From Vanity Fair to "Well Done"
From Vanity Fair to “Well Done”
Seven Keys to Navigating the World
Placing a title on this article proved to be most challenging. It went through different iterations: Surviving Vanity Fair, Do Not Lose Your Soul in Vanity Fair, Keys to Surviving the World according to John Bunyan, and A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Vanity. All of which could have worked. However, at the end of the day, when Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, describes the town of Vanity Fair, what he is doing is describing the world and the world system that we live in while seeking to provide direction to the Christian in this life. He wants you to hear “well done” from the Lord.
In case you are not familiar with the work, Pilgrim’s Progress, it is an allegory that John Bunyan wrote that is stocked with Biblical truth. It is excellent. Often people consider it to be a children’s book, but Bunyan did not write this for children. He wrote it for Christians, be they young or old. He wrote this as a Bible-based training manual for how to excel in this fallen world that is full of tribulation.
Of the book, Charles Spurgeon said, “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ I believe I have read it through at least a hundred times. It is a volume of which I never seem to tire; and the secret of its freshness is that it is so largely compiled from the Scriptures.” If you have never read this work, you should. I believe your soul will be the better for it. In addition, I would also encourage you to read it alongside listening to Mike Riccardi’s devotions through it (I cannot recommend both highly enough).
The section of the book that we will be considering at present concerns Vanity Fair. As soon as I say Vanity Fair, something likely comes to mind. Back in 1983, there was the first publication of the magazine Vanity Fair. In 2021, MagazineLine ranked Vanity Fair as the 40th most popular magazine, reaching over 100 million people across print and digital platforms. To be clear, I am not encouraging you to read the magazine. I am showing you an example of how our world loves vanity. There’s also a book titled Vanity Fair, a movie, and a television series. Our world craves vanity.
But what is vanity? Is vanity the dresser and mirror combo that’s in your bathroom? It can be if you’re staring at yourself thinking about how wonderful you are (ps. if that’s you, you aren’t as wonderful as you think you are). Vanity isn’t a word that we use all that often nowadays. Having said that, we do use the word vain. Those concepts are related. We see this in 2 Kings 17:15. The Lord is revealing why Israel was carried off to exile by Assyria in 722 BC. “They also rejected His statutes and His covenant which He cut with their fathers and His warnings with which He warned them. And they followed vanity and became vain, and went after the nations which surrounded them, concerning which Yahweh had commanded them not to do like them.” There we see that vanity and becoming vain are connected. They come from the same root word, “vanity” being a noun and “became vain” a verb.
So what is vanity? We still don’t have the answer, but we know it's connected to something vain. Ps 39:5 provides what we are searching for. David says, “Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing before You; Surely every man, even standing firm, is altogether vanity. Selah.” The NASB translates “vanity” at the end as “a mere breath” to correspond with “handbreadths” toward the beginning. That’s the idea. Something that is vanity is here and then gone… it is transitory… it is a waste… it is, as some translations use in Ecclesiastes “meaningless, meaningless.” Ecclesiastes opens with Solomon saying in Ecc 1:2, “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’” In the last chapter, he closes in Ecc 12:8 with, “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’” Life in opposition to God is vanity. Solomon saw and experianced just that in his extended season of rebellion against Him.
Merriam-Webster shows vanity’s breadth with its definition, “inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance, something that is vain, empty, or useless.” In case there’s any question about what the Lord thinks of vanity, He says in Jer 23:16 after the prophets led Judah towards Baal, lying, adultery, strengthening evil, and likely other sins, “Thus says Yahweh of hosts, ‘Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into vanity; They speak a vision of their own heart, Not from the mouth of Yahweh.’” For someone to pursue vanity… in this case, is a life apart from God in sin. Bearing that in mind, we are introduced to Vanity Fair, the sin fair.
What Bunyan does so well, because this allure toward vanity isn’t new in our day, is Bunyan made a not-so-subtle swap. He didn’t just say our world loves vanity, though he could have. No, he said the world is vanity. In particular, he speaks of a town in this way, but as you’ll see in his description of it, he speaks of the world of unbelief. He speaks of the whole world that John says, “lies in the power of the evil one,” in 1 John 5:19.
Here are the ten ways Bunyan speaks of the town of Vanity Fair, which platform our understanding of how to successfully navigate through it. They are presented in a question and answer format.
- 1. Is the town open often? He says that it’s all year. This fair never stops. It’s all the time, it’s always going on. It’s 24/7, 365 days of the year. There’s always an opportunity for people to spend time there.
