Question:

A friend and I were taking about vanity. We know it’s a sin, we just don’t know when it stops being taking care of the appearance and when it starts being vanity. What is vanity?


Answer:

""Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity"" (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

Vanity comes from the same word as vain. It refers to any action that is useless or without purpose. The word in the Hebrew literally means to blow into the wind. You can huff and puff all you want, but you can't change the course of the wind by blowing -- it is a vain action and vanity if you think you could do it. Another example from the Scriptures is trying to pick up oil by grabbing a handful in one hand. "A continual dripping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike; whoever restrains her restrains the wind, and grasps oil with his right hand" (Proverbs 27:15-16). While the word "vain" is not used in this passage, it is illustrating a vain attempt of trying to stop a woman who is bent on arguing.

In modern usage, "vanity" has unfortunately been narrowed down to only referring to appearance. One ought to take care of himself and look his best. "Let your garments always be white, and let your head lack no oil" (Ecclesiastes 9:8). Colognes and perfumes were oil based in these days. But it becomes vanity when you think you are going to stay looking perfect or chase after looking young for the rest of your life. "Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised" (Proverbs 31:30). It is a fact of living that we grow old and our outer beauty fades. To try to hang on to what can't be held is vain.

More profitable is to realize that our bodies aren't going with us anyway. It is the inward person who is eternal and there we can do something that will last. "Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16). That is why God tells women to put more emphasis on their character than on their outward appearance. "Do not let your adornment be merely outward -- arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel -- rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God" (I Peter 3:3-4). Peter's example is interesting because he chose Sarah. Sarah was such a beautiful woman that she had two kings wanting to marry her, yet many people forget that at the time she was in her 60's and 70's when this happened. How can an old woman, well pass the age of having children, have men chasing her? Peter said it was the beauty of her character. Because she was beautiful inside, it showed on her outward appearance.

Yeah, that's what I thought it was. But I don't understand I Peter 3:3-4 "Do not let your adornment be merely outward--arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel -- rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God", does it mean we can't do anything with our appearance? And yes, wanting to be young forever is vanity, but what about a young person wanting to look pretty? Is it wrong for any reason or for some reasons it can be right?

I Peter 3:3-4 is sometimes misread because people don't understand how Greeks expressed themselves. A common phrasing was "not this, but that" where the two parts shared the same verb but the verb was usually stated just once. To an English speaker it sounds like "don't do this, but do that instead." To a Greek speaker it meant "don't do just this because this other thing is far more important." That is why in the translation you quoted the word "merely" was inserted.

So Peter is saying that arranging your hair, wearing jewelry, or nice clothes can be done, but they are not nearly as important as having a good character within. This is not an either-or situation, but a less important and more important situation.