Yesterday, I went over a chapter of Beyond Order in which Jordan Peterson covered the purpose of rules and tradition.
During this chapter, he mentioned the Ten Commandments as examples of traditions that you should understand to avoid moral error.
The one that I found most interesting and has been consuming my thoughts is the injunction against taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Now, Peterson is probably not a Christian in the traditional sense. At the very least he’s been dodgy about whether he’d fully ascribe to many of the classical Christian creeds, e.g. the Apostles’ Creed. As a result, it’s important to consider whether he comes at the perspective from an outsider or a believer, and I’d hesitate to lend too much credence (pun unintended) to those who don’t confess articles of faith such as the Resurrection.
I also want to disclose that I am a layman and not a theological expert. I speak not as a master of scripture but as a seeker, and one who hopes to encourage others. Do not lend me any authority other than that of the student and remember that my striving may fall short of God.
But this point is important for everyone to understand.
What is Vanity?
While etymological analysis can lead us astray, we should pay attention to it here.
When the Bible speaks of taking the Lord’s name in vain, we often apply it to uttering the name of God outside the context of religious adherence.
This is a proscription I adhere to myself, to the point where I won’t even write characters who take the Lord’s name in vain (and, if a character mentions God, I spend time in prayerful reflection of whether the use is justified by my intentions and their own).
This is not, however, true vanity.
For instance, I consider the swearing of oaths in the name of God to be a much more obvious case of taking the Lord’s name in vain, because it is a use of God to justify our own human actions. I have nothing against secular contracts, but we should not pretend that we act for God unless we have prayerfully considered it.
And this is what Peterson brings up as the danger here. We can justify actions which we know to be sinful under the auspices of God if we are not careful.
Vanity and Pride
Vanity is etymologically linked with the sin of pride in the term vainglory, but also has ties to emptiness and wandering.
Of course, emptiness can take many forms.
We need to be sure that we do not act from a place of emptiness when we claim to be acting out our Christian faith. It might sound extreme to say that we are empty whenever we stray from God, but I think that’s a proper analysis here.
When we are empty, we are unprepared to deal with the tides of the world. Like driftwood, currents and seasons carry us to an uncertain destination. We must be full of Christ and aimed at His service in order to free ourselves of vanity.
It is in vanity that we fall into pride.
This is a paradox, because those who are aimless fail to accomplish that which is meaningful. But all the same we pursue the pretense of meaning. How much will money matter to us a hundred years from now?
Most likely, we will all be dead.
That does not mean that money is wretched, but the love of money is. Despite being extreme in the ways I believe faith should guide our behavior, I do not fall into the ascetic school of thought.
But we should always question ourselves whether we are serving Christ or money, Christ or vanity, Christ or pride, Christ or fame, Christ or desire.
Vanity and the False Teacher
The greatest danger of vanity is that it lets us go places we shouldn’t go. We will err because of our limitations, but there is no need to exacerbate this by engaging in our vices.
When we let ourselves conscript God, at least in our own perception, we guarantee we will go astray.
For instance, I consider my pacifism a reflection of my Christianity. I will not claim that God is a pacifist. In fact, we probably have good evidence to suggest that He is not. I will not even cite the fact that God says that vengeance is His to justify my pacifism, though it is a statement that informed my path.
Rather, I consider pacifism an act of humility. I recognize my imperfection. Who am I to stand and cast judgment? I am not worthy. Therefore, I do not judge. And when you do not judge, your ability to coerce and especially your ability to use violence loses its justification.
Those who seek to promote their own philosophy and worldview through expedients will seek justification through God, not justification from God.
The consequence is that the false teacher has the name of God forever on their tongue, but rarely–if ever–in their heart.
Vanity and Humility
The ultimate antidote to vanity is humility.
I do not lay claim to great humility. I wish I could, and perhaps that has some element in making it true, but I have discovered time and time again in my life that I actually lack humility.
Part of humility is reconsidering what you know. You do not abandon principles in this consideration, at least not those principles which stand up to scrutiny.
But humility involves coming to an understanding that the way you act and the way you think may be out of alignment with God.
When I pray, I pray I for alignment with God. Some of this is a practical thing. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom that gave him everything he ever desired, and that prayer has worked well for me throughout my life.
But it’s also the right way to think about it. First, you’re never really there. We are human, and God is great. We can probably never align with Him entirely, but sanctification is the next best step. Praying for alignment is a reminder that you’re not there yet, a memento mori without the death part.
Second, it puts you in the right place, because you’re not worried about the world. There’s nothing in the world that is worth more than righteousness. I’m not an ascetic, so I don’t believe we have to renounce everything in the world. In fact, I believe God created the world for our enjoyment and to give us a place to walk with Him, so I’m an anti-ascetic.
But the world is the path, not the destination.
Maybe you do not know what God is calling you to do.
In that case, the best solution is to avoid taking God’s name in vain and use morality to justify your actions. That doesn’t mean a renunciation of morality, it means a guarded hesitance to presume your own virtue.