Our gods call to us. They demand comparisons to other people. They say we aren’t good enough. And tell us we don’t have enough. These gods are our screens: our TVs, our computers, and our phones.
Deep rooted in the American psyche is a struggle of the ego. We look inward and find ourselves wanting. And then we respond outwardly with arrogance, self-depreciation, or self-deprivation.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us spend a great deal of time comparing ourselves to others. If not on a conscious level, we certainly do so subconsciously. We wonder why some people accept us, while others deny us. Deep down we all desire love and respect. And each denial of that desire leaves us wounded and longing. It leaves stuck in the limbo of comparisons to others.
Each of us responds to these emotions in a different way. It seems, though, that we’re all searching for that balance of our ambition and ego. We’re trying to find when it is appropriate for us to speak up for ourselves and when we should practice self-denial. We wonder what humility really looks like in an age where the gods are the screens. Paul the apostle has some answers—in the way he measured success.
In the first-century AD, when Paul the apostle lived, the gods of the time had their own set of demands. From a very general standpoint, success was defined as meeting societal norms (staying in your place, according to Roman society); serving the gods of your city and the Empire; and your occupational success. By comparison, our time is not so different. Although our gods look differently, they still have their demands.
Paul defied the Empire. And it’s this that led to his martyrdom. Instead of worshipping the Emperor and the deities, Paul worshipped Jesus. He proclaimed that a crucified and resurrected poor, Jewish rabbi was God incarnate.
Jesus completely redefined Paul’s identity (Acts 9). It caused him to walk away from a life of persecuting Christians and into a life of evangelizing as a Christian. Any understanding of self begins with an understanding of Jesus.
Paul recognized how absurd this seemed to those of his day: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV). Paul denied the wisdom of his age—he denied to pay the gods their dues—and embraced his identity as a servant and apostle of Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:18–25; Romans 1:1).
Paul’s new identity in Christ, as an apostle, led him to redefine his life, calling, and occupation. In an age of ego—not so different than ours—Paul’s encounter with Christ led him to rethink what was worth boasting about. To the Corinthian church, Paul says:
“And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:30–2:2 ESV).
For Paul, the work of Jesus is first and foremost. It is only the work of Christ that is worth boasting in. It does not require a special package to be believed. Paul did not come with some glorious stage presentation, speech, or pomp and circumstance. He came to the Corinthian church humbly—simply proclaiming Christ crucified and risen.
The truth of Christ does not require eloquent speech. Truth stands for itself. It does not need our presentations, our credentials, or us at all. Truth will make its own way. The Holy Spirit works through the person, but it does not need the person.
Although the truth of Christ stands on its own, Paul also realized that his personal reputation could help the cause of the gospel. It could be used for God’s purposes. In this regard, Paul was not hesitant to defend himself—when it was necessary to do so.
When forced to defend himself, Paul would list his credentials (2 Corinthians 11:16–33). But he also emphasized just how much he had sacrificed for the gospel. He considered self-sacrifice much more important than a resume. Paul also reminded people of the work he had done on their behalf—that he had made sacrifices for them. For Paul humility didn’t mean being quiet or being used by others. He had a personal stake in the work of his ministry and he wasn’t afraid to remind people of that.
While Paul’s reminders to the Corinthian church could have been viewed as boasting, he saw it as honoring Christ’s work in his life. He could not let someone deny the work Christ had done through him. Paul saw defense of the truth of Christ’s work in his life as absolutely essential to his efforts on Christ’s behalf.
Paul practiced self-denial, but he did not deny the importance of the individual. Christ calls and uses individuals and communities.
Paul regularly denied the authority of any one individual—noting how absurd an emphasis on a particular person’s ministry is (1 Corinthians 3:18–23; compare 2 Corinthians 5:12). Authority is Jesus’ alone.
Nonetheless, Paul was required from time to time to remind people who he was:
“For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16–18 ESV).
For Paul, the gospel’s proclamation is the reward. Christ at the center is what demarcates success.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul goes on to state all the ways he has done the work of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19–27). Ultimately, it is the salvation of others that Paul boasts in (1 Corinthians 15:31; compare 2 Corinthians 1:12–14). By denying self, and living for the sake of the gospel—for the salvation of others—Paul found life. He discovered what life is all about.
Paul looked at the gods of the age and denied their demands. Paul boasted in what Christ, and Christ alone, had done through his life. Paul measured success by how closely he followed Jesus—through all trials.
We must deny the demands of our generation and replace them with the commands of Christ. We must measure success by how well we love others—how often we speak up for Jesus, despite the costs. In doing so, we will find true success. Our deep desires for love and respect can only be fulfilled in our relationship with Jesus.