- 2. What’s the town’s condition? The town is “lighter than vanity.” What a description. It is a town that is in the clouds. It is not in touch with reality; it tries to sidestep all that concerns eternal realities. It wants indulgence without any thought to everlasting recourse.
- 3. Are there new allurements? In Vanity Fair, there is no newly-erected business. How interesting. As the expression goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… Satan’s temptations and allurements still work, including the original enticement “Has God said?”
- 4. Is it old? The town is of ancient standing. It’s not the new, up-and-coming place to be. It’s been around since close to the beginning of time. What has changed is the town has grown and gotten bigger (same allurements, but more people, consider the varied countries of characteristic 9).
- 5. Where is it? The location is on the way to heaven. Not only has the town been around for a while, and not only is it always open, but if you want to go to the Celestial City, you will pass through Vanity Fair. Yes, you who are reading this. Why is the town on the way to heaven? It is there to distract others. To bring things closer to home, it’s there to distract YOU!
- 6. What is sold in town? Many things are sold in Vanity Fair, not all of which are inherently bad (though some of them are). Bunyan writes there are sold “houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as harlots, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and whatnot.” Bunyan’s point is anything that distracts you from your faithfulness to Jesus, be it harlots and silver, or a house and a family… anything that distracts you and leads you away from pure devotion to Jesus Christ is vanity (cf. 1 Cor 6:9–10; Matt 10:37). It’s a call to stay the course.
- 7. What goes on there? There is entertainment designed to distract from eternal matters: “jugglings, cheats, games, plays, fools, apes, knaves, and rogues, and that of every kind.” Even good things can distract from the best things… in our day it could be a play, a sport, a movie, or a television series. Bunyan wants us to think about our lives through the lens of Eph 5:15–16, “Therefore look carefully how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” This is a pointed word for our day. While it’s not inherently wrong to go to a movie or play a game (cf. 1 Cor 10:31, Col 3:17), the emphasis is that pilgrims should not waste their lives on that is less profitable for eternal realities.
- 8. Who makes up the town? The people of the town are: “that for nothing, thefts, murders, adulteries, false-swearers, and that of a blood-red color.” Those that occupy this town love it and are those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 6:9–10). Bunyan’s indirectly asking what company you want to keep, the godly or ungodly? There’s certainly a place to be a friend of sinners in evangelism, but it needs to be balanced with bad company corrupting good morals and the need to be with the body (cf. Matt 11:19; 1 Cor 15:33; Heb 10:25).
- 9. Is there a particular location in mind for this town? The countries of the world are represented there, “Here is the Britain Row, the French Row, the Italian Row, the Spanish Row, the German Row.” Not only are people there from characteristic 8, but Bunyan shows us the countries are part of the vanity. National pride, delicacies, and the like are there to persuade and entice people away from heaven. Bunyan wasn’t saying that there are only European countries that make up this fair. He was writing for those around him, of which most would be from those locations. Add America to the list (and the state of Texas as well, lots of state pride here).
- 10. Did our Representative go through this town or avoid it? Jesus Himself went through Vanity Fair, and Beelzebub, the chief lord of the fair, showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world and its vanities. Here’s a great line from Bunyan, “but He had no mind to the merchandise.” I love that. In that statement, we see our model. As Jesus paid no mind to the distractions of the world, neither should we. There’s a place for enjoying Christ in our families, in the good things He provides, but we must never substitute them for Him. Christian and Faithful didn’t, as we’ll see, and neither should we.
At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “well, that’s the article.” Actually, that was all background information for the seven keys to hear “well done.” If you’ve read this far, please continue to read to see why all of this matters.
One of the most comforting and serious passages in the Bible is found in the parable of the talents. In it, we see the future of those who love Jesus and those who do not. For those that love Jesus, seen in following Him, they hear the words in Matt 25:21, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” The words “well done,” warm the soul. But for the one who does not love Jesus but merely claimed to, “You wicked, lazy slave… throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The response and contrast are polarizing. It makes the story of Christian and Faithful that much more important for us. If you want to survive… if you want to thrive spiritually in the midst of Vanity Fair, amid this world, Bunyan, building upon the logic of Scripture, gives you seven lessons of faithfulness that show you how to successfully navigate the world. All of which revolve around obeying our Lord.
Lesson one: “Buy the truth.” This might be the last, first lesson, that you’d expect, yet it’s exactly where Bunyan believes we should begin in Vanity Fair. As Christian and Faithful went into the fair, they looked different from the world, spoke differently, and weren’t amused by what was going on. What really upset the town of Vanity Fair is when they were asked “what will you buy?” and they responded, “We buy the truth.” If you remember from earlier in Q&A #5, truth wasn’t on the list of what is sold in Vanity Fair. The pilgrims were not in the world to succumb to living for the world and falling headlong into its devices. Instead, like their Savior, they appealed to God’s word in the face of temptation. In Prov 23:23, Solomon says to his sons, “Buy truth, and do not sell it, get wisdom and discipline and understanding.”
