“Vanity! Vanity! And vanity everywhere, even on the brink of the grave, and among men ready to die for the highest convictions. Vanity!”
– Leo Tolstoy, “Sevastopol in May 1855”
The news headlines from a recent New York Times read: “Blast Exposes Rift Between Turkey and U.S. Over ISIS,” “New West Bank Violence as Palestinian Boy Stabs 2 Israelis,” “Chinese Missiles in South China Sea Underscore a Growing Conflict Risk,” and so on.
Not much seems to have changed in the hearts of men since Tolstoy wrote one of his short stories on the Crimean War. In this particular sketch, Tolstoy illustrates the vanity of war. He speaks about human nature, how men of war are all seeking to be heroes, and how all efforts to create peace often fail because of the vain nature of man. When I look at the headlines of today’s newspaper (or any days newspaper for that matter) I think of this Tolstoy quote, and its reference to Ecclesiastes. Not only when I look at the news, but also when I look at my own life, I often see the vanity of my own attempts to construct peace and become a “hero”. When we attempt anything without God, our attempts (even if “successful”) are vain.
The Psalter in Psalm 127 says,
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat–
for he grants sleep to those he loves.”
Of course God is not literally the one coming down and putting the nails in the two-by-four to build your house, but in a sense is that not what He wants to do? God desires that we bring Him in to everything we do with a willing heart. He desires that we make Him Lord over our lives and that with each step we take we ask for His strength. I know I need His strength to help me through this life, and yet I still find myself not bringing my efforts before Him and instead trying to work things out on my own. I become blind to the help he can provide.
Wouldn’t the world look different too if our leaders trusted in the Lord and turned to Him for their strength? When we turned on the news would we see vanity or would we see grace? When we are working without God, we are working for ourselves and thus we are working in vain. His glory and the protection of His creation are not brought into consideration when we focus on our own reputation. We attempted to make ourselves heroes and loose sight of the true hero.
Tolstoy ends his story saying this: “The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has always been, is, and always will be most beautiful, is – the truth.” He refers to God in this recognizing that God is the only true hero and anything done without Him is done in vain.
Where have I been pursuing vanity instead of God?
Baylee Molloy works in international development and is a participant in the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program. She has a Master’s from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.