Boasting, Comparing, and Commending: A Warning (2 Cor. 10:9-12)
Some people live for the opportunity to flaunt their skills and to speak of their multiple accomplishments. They seize every opportunity to redirect conversation from what they believe are less important people and trivial matters to a focus on themselves, be it their success or fame or status in the community. They are not in the least hesitant to speak of their credentials and are quick to cite the educational degrees they've earned and the gold plaques for distinguished service that hang conspicuously on the wall of their office or living room.
But not Paul. He was a man who found it extremely distasteful, to the point of nausea, to speak of himself or his qualifications or his achievements in service of the kingdom of God. If one is to boast, says Paul, let him "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). I'll have occasion to address this passage in a subsequent meditation, but it brings up an issue that needs to be addressed now if we are to understand his comments here in the second half of chapter ten.
Those familiar with 2 Corinthians are aware that toward the close of chapter ten and throughout chapter eleven Paul does his fair share of boasting. He points to his Jewish heritage, his apostolic calling, his many experiences in the service of Christ, and much of what he suffered for the sake of the saints. But there is a sense in which he did it involuntarily, against his will, and only because his hand was forced by the proud strutting of the intruders who threatened to undermine the faith of his spiritual children in Corinth.
One need only take note of how many times and the variety of ways in which Paul parenthetically apologizes for boasting. He pleads with the Corinthians to bear with him "in a little foolishness" (11:1). He is happy to be regarded as "foolish" (11:16) and a "fool" (vv. 16 and 17; cf. 12:6) if such is necessary to protect his flock. Twice he interjects amidst his boasting, "I am speaking as a fool" (v. 21) and "I am talking like a madman" (v. 23). Yes, says Paul, "I have been a fool" in boasting of such matters, but "you forced me to it" (12:11).
Perhaps the best way to make sense of his strategy is by citing the explanations of a few selected commentators. So, note the following:
"Paul is very conscious that it is no business of an apostle, or indeed of any Christian, to praise himself. Such self-commendation is only justified, in the present instance, because his affection for his converts is so great, that he will go to almost any length to prevent them from becoming dupes of unscrupulous men, and to keep them loyal to Christ" (Tasker).
"It is concern, loving anxious concern, for the spiritual welfare of those who are his children in Christ which moves him so strongly - so much so that he is prepared to appear to indulge in what he calls 'a little foolishness' by speaking about himself, in order to counteract the impact of the intruders who in their foolishness have been extolling themselves" (Hughes).
"It is not the genuine Paul who figures here; it is Paul playing a part to which he has been compelled against his will, acting in a character which is as remote as possible from his own. It is the character native and proper to the other side; and when Paul . . . assumes it . . . he not only preserves his modesty and his self-respect, but lets his opponents see what he thinks of them. He plays the fool for the occasion, and of set purpose; they do it always, and without knowing it, like men to the manner born" (Denney).
Now that we have in mind the strategy Paul is forced to employ, we can return to our text in chapter ten.
"I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.' Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding" (2 Cor. 10:9-12).
In an earlier meditation I mentioned that one of the charges against Paul was that of duplicity, "of phony boldness: he manages to present a brave front by using his gifted pen, but when Paul the man is assessed he turns out to be far inferior to his writings" (Carson, 63; see my comments on 10:1).
There is a measure of truth in this. We know that Paul's letters were theologically deep, morally demanding, and often hard to understand (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). His personal demeanor, on the other hand, lacked the flare and charisma that his opponents insisted were the badges of authenticity. But it's important to remember, as Carson points out, that this most likely "sprang from his commitment to eschew gimmickry and persuasive eloquence (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1-5) in order that the faith of his converts might rest, neither on his personality nor on his rhetoric, but on the power of God" (62). Then again, Paul is quick to warn them that he is more than ready and able to assert the rightful authority given him by Christ when he finally arrives in Corinth (v. 11; cf 10:2).
It is, however, from v. 12 that an important lesson is to be learned. There Paul writes:
"Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding" (v. 12).
Paul's in a bit of a pickle. His enemies have forced him to defend himself, in the course of which he is exposed to the charge of self-commendation. It's hard, even for Paul, to do the former without sounding like the latter.
This isn't to say that it's impossible to judge between competing claims. What frustrates Paul is how these intruders go about it. They don't measure themselves by the objective criteria given us in the gospel and the Scriptures, but look to each other, draw comparisons, and smile with how impressive they appear! "Apparently these self-promoted apostles compared notes on their visions, their racial and cultural pedigrees, their training in rhetoric, their abilities to command fees and lead men - all relative criteria of little importance in God's eyes" (Carson, 73).
Paul is being openly sarcastic. He says, in effect, "These people set up their own conduct as a standard of excellence and then find their conformity to it eminently satisfying and reassuring. These people are charter members of their own mutual admiration society!" Paul will, in fact, classify and compare himself with these intruders later on (2 Cor. 11:21-12:13). But he will do it in a radically different and surprising way. He will point to his superiority in ministry through a display of weakness.
What's important for us to take from this passage is the ever-present danger that exists in the church to measure our "success" and thus our personal "value" by comparing ourselves with others, whether they be in ministry or in secular society. But the only standard that matters is the approval of God. The only commendation that counts is his word of praise.
How often do you observe the spiritual gifts of others, their personality, their fame, their finances, their status in the body of Christ, only then to compare yourself in each dimension and draw the unwarranted conclusion that you are either extremely successful or a manifest failure? The only two possible results from imitating the enemies of Paul in Corinth are pride or bitterness (or just as easily, arrogance or envy). People will have accomplished more and you will resent them for it, or they will have accomplished less and you will congratulate yourself for a job well done.
In any case, seeking commendation from anyone other than God or judging ourselves by any standard other than "allegiance to the gospel of Christ, growing conformity to the character of Christ, [and] participation in the sufferings of Christ" (Carson, 73) will prove fatal in the end.
By all means boast! But boast in the Lord (v. 17).