramifications of that for modesty here, and the intersection of modesty and lust here. Of the other three uses, the practical one is largely self-guided (though it is impacted by modesty) and the religious one is not in use in our dispensation. The aesthetic one, however, is widely used. Further, there is one particular Bible principle that directly relates to it, the principle of vanity. In today’s post, I wish to define the biblical concept of vanity. Next week, I will give you some applications of the principle.
Using clothing as a means of decoration or beautifying is never directly condemned in Scripture. It is an assumed fact, though it has both good and bad contexts. The Apostle John likened the new Jerusalem to a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21.2). The is clearly a positive reference. In contradistinction, Paul warned women about adorning themselves with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array (I Timothy 2.9). That is clearly a negative reference.
We also see that our Creator designed His creation as practical, yes, but He also adorned it luxuriously. As I write this it is the first day of May, my favorite month of the year. Trees burst into bloom in May. The whole world is green in May. Tulips run in riotous banks of color in May. Daffodils and crocuses and lilies cheer the heart of man in May. Next week, my crepe myrtle will be a brilliant pink firework. Then come the roses of June, and on and on it goes. Have we mentioned Autumn in New England yet? Then, too, the sky is one enormous canvas every morning and evening. Sometimes, the resulting scenes are achingly beautiful. Our Lord paints each one of those, billions and billions of individual, never-to-be-repeated works of art. Nor is this aesthetic beauty only found in the inanimate world. A few months ago I looked out my picture window and saw a dozen cardinals framed in falling snow scattered like Christmas ornaments on the green Arborvitae in my backyard.
Say what you will, you must admit God is creative and artistic. He loves to decorate things beautifully. And He made us like Him. We delight in beauty, in color, in decoration, in adornment, and there is nothing intrinsically or automatically wrong with that. There is, however, or I should say there can be a problem here though. When the scripturally acceptable concept of adornment is influenced by, marked by, or motivated by vanity we have perverted what God meant for good into something that is actually bad.
What is vanity? Some form of the English word is used 211 times in the King James Version. The dictionary defines vanity as “worthless, empty of value; excessive pride in one’s appearance or accomplishments; a dressing table.” You can see how the latter two understandings of the term flow from the former.
The scriptural usage carries the same basic idea. Isaiah, in a passage in which he was comparing men with God said, Behold, they are all vanity; their works are nothing: Their molten images are wind and confusion (Isaiah 41.29). Vanity here is equated literally with nothingness. Scripture refers to sowing seed in vain, laboring in vain, and comforting in vain, meaning none of these accomplished anything. The effort was worthless.
The Word of God often connects vanity with our words i.e. vain speech, vain words, vain talk, and vain thoughts. Babbling is a similar word that carries the same connotation of worthless speech. These are words that are empty of any real value. They are purposeless, useless. For example, using the word “God” without talking to Him or about Him is using His name in vain; it is a pointless, empty usage. God loves prayer, but vain repetitions aggravate Him, empty, pontificating meaningless phrases that cover as prayer. The classic Hail Mary comes to mind here. It is an empty exercise.
Vanity is cousin to pride, both in definition and in real life. Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: Surely they are disquieted in vain: He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them (Psalm 39.6). Collecting money simply to display my wealth is a pointless, purposeless, useless exercise. I am trying to get people to notice me, to be impressed by me via my money, and that is simply worthless vanity.
Vanity, then, is an empty show or display that feeds my pride. I have gotten attention, yes, but is a fleeting, worthless, empty attention. Think of the modern day YouTube star or Instagram influencer here. Let us not be desirous of vain glory (Galatians 5.26).
Without delving into application here, we can already see the connection between the principle of vanity and our appearance. If vanity is an empty, worthless display that feeds our pride then that certainly applies to how we present ourselves to the world.
In addition to this, vanity is worthless for one other reason: it celebrates that which is temporary. Scripture tells us that the holy life is the beautiful life four times. Contrast that in your mind with the kind of appearance the worldly beauty industry strives to obtain – a momentary candle-flicker fast fleeting away. When thou with rebukes does correct man for iniquity, Thou makes his beauty to consume away like a moth: Surely every man is vanity (Psalm 39.11). I so wanted to get this point across to my daughter that I had her quote Proverbs 31.30 to me every day for many years. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: But a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
Auguste Toulmouche c 1890
Why is this kind of beauty vain? Because it is a worthless beauty. It is a beauty that produces conceit in the pretty girl or the handsome boy, and lasts but for a moment compared with eternity. To focus on that fleeting beauty, to celebrate it, admire it, promote it, to indulge in it, to glory in it, to reveal it in such a way so as to get attention? Well, now, that is just an exercise in worthless, pointless vanity.
Vanity is an empty show or display that feeds my pride. Next week, we will look at the ramifications that has for how we present ourselves via our external appearance.