SHOULD WE BOAST? IT ALL DEPENDS

Should we boast? My inclination is to say “no.” There are numerous warnings against pride and calls for humility for the people of God in the Bible. Pride is generally ugly and boasting is usually irritating.

That’s why a lot of people, if they don’t already know it, will be surprised to learn that the Bible actually tells us to boast.

In I Corinthians 1:31 the Apostle Paul paraphrases Jeremiah 9:24, “Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’.” Before this quotation Paul reminds his readers that when they became Christians they were not in the upper class. In the second part of verse 26 he writes, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” But in spite of that, and because they had no reason to boast, God chose them. But now that they are in Christ, if they are going to boast, they should boast in the Lord.

To get a better grasp of what is being said, I think it is helpful to review the context and fuller statement of Jeremiah from which Paul borrows. Jeremiah 9:23 tells us the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches.” It reminds me of what Paul told the Corinthians they were lacking when they became Christians.

But then in Jeremiah 9:24 Jeremiah continues, “but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight.” That sounds like the reasoning Paul gave for God choosing the Corinthians.

So we know what we aren’t to boast about (and not everything that we are not to boast about is listed in Jeremiah 9:23), and what we are to boast about: God, who He is, and that we know him. But I don’t think that means we are to be smug about it, but that our boasting is to be humble and not self-serving.

As Christians we do know God, but we don’t know or understand everything about him. To act and talk like we do is not the kind of boasting the Bible calls for.

Last week I was working on a Bible study I am teaching and in my preparation came across a quote by Frederick Dale Bruner I had underlined when I first read the book in 2013. In the book THE HOLY SPIRIT: Shy Member of the Trinity Bruner notes there is an attitude that “is confident that, in at least some divine matters, it has the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Hence, it is prepared to cast into the outer darkness all who do not agree with it” (p. 67). I’m confident that is not what God, Jeremiah, or Paul meant when suggesting we boast in the Lord.

Have you ever been confident that you had the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about God? I have, and I was wrong.

Should we boast? Yes; but if we boast we should do so with and in a spirit of humility.

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AMBITION: GOOD OR BAD?

Is ambition a good or bad thing? My response is something of a cop out: I don’t know; it all depends. How would you answer? Like many words, ambition can be used in a variety of ways. Some of the ways it is used make it a bad thing. On the other hand, some of the ways it is used make it a good thing.

The definitions given for ambition suggest both the good and bad. For example, one online definition describes ambition as “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” Nothing wrong with that. But the next description of the word is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.” Not so appealing.

Another entry says ambition is “a particular goal or aim, something that a person hopes to do or achieve.” Again, nothing wrong with that. But then comes the description “a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous.” Again, two of the three words are not as positive.

William Barclay discusses the Greek work in his book New Testament Words with the title “The Wrong Kind of Ambition.” He reports that in the beginning it was a perfectly respectable word meaning “labor for wages.” But with the passing of time the meaning of the word degenerated to describe something a person did “simply and solely for his [sic] own honor and glory and for his [sic] own profit.” The word is used seven times in the New Testament and always has a negative implication.

The best known and clearest usage of the word in the Bible is in the Apostle Paul’s instruction to Christians in Philippians 2:3a, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (NIV). I think the NIV’s addition of the adjective selfish to ambition captures the degeneration of the word Barclay traces. The NLT renders the warning, “Don’t be selfish; don’t live to make a good impression on others.” And in The Message Eugene Peterson has Paul caution, “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.”

In the next chapter in the letter Paul doesn’t use the actual word, but I think he is writing about his ambition and what I would call good ambition. He writes in Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

In his review of a book of essays about ambition James A.K. Smith makes a couple of observations that ring true and are descriptive of Paul’s ambition. One is that “the opposite of ambition is not humility; it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.” And he is right to note the ambitious are not always prideful and arrogant. His second observation is that “it is the telos [goal] of ambition that distinguishes good from bad, separating faithful aspiration from self-serving aggrandizement.”

At the age of 66 I am not as ambitious as I was in years gone by, but I haven’t lost all my ambition. I pray my ambitions are not self-serving or arrogant. I hope they are more in line with the Apostle Paul’s—to become more and more the person God has called me to be as a follower of Jesus.

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IT’S A NEW YEAR – SO WHAT?

With the ending of the year this week a lot of us are thinking about changes we would like to make in the coming year. Some will make resolutions, of course, while others will be less specific in considering how they would like to do better. It is true, in a sense, that when we move from December 31 to January 1 this week it will be just another Saturday to Sunday, but it also will mark the beginning of a New Year. I am among those who like to give consideration to at least a few positive changes I would like to make as we turn the calendar from one year to another.

During October, November, and December Jan and I have already made one gigantic change in selling our house, moving to Texas, and making arrangements to buy a new one. I am also using the occasion, as I generally have in the past, to specify a few challenges for myself. A couple have to do with my health, of which I will not bore you, and one is a general spiritual challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot the last couple of weeks about the Apostle Paul’s challenge in Ephesians 4:1, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” I don’t think he is talking about a specific “calling” to be a pastor or missionary or whatever, but the general calling to be a Christian—a disciple of Jesus. In other words, the urging to live a life worthy of the calling you have received is for all of us who have said yes to the Lord. But what does it mean “to live a life worthy of the calling” we have received? It certainly can’t mean that having been accepted, forgiven, and saved by grace we are now supposed to measure up by becoming worthy in ourselves.

I looked at a variety of other translations and got some help from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. He paraphrases, “I want you to get out there and walk on the road God called you to travel.” The way I am taking Paul’s challenge for myself is to continually give myself to living as a Christian and making progress in it. And the key for me is the phrase “making progress.” None of us would have to look too far in the New Testament, or think very much about living the Christian life,  to come up with a couple of specifics we could focus on with the beginning of another year.

What I’ve become more convicted of the past few weeks is the Bible’s general call for and Jesus’ specific teaching about humility. Two teachings from Jesus that have my attention are Luke 14:11, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” and Luke 18:9, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” Clear instruction from Paul that challenges me is in the middle of Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” I had already been thinking about this matter, and then read in a book last night that living the Christian life is not compatible with self-aggrandizement. I looked the word up and self-aggrandizement is “the practice of enhancing or exaggerating one’s own importance, power, reputation, status, etc.” To me this sounds like what both the Bible in general and Jesus in specific tells us not to do.

I have no idea what specific area or areas you may want to make progress in this coming year, but for me it is chipping away at pride and cultivating humility. I’m using this post as a first step. If you would like to join me I encourage you to read the passages I have cited in their context, especially the two parables of Jesus in Luke 14 and 18. It’s a New Year – so what? It’s an opportunity for us to give ourselves to making some progress in living the Christian life. It’s up to you whether or not you do.

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