White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Glory, Goodness, and Getting Attention

Published Monday, July 29, 2019 By Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung

Having a name for a vice is like having a medical diagnosis.  It gives us a clearer idea of what we’re facing, helps us disentangle surface symptoms from root causes, and points to remedies or therapies that are likely to be most effective.  We see vainglory’s embarrassingly familiar face—on Facebook and in the front pews.  Vices are good things gone wrong, so we can understand sin’s damage more clearly if we look first at how good God created things to be.  What is glory, and when is it good?  How does glory deteriorate into vanity?

Good Glory?

When you hear the term “glory,” you may well assume that glory is something that only God can rightly have.  That means that any glory human beings might seek or have as their own is, by definition, disordered.  Scripture does speak clearly about glory belonging to God—in Psalm 19, the poet writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1); the great hymns recorded in revelation proclaim God’s glory (Rev. 19:1, 7); Christ himself directs his disciples to do their good deeds for the glory of God the Father (Matt. 5:16); and claims that in his glory the Father is glorified (John 13:31).  In fact, almost all positive references to glory in Scripture are to God’s glory.  Human beings, on the other hand, are warned, condemned, and punished for glory-seeking, from the Old Testament kings and the ostentatiously rich admonished by the prophets to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the false apostles trying to outdo Paul in the New Testament.

There are thinkers in the Christian tradition who argue about which sorts of things are good for us.  Their arguments range over all the so-called goods that are the objects of the seven capital vices, not just glory.  For example, in disputes over the nature of greed, some early Christian thinkers thought that money could be used well without gradually corrupting our desires, while others believed that Christians should aspire to be completely detached from worldly possessions.  John Cassian, an early spiritual writer (c. 360-435 AD) who studied spiritual discipline with the Desert Fathers, instructs monks to give up ownership of every last penny, lest their renunciation of worldly values be incomplete.  His worry? Lingering desires for possessions leave a root from which serious spiritual problems can grow, such as dejection over one’s vocation and chronic problems with wrath.

We find similar disputes about the vice of wrath.  Could Christians ever be angry in the right way for the right things (e.g., injustice), or should they leave vengeance only for the Lord?  John Cassian follows his teacher Evagrius (345-399 AD) in completely prohibiting anger at another human being because of its disruptive influence on prayer.  Theologian Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274 AD) takes a more moderate position, arguing that anger is an emotion that can be used well or badly, and in some cases gives us the energy needed to right a wrong.  As in the case of glory, most of controversy revolved around how to most faithfully interpret scriptural teachings about what is good for human beings and when and why.

So, can glory ever be good for humans?

Here’s where definitions can help.  We need to note that “glory,” as it is used in the tradition’s discussion, often meant something much less theologically loaded than the term Christians today use most frequently in worship or prayer.   Glory, as Aquinas defines it, simply means “goodness that is displayed.”  The annuals in my front yard bloom in profusion where my family and neighbors can see them; they are meant to be a lovely display.  Turning in a paper to your college professor might count as displaying your goodness to others (if it’s a well-crafted paper, that is!)

Aquinas’ description of glory as goodness that is made “apparent and manifest in its splendor” simply means that when people notice something good and recognize its attractiveness or desirability, they typically express approval and praise. The neighbors enjoy looking at my flowerbed of bright purple impatiens and remark to me how much they appreciate their beauty.  The student’s paper earns an A and a commendatory note on the back page from his professor.