Bunyan is teaching that we are to invest in what truly matters in this life–the Lord’s purposes. Christian and Faithful weren’t going to throw all their money to the world, they were going to invest it in the Lord’s causes (cf. 2 Cor 9:7; Prov 3:9–10; 3 John 8). They were going to seek out the truth, spend their time in the truth, be with people of the truth, and learn from those who teach the truth. How does the world respond to those that won’t join in their party? “At that there was an occasion taken to despise the men the more: some mocking, some taunting, some speaking reproachfully, and some calling on others to smite them.” The world is tolerant of those who are tolerant of their sins. The world is hostile towards those who won’t participate in their sins.
Lesson two: you must dwell on eternity. The town of Vanity Fair is rebuked for having its head in the clouds in avoiding eternal things… for the godly, there is a place for us to have our head in the clouds dwelling upon eternal realities. Our heads aren’t always in the clouds, but we are called to be a people that “set [our] minds on things above, not on things on the earth,” Col 3:1. Our citizenship is in heaven, with our Lord, according to Paul in Phil 3:20–21.
The call from Bunyan is to be motivated in this life toward faithfulness by thinking of being with Jesus (cf. 1 Pet 1:3–9). When Christian and Faithful are brought to trial, though they had done no wrong, here’s what they said. “The men told them that they were pilgrims and strangers in the world and that they were going to their own country, which was the heavenly Jerusalem.” They have fixed their gaze upon being with Jesus (cf. Heb 12:1–2). They are pressing on, like Paul who said in Phil 3:13–14, “... forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Faithfulness in this world looks like a fixation on eternity. It looks like persevering to the end.
Lesson three: do not revile when reviled. To revile when reviled is the quickest way to pour kerosine on a burning fire. In fact, Prov 15:1 says this, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Prov 15:18 states, “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger quiets a dispute.” Christian and Faithful are like Jesus, in not speaking evil of others, even though it's what was done to them (cf. Is 53:7; 1 Pet 2:23; Matt 5:39). Bunyan says, “But, the men being patient, and ‘not rendering railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing,’ and giving good words for bad, and kindness for injuries done, some men in the fair that were more observing and less opposed than the rest, began to check and blame the baser sort for their continual abuses done by them to the men.” Here is an example of the world turning on its own because of injustice done to the pilgrims. As Bunyan continues, some deduce, “... there were many that traded in their fair that were more worthy to be put into the cage, yea, and pillory too, than were the men that they had abused.” What an example of Matt 5:16, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” He writes, “Christian and Faithful behaved themselves yet more wisely, and received the wrongs and shame that were cast upon them with so much meekness and patience, that it won to their side (though but few in comparison of the rest) several of the men in the fair.” Some will be won to the truth in seeing others sacrifice for the gospel. They will dwell upon the good news, and the Lord will save them. Which bridges us to the next lesson.
Lesson four: recall faithful counsel from the body. God has given the gift of exhortation and encouragement to the body so that we would remember and be motivated by past Biblical counsel (cf. Rom 12:8). Bunyan says, “Here, therefore, they called again to mind what they had heard from their faithful friend Evangelist, and were more confirmed in their way and sufferings, by what he told them would happen to them.” Evangelist had told them, “The crown is before you, and it is an incorruptible one: so run that you may obtain it… My sons, you have heard, in the words of the truth of the Gospel, that you must ‘through many trials enter into the kingdom of heaven;’ and again, that ‘in every city bonds and afflictions await you;’ and therefore you cannot expect that you should go long on your pilgrimage without them in some sort or other.’” The Christian life is a life that is full of difficulty. Joy, yes, certainly yes… there’s more joy to be found in Christ than in all of the world (cf. John 15:11; 16:24). But the Christian life is one of taking up your cross to follow Jesus, on a road lined with persecution (Luke 9:23; 2 Tim 3:12). Evangelist would go on to mention that one of them would lay down their life soon, but that individual will arrive at that moment at the Celestial City, into the reward of his Master.
