Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
— The apostle Paul (1 Cor 1:31, NRSV)
The statement comes early in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians — what does that tell you about the church in Corinth? It’s probably a reference to God’s words through the prophet Jeremiah:
Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24)
Right out of the gate in 1 Corinthians, Paul is dealing with divisions in the church over leadership. He uses words reminiscent of Jeremiah:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. (1 Cor 1:26)
The upshot is, it’s not about you, it’s about God. That’s why Paul can “boast” of his weakness and even of his suffering for the gospel (e.g., 2 Cor 11). It’s not about what Paul can do in his own power; it’s about the privilege of having God work in and through his weakness.
But the Corinthians, apparently, loved to boast, or to use the language of the King James Version, to find ways to cover themselves in “glory.” And as we’ve seen in earlier posts, The boasting of some was probably leading to alienation and resentment in others.
That’s why Paul insists that love isn’t “boastful or arrogant” (1 Cor 13:4).
Though the theme of boasting permeates both of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul uses a different and unusual word here. Put simply, the word describes someone going blah, blah, blah — possibly about how wonderful and accomplished they are. In context, Paul is probably pointing to the braggadocio of those who think they are spiritually superior to their brothers and sisters because they have the gift of speaking in tongues. Similarly, Paul’s word “arrogant” can be translated as “puffed up.” Imagine someone whose chest is swelled with pride; they are literally and figuratively full of hot air.
We may not think of ourselves as braggarts. After all, there’s that guy, the one who monopolizes every conversation, who constantly draws attention to himself, who flaunts his success. We’re never as bad as that.
Perhaps not. But we do have more subtle ways of fishing for compliments.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not necessarily bad to tell people of our accomplishments. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong, for example, with saying, “I tried this new recipe last night, and it was amazing.” The question is the motivation. Are we simply wanting to share a wonderful experience with someone? Fine. But if the implication is I’m more amazing than you, that’s not love. Puffed-up, unloving speech and behavior puts relationships at risk.
If you’ve done something well, it’s not wrong to take pride in that fact. But we have to keep things in the right perspective. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asks the Corinthians, who want to believe overmuch in their wisdom and sophistication. “And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7). All that we are, all that we have, is from God; our stance should always be one of both gratitude and humility.
Thus, boasting that comes from true delight in the things of God is one thing.
But boasting that comes from wanting to get a leg up on someone else is another.
If we’re to learn what it means to love, we’ll need to know the difference.