I think a lot of the popular teaching and books, even religious books, have made people expectant and entitled brats who try to meet the minimum requirements of a formula, do their part of the equation, but are frustrated when the formula doesn’t work, when it seems God was absent, when a prayer wasn’t answered, when others don’t respond as they “should”.
It is a vain approach to seek to do right mainly so that things will go right with us, assuming affirmative answers to our prayers, comforts, and positive responses to our feelings is automatically what’s right. To think that what I want and what I feel is what’s right (many times without thinking about the effect, or impact, or cost on others) is vain and selfish.
Here are a few questions I hear often that hint towards a subtle kind of vanity:
“I’ve been honest and hardworking. Why am I not rich?”
(As if our becoming rich is “what’s right”. Maybe what’s right for us is learning how to steward with less. Maybe it’s contentment we need.)
“I’ve been loving and kind. Why am I single?”
(As if being with someone is “what’s right”. Maybe what’s right for us is to learn how to be whole in God first so we’re not cannibalizing our partners. Maybe we’re called to be busy with other things.)
“I’ve been a good partner. Why is my partner so clueless?”
(As if our perspective on the relationship is “what’s right”. Maybe our perspective is wrong. Maybe we’re being selfish. Have we tried to understand them first? Maybe we’re just as clueless. And if we’re the wiser partner, the one who knows how to do things right, shouldn’t we be the one who is more understanding?)
“I’ve been praying and fasting. Why isn’t my prayer answered?”
(As if our request is “what’s right. As if what we think is good for us is automatically what’s good for us. I hear a lot of people say “I claim this. I claim that.” like kids in a toy store grabbing the item they want. Any wise parent knows that a sure way to destroy your child is to give them everything they request.)
The word vain by the way means empty. The constant prioritization of the self leads to emptiness.
The Bible already makes it clear, if you want to be great the way God defines greatness, be the servant of all, and a servant just serves without expecting more than the master gives.
The key difference between those who serve and find joy, and those who serve but will ultimately be frustrated is motivation. If the motivation is “I have to serve because it’s the right thing to do”, these people will be frustrated when doing the right thing leads them down a path doesn’t seem right.
If the motivation is “God, I love You”, these people will have constant joy because they already have what they seek, which is not a prize from God for doing right, but God Himself.
Finally, an incredibly telling sign is our reaction to when things go wrong or people don’t do as we want. If we are the stars of the show we will respond the way entitled people respond when expectations aren’t met. If we are servants, we will respond as servants – and continue to serve.