Sunday, 25 March 2012

on Boasting


2 Corinthians 12:1-10

There are times when we have to boast.

I was talking to someone last week who is looking for a job. She has not done an interview for many years. And she was finding it very hard: she was not used to blowing her own trumpet, to selling herself, to saying how great she was.

And sometimes as Christians we do struggle with the idea that there are times when we need to promote ourselves. We struggle with the idea of boasting.

And that should be the case. It may be necessary at times, but we need to recognise that when we boast, we become fools

Paul begins this chapter by saying: 'I must go on boasting'. He has begun boasting in chapter 10:7

But he recognises that although his boasting is necessary, it is actually 'a little foolishness' (11:1); he asks his listeners to 'accept him as a fool, so that I too may boast' (11:16). He finishes the whole section by writing (12:11), 'I have been a fool!'

Perhaps Paul would agree with Thomas Fuller who said, "Every ass loves to hear himself bray".

1.      We become fools because we usually boast in the wrong things:

Recently there were several politicians who boasted about smoking pot at university, how many pints they had drunk in the past, and how many sexual partners they had had. It was, to a point, refreshing to have people be honest. But they were perceived to be fools, because they were boasting about things that they should not have been boasting about.

And yet I am not sure that we are that much different when we boast about our wealth, the famous people we know, honours or titles, qualifications, gifts, experiences, acts of valour (how many enemies we have slain, how big our church is)

When we boast about something we identify ourself with it. We say, this is part of me and I'm proud of it. Indeed I would go further and say that when we boast about something, we make that particular thing at that particular moment the most important thing in our life. What is it, at this particular moment, that I want you to know about me? I want you to know that I have a doctorate, or that I'm part of an extremely successful business/school/church, or that I can drink 10 pints and still put a thread through a needle.

And the reason that that makes us into fools is because if we make those things our ultimate hope, we are going to be disappointed.

2.   We become fools when we boast because we usually start to make claims that are not true.

There are times when we need to boast according to the flesh (2 Corinthians 11:18). There are times when we need to say, 'This is what I have achieved; this is what I have done; this is what I am good at; these are my qualifications'.

But when you have to boast of what you have done and can do, when you do have to sell yourself - speak the truth.

I remember with horror one interview when I was a fool. I was asked what reading I had done on the subject that I was applying for - Anthropology. I hadn't done any. But on the way up on the train I had looked at the back of a book by Margaret Mead. So I said, 'I've read this book'. And the next question was: 'What did you think of it'?

And even if what we say is true, we also need to watch out for exaggeration: things get bigger. The fish that we caught, the dragon that we faced, the miracle that we experienced grew bigger.

"An exaggeration is a truth that has lost its temper." Kahlil Gibran

"Some persons are exaggerators by temperament. They do not mean untruth, but their feelings are strong, and their imaginations vivid, so that their statements are largely discounted by those of calm judgment and cooler temperament. They do not realize that we always weaken what we exaggerate." Tryon Edwards

And as an aside: Do not boast about things that you would like to happen but have not yet happened.

In 1 Kings 20, there is the story of Ben-Hadad, King of Syria. He brings an army and surrounds Samaria, and claims that it already belongs to him. And Ahab, the king of Israel answered, Tell him, Let not him who straps on his armour boast himself as he who takes it off. 1 Kings 20:11

James 4:13-15, "Come now, you who say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that. As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."

And yes, we do have to sell ourselves at interviews, and it is a form of boasting. In the Kingdom of Heaven we won't have to do it because we will see every person exactly as they are. But if you have to boast, then make sure that what you are saying is the truth. Otherwise we become a fool.

Paul writes (2 Corinthians 12:6),  '.. if I should wish to boast I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth'.

3.   We become fools when we boast because we usually boast to build ourselves up.

We boast either because we have such a self-inflated ego, or - and I suspect this is more true - in order to build up our self-identity. We want others to think better of us, so that we can think better of ourselves.

So in 2 Corinthians 10:12, Paul writes, 'When they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding'.

"There is nothing quite so dead as a self-centred man - a man who holds himself up as a self-made success, and measures himself by himself and is pleased with the result."
-- Wesley G. Huber, D.D.

Paul's boasting here is very different:

He has been forced to boast. He is not boasting because he thinks he is something good. He is not boasting to build himself up. Instead he is boasting in order to do what he believes God is calling him to do.

If you like, he has been put into an interview situation.

