Recognizing boasting is a little like the old definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. It’s not simply a positive declaration. No, it has a flavor of triumph, the aroma of conquest or achievement. A little more than self-satisfied, boasting only exists as far as it is expressed.
Christianity must speak against this braggery, right? I know you’re not fooled by such an early hypothetical question, dear reader. You’re anticipating that the New Testament holds nuance on this question which should be profitably mined.
Absent one occurrence in Hebrews, Paul alone uses the word which is translated “boast” in our English versions. His usage uncovers a key truth about this word: its morality is revealed by its object. Additionally, the variety of objects available to this verb suggests that we should not be concerned about whether or not we are boasting, but rather about whether we are boasting in the right things. Just as David Foster Wallace and Tim Keller have popularized the notion that we all are worshippers, so we should recognize that we are each of us boasters.
Would it surprise you to know that this word is used more often in a positive way than negative? It surprised me. In this positive usage, the word gets translated thrice as “rejoice” in Romans 5, and “glory” twice in Philippians, along with the more common “boast.”
Its objects in these cases flow downstream from the primary one, the Lord Jesus Christ. After boasting in the great work of Jesus for his people, we see boasting in weakness, and frequently, boasting in other people. There is an ignorance of, a lack of interest in, the achievements of the person doing the boasting. They are case studies in self-denial, as Paul demonstrates how his rejoicing in the accomplishments of others leads him to bragging.
What then makes up the negative cases? When we think of boasting, it’s easy to think of the person who is bragging about her nice things, her spate of amazing travel opportunities, or perhaps her career accomplishments. In certain circles it can look like incessantly pointing out how well one’s children are doing in school or an activity. It’s always obnoxious, and we all find ourselves doing it at times.
But that is not at all what Paul focuses on when he’s talking about boasting. His target is more insidious: boasting in religious activity, in churchiness. Because of Paul’s context, this most often revolves around keeping the Mosaic Law, or even simply possessing it. For us, that can look like boasting in Christian heritage, or in ministry activities.
I heard one teacher put it this way: Our boasting reveals what defines us.
It’s deadly to have your pious activities define you. It’s that spirit that seeks to put God in our debt, that if we do that right things, are the right people, then he’ll owe us. Then we’ll have something to point to that justifies our existence. And it can just all look so good, like we’re checking all of God’s boxes. We’re praised. But we’re rotting—a branch snipped off, close to the vine as it lies on the soil, dead all the same.
So what about Paul’s own boasting in his ministry? Is that not a defining of himself by his works? We shouldn’t gloss this. It has troubled me for a couple of days, so what I offer here is perhaps preliminary.
As one example that would point to the acceptable nature of Paul’s ministry boasting, consider his discussion in 1 Corinthians 9. He recalls there that he has a specific assignment for ministry from the Lord for gospel preaching, a necessity. Because it is required of him, he has a right to be paid, a worker receiving his wages. However, his desire is to do it for free, to offer Jesus his services at great cost to himself. Remember, he became all things to all people that some might hear and respond. He suffered immensely, but penned that one could give his body to the flames in ministry, and without love, it would be nothing.
I believe we see in Paul an extreme test case in what boasting can look like. While the circumcision party boasted in traditional Judaic rule keeping, while the Corinthians gloried in the amazing power of their spiritual gifts, Paul kept on identifying himself as a slave to Jesus. A slave. His heart was constantly caught up in the concern for the churches, that they not wander from their first love and his, Christ the Lord. He had been struck blind and rerouted, reprimanded and restored, and lived his life broken for others. A boasting apart from weakness, apart from being rent, is suspect.
Paul wasn’t a perfect man, even in his post conversion life I’m sure. But Jesus is perfect, one who greatly deserves our boasting. His strength, his patience, his tenderness, his intelligence, even his humor, each of these and more calling for our affection and bragging. How he stooped down, wiped us clean, resurrected us, accepted our punishment. Watching him draw out of dead stumps like ourselves the vigor of green life, how can we not point at each other in wonder, praising each other’s growth loudly, praising the God who is accomplishing it?
Our boasting reveals what defines us. How I long for my identity, and for the identity of my church, to be bound up in the Groom, and his spotless Bride. How then could we fail to produce raucous wedding-day bragging in their heroism and beauty?