On this definition, the goodness in question does not have to be moral goodness.  It can be anything that is good or that we perceive as good.  The clearer and more manifest the goodness is, and the greater the goodness is, the more recognition and approval it typically elicits—as when your YouTube video goes viral and earns your garage band’s new song vastly more ‘likes’ than ‘dislikes’.  You can show your own goodness deliberately or without intending to do so, or others can call attention to it.  Even if an artist is skeptical about the success of her latest creation, a gallery owner can recognize its genius and put it on display.  In the right context, almost anything good created by God or made by us can attract notice.  Its glory testifies to and affirms the goodness of the world God created, and of our own creative abilities when the imitate his.  In short, if anything good is shown and known, we’ve got a case of glory.  The conversation about glory in the Christian tradition starts with the display of all and any types of goodness, even the goodness of inanimate objects like sunsets, then narrows to cases of attention given to human goodness generally, like a beautiful musical performance, and finally focuses on instances of human virtue or moral goodness as even more specific cases.  If glory means something good being put on display for others, then glory and the concept of beauty, especially visible attractiveness, are closely linked.  Both glory and beauty apply to a wide range of goods, moral and natural, from intentional actions to physical objects.  Both “glory” and “beauty” evoke the idea of being something that draws our notice and appreciation.  Similarly, in the moral life, we are attracted to certain exemplars—people whose lives display goodness that we admire and find attractive.

Aquinas uses the term “clarity” to explain how glory is goodness made manifest, and he is quick to point out that “glory” and “witness” are closely related.  Bearing witness (e.g., to the gospel) is itself a case of making some good clearly known.  Such witness is clearly a spiritual task, a task that—not accidentally—is done better when there is integrity between the goodness I’m preaching about and my own faithfulness in practicing it.  When I am witnessing to the truth of something, both the quality of my witness and my motivation for bearing witness can be the subject or moral praise or blame.  So, too, with glory.  Just as witnessing can be done well or badly, so in a similar way our display of any other good can be done in healthy or disordered ways.  This means, however, that human glory can be a good thing.

Defending the Goodness of Glory

So how should Christians view human glory?  Aquinas directly responds to Christians’ concerns about glory being good by offering a double strategy: first, he answers Scripture with Scripture.  He cites verses from the Sermon on the Mount to argue that we should want our good works to be seen by others (Matt. 5:14-16).  It would be hard to argue that seeking glory is morally suspect when Jesus himself commands his disciples to “let {their} light shine before others.”  This verse in Matthew is found less than a chapter before Jesus’ warnings to his disciples to do their good deeds in secret, in contract to the Pharisees’ religious displays, which are designed to garner human glory, but which receive no reward from their Father in heaven (Matt.6:1ff; see also Matt. 23).  This means that despite his awareness of the problem and temptations surrounding glory, Jesus still commends letting our light shine.  In other passages, the apostle Paul both prohibits boasting and does some boasting “in the Lord” on his own behalf (contrast 1 Cor. 13:4 with 2 Cor. 10 and Jer. 9:23-24).  Aquinas reconciles the texts in tension by offering a distinction from Augustine: in commendable cases, glory is sought for God’s sake and directed to God; in cases that are condemned, glory is sought exclusively as one’s own, with no reference to God.  So the command to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works” is immediately followed with “and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

Aquinas offers other reasons for thinking of glory as a good.  Human beings have a natural desire to be known, he says, and more specifically, for their goodness to be known.  They are not unique in this respect, either, for they are also reflecting their Creator.  Goodness, by its nature, tends to “communicate itself” to another.  Put more simply, like the contagious effect of a smile, and like sunshine, good things tend to overflow their source and share themselves.  For example, God, the perfect good and origin of all goodness, shares his goodness through the act of creation.  Although creating a good world was not necessary, there’s something fitting about this act on God’s part.  His goodness has the character of a gift—something given to another as a sign of love.  In creation, the reality God made good reveals his goodness.  God also shares his goodness with human beings specifically through revelation.  Here his goodness is revealed as truth—in words, not things.  So, in general, the communication of one’s goodness—good clearly shown and known to others—so from counting as morally suspect, should be what we expect, given the natural dynamics of goodness in a world made by such a God.  Like point and counterpoint, goodness radiates outward like ripples on a pond, whereas beauty draws our attention in like a magnet draws iron filings.  Human glory can be a kind of extension of God’s glory, a creaturely imitation of God’s goodness.  In short, the sharing of goodness is natural and can be used in proper ways for proper ends.  Thus there is a rightful place for glory—goodness shared through knowledge and communicated through display—as a good in human life.

