The familiar saying, "It ain't boasting if you can do it," is not only grammatically wrong; it is profoundly dumb. Boasting is proudly drawing attention to oneself by claiming credit for some accomplishment. It is the self-centered attempt to elicit from others praise of oneself for having attained some goal or having measured up to an acknowledged standard. It does not cease to be boasting simply because it's true. If you can't do it and you boast, you lie. If you can do it and you boast, you may well be telling the truth. But boasting it is.
Evidently, the apostle Paul didn't believe that all boasting is bad. His use of the term was slightly different from ours. He actually envisioned a form of boasting that was not motivated by pride, but by love. It all depended on the object of one's boast and the ultimate intention of one's heart. Let me explain.
As we saw in the previous meditation, Paul felt compelled against his will to speak of his apostolic credentials and the accomplishments of his ministry. This wasn't to enhance his reputation or status among the Corinthians but to protect them against the false teaching and destructive influence of the intruders in their congregation. When it was a matter of their spiritual welfare, Paul was happy to commend himself (cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-6). If it came down to whom they would trust and whose teaching they would believe, Paul was quick to establish his rightful claim as an apostle of Christ Jesus and the one to whom revelatory truth had been given.
These "false apostles" had forced his hand. So, boast he will, but only in accordance with the standards that God had established. Thus he writes,
"But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you. We were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ. We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged, so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you, without boasting of work already done in another's area of influence" (2 Cor. 10:13-16).
The intruders in Corinth were proud for having measured up to a standard they created for themselves (v. 12). They measured "themselves by one another" and compared "themselves with one another" and boasted about their obvious success! Not only that, but they took credit for what Paul had accomplished by the grace of God in Corinth. They were only too happy to insist that the spiritual progress of the Corinthians was due to their own exalted efforts. In other words, their boasting was beyond proper limits because it was centered on themselves rather than on God, "it lacked a divine standard and divine authorization (v. 13), and it concerned work accomplished by others (Paul) (v. 15) in foreign territory (Paul's) (v. 16)" (Harris 710).
These "petty little men," notes Carson, "could not approach the high standards that characterized Paul's ministry; yet somehow they gave themselves such airs that they managed to seduce much of the Corinthian church. Little men can be dangerous, especially when they position themselves in such a way as to capture some stolen glory from great men, and forge it into the bangles of self-interested leadership" (77).
Paul, on the other hand, refused to take credit for the labors of others. He would only speak of his ministry in that arena of influence apportioned to him by God, which was inclusive of Corinth. When converted and called to the apostolate, God gave Paul a distinct assignment. He was to be the apostle to the Gentiles, proclaiming the gospel among the nations who had hitherto been excluded from the blessings of the covenants and who languished in spiritual darkness (cf. Gal. 1:16; 2:7-10).
This doesn't mean he was prohibited from proclaiming the gospel to Jews. In fact we know from the book of Acts that he did precisely that. But his primary task was preaching the cross of Christ among the Gentiles, which included the Corinthians. Even then, however, he was diligent to give all praise to God and to speak only of "what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience" (Rom. 15:18). Boasting in what God has done through a person is one thing. Boasting in that same person is quite another altogether.
But my principal concern is Paul's exhortation concerning the proper grounds and goal of Christian boasting:
"'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.' For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends" (2 Cor. 10:17-18).
Paul is alluding here to Jeremiah 9:23-24, the full text of which reads as follows:
"Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.'"
Let me begin with two brief observations. First, the "Lord" in whom we are to boast is probably a reference to Jesus, as a comparison with 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 and Philippians 3:3 suggests. Second, boasting "in the Lord" may be regarded as "shorthand for the character and deeds of the Lord" (Harris, 725). Our boast, therefore, must be in the beauty of Christ's person and the majesty of who he is, together with a celebration of what he has done in grace and kindness and power and compassion.
Thus, if boasting has for its object or focus the person of Christ and what he has accomplished for us, it is certainly permissible. More than permissible, it is essential. This, indeed, is the essence of worship: bragging on God, making known his sufficiency, drawing attention to what he is like and how he loves and the way he so gloriously governs the world.
But there is a way of boasting in God that can be truly annoying. I have in mind what so often happens when you thank another believer for some good deed done or draw attention to their sacrificial service or a notable accomplishment on behalf of the church. They will often respond: "Oh, it wasn't me. It was God. I can't take any credit for anything. All the glory is his" (often spoken with a lowering of the eyes, a slight downturn of the head, and in a softer tone of voice).
Well, o.k. I understand. But sometimes, when someone congratulates us or expresses gratitude for a job well done, we need to simply say, "You're welcome." That's not necessarily an expression of pride, any more than it is always an expression of humility to verbally defer all praise to God. Yes, God is ultimately the source of whatever strength we experience in the fulfillment of his will. But to mention that on every occasion can be a subtle way of drawing attention once again to yourself. You may not hear them say it, but people will often turn away after such a conversation, thinking: "I wish he'd just show the common courtesy of saying ‘You're welcome' and not feel he has to theologize every utterance. If I didn't know better, I'd swear he was proudly drawing attention to his humility."
This may seem like a strange place to mention Jack Bauer and the TV suspense drama, 24, but I've learned an important lesson in watching him. On several occasions when President David Palmer thanked him for saving his life or the lives of others, or for making a painful sacrifice, Jack never shuffled his feet while meekly responding, "Ah, shucks, it was nothing." Instead, he looked President Palmer in the eyes and courteously said, "You're welcome, Sir." There's nothing boastful or arrogant in that. If, on the other hand, Jack had himself brought his deeds to the attention of Palmer and others, making much of his stellar performance, one might wonder about the authenticity of his humility.
As for the Christian, we should avoid rehearsing for others the many things we've achieved. We should desist from citing our extraordinary wisdom or heroism or education or wealth. When we are the first to speak, it is good and right to acknowledge the power and sufficiency of divine grace operative in our lives. It is good and right, as was the case with the apostle Paul, to boast only of "what Christ has accomplished" through us (cf. Rom. 15:18). This is the boasting of which Paul approves.
But when others show us the courtesy of complimenting our efforts, or express gratitude for our labors, show them the courtesy of saying, "You're welcome," all the while you quietly, yet consciously, say to yourself, "by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10a). And when it comes your time to speak, boast in him. Brag on him. Speak in such a way that people are impressed with who he is, and soon forget your name.