This brings us to an otherworldly implication. Surviving and thriving in Vanity Fair does not mean living a long life in this world or one without persecution, it means being faithful in the world with the time you have been given by God. Faithful, in keeping with his name, would lay down His life for Christ, and through his testimony, Hopeful and others dwelt upon the gospel, Jesus’ sinless life, substitutionary death in the place of sinners, and resurrection to life from the grave, and they believed in Him. The measure of a man’s life isn’t how long he lives, rather, it’s who he lives his life for and how he conducts himself in this world.
Bunyan would later write, “Now, I saw in my dream, that Christian went forth not alone; for there was one whose name was Hopeful (being so made by looking upon Christian and Faithful in their words and behavior in their sufferings at the fair,) who joined himself unto him, and, entering into a brotherly pledge told him that he would be his companion. Thus one died to show faithfulness to the truth, and another rises out of his ashes to be a companion with Christian in his pilgrimage. This Hopeful also told Christian that there were many more of the men in the fair that would take their time and follow after.” How that has occurred in the past and continues to this day in God’s providence.
Lesson five: comfort others in the faith. To hear “well done” and make your way through the world, you need other brothers and sisters around you. Any body part cut off from the body will not survive, you don’t even need a medical degree to realize that. Paul tells us that Christians are of one spiritual body in 1 Cor 12:12–13, “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For also by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” We must live like we are Christ’s body. Paul goes on to explain how each member has been gifted to serve the body out of a desire to honor our Lord. Bunyan says of Christian and Faithful, “They also now comforted each other, that whose lot it was to suffer, even he should have the best of it; therefore each man secretly wished he might have that privilege.”
We, as the body, need each other. If you love the Lord Jesus Christ, you should be plugged into a local church and serve others (cf. 1 Cor 12–14). Your brothers and sisters need you, whether you realize it or not. Christian and Faithful needed each other. In Heb 3:13 and 10:24–25, we read, “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
Lesson six: rest in God’s sovereignty in all situations. If God is sovereign, which He is, and if He promises good to those who love Him, which He does… then do you ever have any reason not to trust Him (1 Tim 6:15; Rom 8:28)? Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that all seasons of your life will be rainbows and butterflies… but even when you’re in the valley of the shadow of death who is with you? Ps 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” Christian and Faithful were in a trial, but both loved the Lord and trusted Him. Bunyan states, “But, committing themselves to the all-wise disposal of Him that ruleth all things, with much content they abode in the condition in which they were, until they should be otherwise disposed of.” They trusted in God’s purpose. It’s what Bunyan did when he was wrongly imprisoned for over 12 years. We should too.
Lesson seven: exult in the truth. We are not only to buy the truth, we are to be a people of the truth. We are to speak the truth, that which accords with reality. And that includes providing testimony of the Lord Himself, who is the truth. When Faithful and Christian are on trial, we read, “Then Faithful began to answer, that he had only set himself against that which had set itself against Him that is higher than the highest. "And," said he, "as for disturbances, I make none, being myself a man of peace; the parties that were won to us, were won by beholding our truth and innocence, and they are only turned from the worse to the better.” He goes on to say in giving a response to Mr. Superstition’s claim, “I said only this, that in the worship of God there is required true faith. But there can be no true faith without a knowledge of the will of God. Therefore, whatever is thrust into the worship of God that is not agreeable to the word of God will not profit to eternal life.” Faithful speaks about the Lord because Faithful loves the Lord. His character demonstrated it, and he would tell others about the Lord. He would communicate the truth about the one that He loves and worships. That’s what a loyal disciple does.
Now, to be clear, there are more than seven lessons that can be found in the section on Vanity Fair. If you have read the book and read thus far in this article, you might add one or two more. Bunyan cared so much about those around him that he wrote this work to help Christians navigate through this world, through this Vanity Fair, in a way that honors and upholds God’s word. He saw individuals, as you likely have, who have gotten caught up and ensnared by the vanity of this world. As opposed to relying upon the Lord, and being strengthened by His might, they have fallen into enjoying the fallen passing pleasures of this world as though it were heaven. Let this be an encouragement to you to press on in this life toward the upward call in Christ Jesus. Do not lose your soul in Vanity Fair, aka, the world. Instead, live out the seven keys to hear “well done:” buy the truth, dwell on eternity, do not revile when reviled, recall faithful counsel, comfort others, rest in God’s sovereignty, and exult in the truth.
To close, I will leave you with the words of Charles Spurgeon on this topic, “The happiest state of a Christian is the holiest state. As there is most heat nearest to the sun, so there is most happiness nearest to Christ. No Christian enjoys comfort when his eyes are fixed on vanity. I do not blame ungodly men for rushing to their pleasures. Let them have their fill. That is all they have to enjoy, but Christians must seek their delights in a higher sphere than the insipid frivolities of the world.”