False apostles, false teachers have come to the church in Corinth. They've put themselves up for the job of church overseer. They have boasted. They have made big claims about themselves. They have spoken of the amazing things that they have experienced; of the astonishing miracles they have performed; of the astounding works that they have done; They have boasted of how important they are. And at the same time they have rubbished Paul.

2 Corinthians 10:10, "For they say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account'."

(I like that. Paul could certainly write, but it appears that he did not have a physical presence and that he was not a great speaker (cf 11:6). People tend to think that you can only be big on the Christian scene if you can speak well. Think again.)

And the Christians in Corinth have been wowed by these false apostles.
And as a result they have listened to their message and they are beginning to believe a different message about Jesus to the message that Paul preached.

And Paul is desperately concerned for them. He brought the good news of Jesus to them. He loves them. He does not want them to wander off on a path that will ultimately lead them to destruction (11:2-3).

So Paul, on this occasion, matches fire with fire. He starts to boast himself. He boasts:

a.    about the call of God on his life to be an apostle, about the authority which God has given him, an authority which extended to the Corinthian church. But it is an authority to be a servant of Jesus, to build people up and not destroy them (10:8)
b.    about being a better servant of Christ than the so-called super-apostles. He gives evidence, not in terms of what he has accomplished for Christ, but in terms of what he has suffered for Christ, and his love for fellow believers. The second half of chapter 11 is critical in our understanding of how we should measure success in the Christian world.
c.    about an experience that he has had. We read about that in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. It is significant that Paul is very cautious when he boasts this. He describes it in terms of a third person, 'I know a man', although we know that it is him. And we need to remember that Paul was writing this to a small community of believers who he personally knew. I am not sure he would have written this if he had known this would be read by a multi national, multi temporal, multi billion audience.

But Paul recognises that in this boasting he is being a fool.

Brothers and sisters, there are times when as Christian believers we need to engage in this foolish boasting.

We may need at times to affirm our human qualifications (as Paul does in 11:22)
We may at times need to affirm the authority which God has given us to go to all nations and make disciples. And if God has called you to something specific you may at times need to affirm and declare that call.
We may at times need to speak of some of the things God has done through us
We may at times need to be prepared to speak of hardships that we have suffered for him
We may at times need to be prepared to speak of some of those moments when God has met with us.

It is foolish boasting, but because we live in this world, there are times when it has to be done. There are times when we do need to exalt ourselves for the sake of the message about Jesus.

Because there is a kind of boasting that is not foolish

2 Corinthians 10:17, 'Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord'.

We live in a world in which people boast about themselves, their achievements and their products.

Jesus Christ trumps the lot. He is our creator, our saviour, our lover. He is our past, our present and our future. He was before time began, he lived on earth as a human being. He died and rose again. He is the conqueror of death. He will come at the end of time to be our judge. And he is our source, our guide, our inspiration, our strength and our destiny.

When we boast in him we are no fools, for he really is our ultimate hope.

And Paul delights to boast in the things that make him look smaller and Jesus look greater.  Here is no superhero. Here is a man who, he writes, was so hated and hunted that on one occasion, he had to be let down out of a window in the town walls in a washing basket (11:32-33). That is not the stuff of super heroes.

That is why he has no hesitation in boasting about the things that make him look weak.

2 Corinthians 11:30, 'If I must boast I will boast of the things that show my weakness'.
2 Corinthians 12:9, 'Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me'.

And so here in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that this remarkable vision that he had had would have made him conceited. It would have made him think that he was a cut above other Christians. So he immediately tells us about the affliction (we don't actually know what it was: It might have been a speech impediment, an eye problem, recurring headaches, a struggle with loneliness: it doesn't really matter), and he tells us that he prayed on three occasions - asking God to take the affliction away. But that prayer was not answered in the way that he desired. Instead God spoke to him and said, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'. And in v10, Paul goes on to mention persecutions, insults, hardships and - do you notice the last word - difficulties. In another translation it is the word 'calamities'.

Affliction, the sin of conceit, God saying 'no' to your prayers, hostility and calamity. It is not really stuff to proclaim if you want to make yourself look strong and good.

But Paul has begun to discover the reality that God can most use us when we are not strong but weak, when we are out of our comfort zone, when we are most dependent on him.

And Paul does not want to make himself look good.
He wants people to know that it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is good.

Jeremiah 9:23-24: Thus says the LORD: Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.

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