On Boasting

Session Date: 
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Bible Text: 
I Corinthians 1:18-31


Two of the most significant documents in our lives are the resume and the eulogy. Each is a listing of our virtues. Have you ever given much thought to the difference between the two? Resume virtues are the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. We spend a lot of our lives concerned with, worrying about and building up, our resume virtues. Eulogy virtues are the virtues that get talked about at our funeral. These are the virtues that exist at the core of our being. They note whether we are kind, or brave or honest, or faithful, they speak to the kinds of relationships we formed over our lifetimes.

Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time polishing our resume virtues and not a whole lot of time on our eulogy virtues. Like most of us, Jack Genot wanted to make a splash with his resume. To be precise, he wanted the world to know he was a hero. It began with mere barroom boasting; years later it got out of control. He concocted a story about serving with the Marines and being taken as a prisoner of war during a bloody Korean War battle.

Based in part on that history, Genot, became an alderman in his small Illinois town of Marengo. He raised lots of money for Toys for Tots. And his story grew until the uniform he wore on special occasions became laden with fake medals he had ordered from a catalogue—a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and two Purple Hearts. He would march in parades and talk to schoolchildren. He even got a special license plate reserved for POWs by forging discharge papers.

However, a veteran's league eventually noticed a lack of records on file and numerous factual holes in Genot's military record. It began investigating his claims. For two years, Genot denied the accusations and excused his way around the questions. But he finally confessed his deception in an interview with a local newspaper, claiming that he couldn't stand the façade any longer.

"You can't imagine what I'm going through," he said. "I really didn't know how to shake this demon. But I went to bed with it every night, and I looked at it in the mirror every morning. I don't want to meet my Maker with this on my heart." That is the slippery slope of temptation we encounter in pursuit of a “winning” resume.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. A frequent lecturer on the power and impact of words, he often asks audiences if they can go twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words about another person. Invariably a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying yes. Others laugh, and quite a large number call out “No!”

Telushkin says, “Those of you who can’t answer yes must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue.”

We live in a world where increasingly we are losing control of our tongues. We live in a world driven by the need to work solely on our resume virtues. Often tempted to pad them, perhaps in the manner of Jack Genot. For many of us there is an unbridled desire to show the world an impressive, world-stopping resume. This stems from the notion that we are competing with everyone else. We seek out ways to boast about our resumes. And, all too often, this can also lead us to a putting others down. While we show the world our best side, we look for ways to note for the world the down side of our neighbor. In its simplest form it is the boast, “I’m the best, and he/she/you, are not!”

In his important book, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks notes a shift in our culture from the mid-twentieth century to now. The first thing he notes is the inappropriateness of ever wanting to return to “that simpler time.” For as he reminds us, it was a more racist, sexist, anti-Semitic time. He also notes it was culturally boring, bland food and homogenous living arrangements where fathers were unable to openly express their love for their children and husbands often unable to see the depth of their own wives. Life is, in many ways, better now that then.

Yet Brooks highlights that humility, a eulogy virtue, was more common then than now. He calls it a moral ecology that stretches back through the centuries. This moral ecology encouraged “people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combatting the flaws in their own natures and turning weaknesses into strengths.” It was not an era that felt that every thought, feeling, opinion and achievement should be immediately shared with the world via FB, Snapchat, Instagram or the now dreaded Twitter! Brooks calls it an era of “little me.”

That era contrasts with today’s era of “big me!” We have shifted from a culture that fostered humility to one that encourages people to think of themselves as the center of the universe. Data backs this up. Between 1948 and 1954 psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. 12% said yes. In 1989 it was 80% of boys and 77% of girls!

In what is called the “narcissism test,” researchers ask if certain statements apply to people: “I like to be the center of attention…I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary…Somebody should write a book about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30% in the last two decades! The largest increase is in the number of people who agree with the statements: “I am an extraordinary person,” and “I like to look at my body.” 

As you might imagine, this increase in self-esteem is coupled with a tremendous desire for fame. In 1976 a survey asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked 15th out of 16. In 2007 51% of young people listed fame as one of their top personal goals. And in a survey asking middle school girls who they would most like to have dinner with, Jennifer Lopez was first, Jesus second and Paris Hilton a close third. In the same survey, nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant – Justin Bieber’s for example – than president of Harvard. 

Why do we note this cultural shift? Paul writes: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” The people of Corinth were caught up in glorifying superficial human values of their age, boasting about possessions, the strength of their own wisdom and their rhetorical eloquence. They were infatuated with themselves and the leaders who manifested the same ideals.

In the light of such perceived wisdom, self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement, Paul is exhorting them that God has revealed in Christ another kind of wisdom; Another kind of wealth; Another kind of power; Another kind of salvation; God’s wisdom radically subverts the wisdom of this world. God’s wealth is the impoverished of the world. God’s power is Jesus’ flogged back. God’s salvation is a crucified death on the cross. Through the shameful, impoverished, powerlessdeath of the crucified Messiah, God has thrown out the human calculus of resume virtues. It is a shocking reality for our world that wants to boast in fame, strength and the wonderment of the self. It is shocking for it reveals the deepest truth about the character of God: 

God turns our world upside down!

Everything must be evaluated through the lens of the cross. It is the lens trough which all human experience must be projected and seen afresh. And if that is the case, that shocking, humiliating event is the true measure of wisdom, power and wealth.

So, I invite you to hear Paul conclude: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God….Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Of what, then, do you boast?

© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved