The Bible has quite a lot to say about vanity, but its use of the concept is often misunderstood. Today, when we speak of someone who is “vain,” we mean someone who is conceited or overly concerned about their own looks or abilities.
But when the words “vain” or “vanity” appear in the Bible, they have very different meanings. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word hebel from which these words are translated means something that is only vapor or wind – in other words, something that has no lasting substance and is ultimately pointless. That was the main meaning of the word “vain” in English back when the King James Version was translated in 1611, and we still use the word “vain” that way when something does not turn out as we planned, and we say that our efforts were “in vain.”
This original meaning of the word vain is why the Book of Proverbs tells us: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30 ESV). Notice it is the fleeting beauty itself that is said to be vain, not the person! In the same way, the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us: “Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, For childhood and youth are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 NKJV), and the Book of Psalms says: “Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (Psalms 39:5). In other words, childhood, youth, and even our adult lives pass all too quickly, they are not lasting, but are vain – just like a breath of air or an early morning mist: “…What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
In the New Testament, the Greek word kenos often translated “vain” has a similar meaning – that of being empty or of no purpose – so the biblical meanings of “vain” have nothing to do directly with our attitudes toward our appearance. The Bible certainly does not condemn our reasonable efforts to look our best (see our blog post “Does the Bible Condemn Women’s Adornment?”), though it also points out the futility of making self-concern and self-pampering the focus of our lives – which would truly be an exercise in “vanity.” As always, balance is a good thing and reasonable focus on the care for our physical bodies is not wrong – just as the apostle Paul reminded us regarding physical exercise: “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
What Paul says to Timothy in this verse underscores the whole biblical approach to “vanity.” Anything that is not “godliness” – in other words, that does not contribute to becoming more like God and helping others on that path – is ultimately “vain.” That is why Paul also wrote: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). This does not mean that doing our everyday work and chores is meaningless – the Bible clearly shows we should do everything as though we were doing it for God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Such an attitude elevates whatever we do from the “vanity” of life without God to the realm of the truly meaningful.
So, to return to the title of this article – "Are You Vain?" – we can clarify that question. If by “vain” we mean the way the word is usually understood today – as a reflection of prideful or narcissistic self-focus – then hopefully that failing is held in check in our lives by understanding what small importance our present outer appearance or inner aptitudes have in the eternal scheme of things. But if by “vain” we mean the original sense of the word – as empty and without purpose – then the answer depends entirely on us.
Without God, in biblical terms, we are all “vain,” but when we place God at the center of our lives then they are given a purpose that transcends meaninglessness and “vanity.” Then, our thoughts and actions have the potential to take on a purpose they would never have had – because God is in the business of making meaning in our lives. As the apostle Paul wrote: “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, emphasis added). If we have “…been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) and made his purpose ours, we need never be concerned that our lives are “vanity” or that they have been lived “in vain.”