Glorying Well

What does it mean to glory well?  Clearly, “Let your light shine” doesn’t mean “Always shine, never blend.”  Human glory may be a genuine good, but our pursuit of it can still go wrong.  We are susceptible to love in mistaken and malformed ways.  Why is glory a source of seduction for us?  Why are we so drawn to glory that its allure outshines our love for God?  Why are we so tempted to organize our whole lives around seeking and finding it?

Human beings are social creatures. We need to live in relationships with each other.  If we are to be known and loved, we must be acknowledged, affirmed, and appreciated for who we are and the good that we do—in fact, it is essential to our fullest well-being.  Aquinas calls it “the fellowship of eternal happiness.”  Good human community requires attentiveness to and affirmation of others, and when communities offer their members the right sorts of mutual attentiveness and affirmation, people flourish.

For evidence, we need look no further than the damage done to those people who do not have this good.  When they are invisible or ignored, or when their real goodness is denied or devalued by others, they are hurt.  Neglected children show us this painful condition, and so do lives marred by sexist or racist treatment, or even abuse.  Something good in them has not been seen, not been acknowledged, not been valued and appreciated as good.  Missing is glory for the goodness they have—a glory none of us can live well without.

Because glory is so necessary and beneficial to human flourishing, I believe there are two fatal substitutions that we are tempted to make.  First, rather than experiencing human recognition and praise as a foretaste of God’s, or as God communicating approval to us through another, we make humanly given glory our ultimate end.  We try to ground our egos and identities on the fickle foundation of human approval affirmation, recognition and reward.  Perhaps we are liable to fall into this trap because, when human feedback regarding our worth comes, it seems more tangible and readily evident than God’s acknowledgment of it.

Second, we tend to confuse two types of human recognition, which philosophers call “recognition self-respect” and “appraisal self-respect.”  Appraisal self-respect is the recognition and approval we receive on the basis of our particular accomplishments or performances.  It is, on the one hand, merit-based attention from others, and it is conditional on our efforts and achievements.  Recognition self-respect, on the other hand, is the underlying recognition and approval that we are worthy of simply as human beings.  This form of regard is unconditional and dependent only on our humanity—that is, the ineradicable dignity we bear as those created in God’s image—not on our achievements, notable or otherwise.

Although it’s very well to distinguish these in principle, whoever has been assessed or had to assess others knows that these two are very hard to distinguish in experience.  An assessment of my performance as a professor can feel like an assessment of my person, especially if I have poured my heart into my work and have a deep investment in what I have done.  When a parent criticizes a child who talks back, the child is more likely to think, “My dad thinks I’m terrible” rather than “My dad really doesn’t appreciate my smart mouth.”  Messages of affirmation and condemnation are powerful; it takes effort and experience to disconnect the person and the performance, the agent and the accomplishment.

If we are secure in the recognition self-respect we have from God, then we can better shrug off or rightly accept human assessments, whether affirming or not.  But if we are not secure in that unconditional sense of worth, we may seek recognition self-respect from human beings, trying to build secure self-acceptance on the shaky foundation of human opinion.  Compounding that first substitution error, we may further try to win human appraisals of our achievements and use them to shore up that weak foundation, hoping that enough conditional approval will somehow be transformed into a solid and enduring core of self-worth.  Like a teenager’s obsessive investment in the latest fashion to earn popularity with his friends, this amounts to building a flimsy house on shifting sand, not rock-solid acceptance.

Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.  She is the author of several books, including Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice (Eerdmans, 2014), and Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies (Brazos Press, 2009).  The above excerpt is adapted from Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice and is posted here by kind permission of the publisher. 

  • Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung