The boast with the most

bplanet / freedigitalphotos.net
bplanet / freedigitalphotos.net

Christians are supposed to be humble, right? Then how can Paul say that there is a legitimate way to boast?

Paul’s opponents in Corinth have been building themselves up at his expense, trying to win influence by bragging about their own spirituality and accomplishments. As we saw in the previous post, Paul doesn’t criticize them simply for boasting, but for having the wrong standard of measure.

But what’s the right standard? Paul writes:

We, however, will not boast beyond limits, but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us, to reach out even as far as you. For we were not overstepping our limits when we reached you; we were the first to come all the way to you with the good news of Christ. We do not boast beyond limits, that is, in the labors of others; but our hope is that, as your faith increases, our sphere of action among you may be greatly enlarged, so that we may proclaim the good news in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in someone else’s sphere of action. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends. (2 Cor 10:13-18, NRSV)

Paul’s original language in this passage is notoriously complex. But his general line of thought seems clear enough. First, there is a “limit” within which boasting may be appropriate, namely the boundary of the “field” or “sphere of action” (the word, literally, is “canon”) one has been assigned by God. For Paul, that sphere of influence includes Corinth and its people.

Second, the basis of one’s boast has to do with what’s happened inside that sphere (not someone else’s). Paul was the first to be sent to Corinth with the gospel, and through his preaching, people believed in Jesus and a church was founded. That is his boast, and his alone. As impressively spiritual or well-spoken as his opponents might be, they can’t make the same claim (and this should be obvious to the Corinthians!).

But third, if Paul boasts about what’s happened in Corinth (just as the Corinthians are metaphorically his “letter of reference,” 2 Cor 3:1-3), it’s a boast about what God has done through him, and thus, in reality, a boast in God. Paul hopes that his sphere of influence in Corinth will expand as the Corinthians, now repentant of their earlier mistakes, grow in faith, and Paul looks to an even larger field of harvest.

The basic principle is one he has written to the Corinthians before (1 Cor 1:31), quoted from the prophet Jeremiah: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (cf. Jer 9:24). The quote is not exact. Jeremiah speaks of boasting in the knowledge of who God truly is — the one who acts with kindness, justice, and righteousness. But we can assume that Paul is of one mind with the prophet. The spread of the gospel — even to Corinth! — shows God’s gracious character, and in this, Paul will gladly boast.

I suspect that we’re all much better at boasting according to self-oriented and worldly standards than we are at boasting in the Lord. The latter would mean knowing what sphere of influence God has given to us, and learning to rejoice in the ways God works through us within those boundaries.

If that were the case, what would change about the way we think, feel, and behave? More on that in the next post.