In the ancient world, successful people were expected to boast.
Highly regarded teachers, politicians, and public officials were encouraged to polish their resumes and roll them out before the watching world as often as they could. Caesar Augustus ordered that his achievements literally be carved in stone all over the empire.
Soldiers competed for high honors that could only be won in combat. One of the bravest (and most reckless) acts was scaling one of the rickety ladders that would be set against the walls of a besieged city. Glory was reserved for the legionnaire who was first over the top, placing himself within reach of the city’s desperate defenders. If he survived, he received the coveted corona muralis or “wall crown.” This would be equivalent to an American combatant receiving a Medal of Honor.
When the apostle Paul established a brand-new church in the Greek city of Corinth, he could hardly have known that these young believers were going to drive him crazy.
They wanted to know if Paul had a knockout resume. What was his spiritual pedigree? How many people had he led to Christ? Had he won any Medals of Honor for preaching?
Bible students have long regarded 2 Corinthians – the second of two existing correspondences between Paul and the Christians in Corinth – as the most personal of all his letters. His emotions range all over the map – from joy to despair to hope to exasperation. Paul refuses to play the boasting game. Other wannabe preachers and missionaries might come into town and strut their accomplishments, but he will not be drawn into such petty one-upmanship.
Then he seems to change his mind. You want my resume? Fine. Let me spell out my proudest moments.
What follows, says Bible scholar N.T. Wright, is “one of the finest and indeed funniest bites of rhetoric anywhere in the New Testament.”
Paul writes, “I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27, The Message).
This is not normally how one would present a record of accomplishments.
Paul makes it clear that his resume is not a recitation of how often things have gone well, but how often things seem to have run off the rails.
Then he adds this strange anecdote: “If I have to ‘brag’ about myself, I’ll brag about the humiliations that make me like Jesus. The eternal and blessed God and Father of our Master Jesus knows I’m not lying. Remember the time I was in Damascus and the governor of King Aretas posted guards at the city gates to arrest me? I crawled through a window in the wall, was let down in a basket, and had to run for my life” (11:30-33).
What made you a celebrity in the Roman world? It was “going over the wall.” Well, Paul says, I did just the opposite. When King Aretas and his henchmen were closing in, I went down the wall in the middle of the night and then ran like a scared rabbit.
Here we have to believe that when this letter was read aloud to the Corinthians, there was smiling and laughter. As Wright observes, Paul has created a parody of the whole culture of boasting.
But then he becomes deeply serious.
In the chapter that immediately follows, he describes receiving a mysterious “thorn in the flesh.”
“I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
“Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride… And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, The Message).
According to Scripture, “successful people” don’t boast about their own accomplishments. They have no need to do so.
Instead, they look at the raw data of their lives and say, “Isn’t it amazing that God is using even my hardest moments to turn me into the person he has always wanted me to be?”