Bragging rights and bragging rightly

Do you ever daydream of being someone important?  Famous?  Respected?  Envied?

My family and friends understand that I am an introvert, indeed, a fairly strong introvert.  But for better or worse, by virtue of my career and ministry, I am also a public person.

There’s an awkward liability that comes with that.  I can write, teach, or preach about humility–then someone will come to me in appreciation and, without meaning to do so, tempt me to pride.  Believe me, I don’t require much encouragement to run willingly down that road.

The problem is compounded by the fact that I work in academia, an environment which is essentially a meritocracy.  Even Christian academia.  In order to continue moving up the ranks, you have to be “productive,” by publishing or doing other things that attract public notice.  If you are not productive, you don’t simply stall at a particular rank.  Eventually, you’re politely asked to leave.

Years ago, I told my provost that I was uncomfortable with a system in which I had to write self-congratulatory reports about my own work in order to be considered for advancement.  He understood the problem, but had no answer.  “How else would we know what you’ve done?” he asked, matter-of-factly.

Oh, well.  It’s not as if I had a realistic alternative to propose.

We live in a world that encourages people to seek fame and bragging rights.  So vacuous is our cultural notion of celebrity that it’s possible to be famous for being famous, even when people have no idea how someone’s name became news in the first place.

But the desire to be “somebody” is not a modern invention.  As we have seen in earlier posts, the Christians in Corinth tended to be a proud bunch, despite their generally humble origins.  They lived in a culture of social climbing and status seeking, values that were contorting their life together as a church.

Maybe that sounds a teensy bit familiar?

Against the Corinthians’ tendency to seek reasons to boast, Paul writes:

So no human being can brag in God’s presence.  It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.  This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord!  (1 Cor 1:29-31, CEB)

God is the one who took the initiative; he chose them, and not because of any specific merit on their part.  What matters is not the worldly wisdom that they think will give them status, but true wisdom, God’s wisdom, embodied in the seemingly foolish gospel of the cross.  In Christ Jesus, Paul suggests, we are made right with God, set apart for his purposes, and redeemed from our slavery to sin in order to serve the one who freed us.

As he writes, Paul seems to have the prophet Jeremiah in mind:

The Lord proclaims: the learned should not boast of their knowledge, nor warriors boast of their might, nor the rich boast of their wealth.  No, those who boast should boast in this: that they understand and know me.  I am the Lord who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness in the world, and I delight in these things, declares the Lord.  (Jer 9:23-24, CEB)

Knowledge, might, wealth: in Corinth, these took the form of “wisdom,” social influence, and class status.  None of these, Paul insists, confer bragging rights.  Personal boasting is set aside in favor of boasting in God, not in a self-serving way (“Hey, look at me!  I understand and know God!”) but a worshipful one (“How amazing it is to know such a kind and righteous God!”).

It’s not about you, and it’s not about me; it’s about God.  In what ways do we forget this?  And what happens to the life of the church when we do?