An individual’s worth and consequently his respect in the community was dependent on the status he was able to project. . . . It was a time when everyone yearned for an admiring public. The pursuit of the upward mobility thus turned into a quest for applause and esteem. . . . When people turned to evaluate their contemporaries they looked for the same evidence of personal worth and glory that they prized for themselves.
This is a description of society. And if the shoe fits, I suppose we could wear it. The only problem here is that it’s a very old shoe — like a 2,000 year-old shoe. The leading quotation is from Tim Savage’s book, Power Through Weakness, where he digs into the first-century context of the Corinthian church — a context that sounds eerily similar to our own.
Corinth, a boom city of diverse inhabitants, was the perfect mesh of Greek and Roman culture. The Late Hellenism influence, according to Savage, introduced a staunch individualism that stressed a person’s ability to determine his or her own worth. Then, thrown into this mix, “the Roman emphasis on social stratification” gave citizens a chart to measure that worth. In other words, Corinth was home to a crowd of self-motivated platform-builders and a social setting that encouraged celebrity comparisons. It was a city of me-monsters who loved to rank one another, and who especially snubbed those who appeared pathetic.
The Self-Glory Piece
The interesting thing about old Corinth, and various cities in our modern West, is not that any of our characteristics are entirely new, but that certain conditions accent characteristics we’d usually not see. Affluence, especially in the boom-type, opens the door for accelerated glory-chasing. Tired societies that exist under the fat thumb of insecure despots stay boring, and very sad. Without doubt, the curse of sin is as rampant in these societies as anywhere, but the visual of sin is typically concentrated on its leader, not the masses. In more freed societies, however, the picture of sin’s curse is widely put on display.
In a society like ours that values expressive individualism — where everyone is encouraged to indulge their fancies for all to see — we get multiple angles on humanity’s greatness and lostness. Collectively, this free-for-all actually conforms a particular culture to a common theme. Arguably, that theme in first-century Corinth was self-glory. They loved boasting. And while each culture over history has had its own peculiarities, the self-glory piece is always going to be there somewhere.
But why is that? What is it about us humans that makes us care so much about our own glory? What is this glory-chasing so common throughout the history of mankind?
Glory in Our Blood
First, and put simply, humans are glorious. The Bible is so clear about that. God created man and woman in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26–28), and therefore, he set us apart from every other creature on the planet. God spoke us into existence to uniquely reflect his majesty and worth. We are of more value than the birds (Matthew 6:26). We have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). We are supposed to look up in the sky, or over the satellite footage of our galaxy, and we should think, God, who are we? But you made us and crowned us with honor and glory and put us over this place (Psalm 8:3–8). It’s like Trufflehunter said of Narnia, this is not man’s country, but it is a country for men to be king of.
Consider the terms Paul uses to explain sin: It is our lacking God’s glory (Romans 3:23). It’s not that we have a hunger for glory, per se, but that we lack the very One who makes us glorious and we’ve gone wild searching for substitutes (Romans 1:24–25). Glory-chasing is first common among humans because we recognize, even if unstated, that glory is in our blood.
Now or Never
But second, glory-chasing is especially common to humans now because, at least culturally, humans think that now is all there is. This comes from a rather recent phenomenon of our secular age that recalibrates everyday life as if there were no tomorrow. It lops off the idea of transcendence and shouts carpe diem!
Think about it: If all we have is this life, then we’d better go-for-broke on recovering that glory for which we’re destined. That glory hunger, if it is going to be satisfied, must be satisfied here, and it’s all up to you. This is precisely the kind of mindset that produces domineering leadership and unethical play-calls. If being the best now is really the pursuit, then other people are immaterial and cutting corners to gain an advantage is small beans. So it goes in the dog-eat-dog world of Corinth, and America.
Turned Upside Down
But the insane thing about all this is that God sends us here to live in the midst of it. He wants us to call this place home, at least for now. We are commissioned to serve those who, by their estimation, inhabit a “now or never” world.
God doesn’t tell us to flee from this glory-hungry place; he gives us a mission within it (Matthew 28:18–20; 1 Corinthians 5:9–10).
He doesn’t tell us to forget about glory; he assures us that we’ll find it (Romans 8:21).
He doesn’t tell us not to boast; he teaches us how (1 Corinthians 1:31).
God doesn’t tell us not to boast; he teaches us how.
Now, it’s this last point on boasting that particularly hinges on those before it: God has sent us here in hope. We are here, but we are not of here (John 17:14; Philippians 3:20). God has made us glorious, and he will recover that glory for us, giving us new bodies conformed to the glorious body of Jesus (Romans 8:21–23; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 1 John 3:2).
So, as we’ve seen, there is a lot of awesomeness here — a lot of wonder and power and glory — similar to what human glory-mongers want. But the key, turn-your-world-upside difference is that this glory isn’t the showy kind that happens here, nor is it the product of our own doing. In other words, the real kind of glory for which we hunger is not of this world and it won’t come by our work.
These two aspects, therefore, determine the way we boast.
The Radical Shift
First, because this glory is yet to come and currently unseen, we embrace it by faith (Romans 8:24–25), and therefore look to that which is unseen and eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). Which is to say, we don’t get all worked up over appearances. But second, because the glory is not self-invented but graciously bestowed, we don’t promote ourselves. It is not our own doing, but it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8–9). We don’t proclaim who we are, but Jesus Christ as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Boasting itself is not abolished, but only one kind is declared legitimate: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31; Jeremiah 9:23–24; 2 Corinthians 10:17–18). What is worth talking about is what God accomplishes through us (Romans 15:17–18). Because “what you say about yourself means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about you that makes the difference” (The Message, 2 Corinthians 10:18).
The Christian boast, therefore, is so radically different from worldly boasting that it is almost unrecognizable to natural eyes. As the worldly boast is infatuated with “here and us,” the Christian boast is besotted by “there and him.” The worldly boast is shiny and boisterous, consumed with appearances and approval; but the Christian boast is that quiet confidence that refuses to be dismayed when circumstances sour, or when public popularity fades. The Christian boast is that resolute focus on the unseen, the kind that politely chuckles at the days to come, the one that knows the mustard seed is small, but boy, the tree is huge, and God’s going to fill this earth with the knowledge of his glory like it’s water covering the seas.