It was early on in our church planting endeavors. Our sapling church was hardly standing. Many had come and even more had gone. It was a painful time for me. But not always for righteous reasons. I ached that the sapling was so small, numerically. I sorrowed over so few staying. Church-planting and ministry friends would ask the dreaded question: “So how is the church plant going?” “Uh, fine. Sort of.” Which lead into the next, more-dreaded question: “How many people are attending now?” “Uh, well, at one point we had, like, 50ish.”
As I look back on those days, I have to ask myself, “Why were those such dreaded questions?” For me, there was really one reason: I wanted to brag. I craved crowing over numbers and ministry results. I wanted to boast in “what the Lord was doing” and “how humbled I was that the Lord had brought so many.” But I didn’t want to boast in the Lord. I wanted a triple-digit number to brag about to our supporters. I wanted to boast in me. I wanted the spotlight.
“Love does not brag” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Among other things, the Corinthians were boasting about the supposed supernatural spiritual experiences that they were having, hence Paul’s correction. “Brag.” The word has the idea of self-glorification, boasting, and a superficial self-applauder. It speaks of someone who vaunts, displays, and praises self.
Why is love antithetical to bragging? Bragging is an expression of self-worship (over and above God) and self-love (over and above others). All love and glory is channelled to self.
Bragging wants attention. It’s an extreme self-worshiper. It will hijack whatever means at its disposal—work, skills, giftedness, ministry—to applaud itself. And if it does not get attention, it will do things like become jealous, angry, resentful, and suspicious of others. A bragger sees its best friends as those who are most involved in boasting about it. But bragging need not only be external boasting. It could be internal as well; silently boasting to oneself.
When my two-year-old crows, “Look how pwitty my Mickey Mouse diaper is!” and my four-year-old boasts, “I skied all da way down wivout falling!”, it’s cute. But, when a twenty-two and forty-four-year old crow and boast, it’s not so cute anymore.
Bragging shows itself in many ways. It hopes and longs for others to applaud its deeds, abilities, hard work, knowledge, and success.
If bragging about good things in life does not lift itself high enough onto the winner’s platform, braggers will brag about bad things. We will even go so far as to brag about sufferings with the hope that others will take up our cause.
Bragging talks a lot about itself, and asks few questions of others. It’s not interested in others. It loves what it talks about.
Bragging does things like story-topping. It one-ups everyone else’s story. While they are listening to someone else talk, the bragger is anxiously setting the stage to wow the crowd with their show. Story-toppers are braggers.
The story-topper always had more business success and the more harrowing outdoor adventure; it gained more credentials, climbed the harder route, read those books already, already implemented the better parenting technique, knows more about whatever topic, experienced the crazier experience, and suffered the harder trial.
Up here in the Tetons there are these crow-like birds that people call crows, but they are not. They are more like jet-black hyenas with wings and a 10,000 decibel caw-scream-squawk. When you roll into a Yellowstone picnic area, they gather around and squawk at you. And if you go on a hike and leave your closed cooler in the back of your truck, beware. One time I returned to the cooler opened, bagged sandwiches removed and eaten, candy bars demolished, but apples passed over. When I returned to my truck, there they were, bragging in front of me for their victorious plundering, despite the absence of opposable thumbs. I’m not claiming the gift of caw-scream-squak interpretation, but I could almost hear them saying, “We owned you, human! We owned you, human!” They are my favorite thing in Yellowstone. It’s amazing and worth visiting the National Park for them alone. But if you watch, it’s almost as if they are caw-screaming so that you know how talented they are at caw-screaming. They are loud, but nothing is really happening. They are amazed at themselves. They are bragging.
Many of us Christians, pastors, and spiritual celebrities, especially in my younger generation, are like those crows. We perch ourselves on the high roosts of Christendom, take our position, and caw for praise. The older, more seasoned generation of pastors see it, discern, and mourn it. Sometimes they necessarily address it, but we are too sozzled in our cawing to listen. We brag about our spirituality and ministry. Examples abound.
With the social-gospel type, braggers love thinking that they are loving and love to be known as loving. But “love does not brag,” even to self, and even about love. Others brag by loving to take a stand on whatever social issue happens to be en vogue at the time. Sure, they care about the issue. But they simultaneously love to be known as taking that fashionable stand. They craft a clever statement for which they stand, pepper it with some drama, hurl it into social-media world, get a thousand retweets and likes, and nearly explode the internet with irony. Others love to be known as humble (e.g. AKA the tweet, “I am so humbled that [insert some numerical display of my ministry glory].”).
We’ll brag by one-upping others. When someone speaks pointedly to an issue, braggers do things like make sure everyone knows that they have addressed the issue long before. Social media has afforded us more opportunities to brag. Out of the Tweet/Facebook/Instagram spills that which fills the heart. We are proud pastors, boasting bloggers, and cawing Christians; and we are about to drown Christendom in irony.
“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov. 27:2).
Bragging is often blind to bragging in self, but not in others. Everyone else sees our bragging, and it’s painfully awkward. Notwithstanding his 2012 Olympic performance, the world cringed a bit when Usain Bolt proclaimed, “I’m now a legend. I am the greatest athlete to live.”
Braggers loathe other braggers bragging about others. They even scorn encouragement about others in their presence. It’s a threat to their glory.
Braggers love themselves, but hate other braggers. Other braggers are a threat to them. There shall be only one king, and they’re it.
The last thing that makes sense is for a human—something which can’t go a few days without food and water, gets sick, smells, uses the restroom, sins, can do nothing to get itself to heaven, deserves hell, has to spend 1/3 of its life sleeping, and then be buried in the ground—to brag. Hence God’s necessary rebukes:
“Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it, or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! Therefore the Lord God of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire” (Isa. 10:15-16).
The Image of God and Hatred of Bragging
Bragging is that thing which makes us all nauseous. Even other braggers loathe others bragging. There is this interesting, effortless response that even the unregenerate have to bragging. They hate it. Why? Because every human is made by an unspeakably glorious God, who has hard-wired us to know that. Regardless of religious/spiritual persuasion, we have a built-in repulsion towards bragging which evidences that we were made to give worship and applause to something much greater than a human. We are made to know that this God is far, far greater, wiser, more glorious, and powerful than we are, and that there is only one Being worthy of the glory of bragging. Every moment, then, of cringing at a bragger is an apologetic. And, to be sure, bragging itself is not a sin. Bragging becomes sin when something unworthy of bragging becomes the object of bragging.
“Stop regarding man, whose breath of life is in his nostrils; for why should he be esteemed?” (Isa. 2:22).
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Ps. 115:1).
And let’s not forget what happened to Nebuchadnezzar, one of history’s most notorious braggers (cf. Dan. 4:30-37).
God alone is deserving of glory and praise.
So, the bragger changes, not only when he stops worshiping self, but when he starts worshiping God through Christ; the one deserving of all bragging. We must take our eyes off self and lift them, high, high up to the throne of the sovereign Lord. And repentance comes when we realize the unspeakable truth, that the only One worthy of all bragging stepped off his throne, came to earth, not to be bragged over (as he deserves) but beaten and crucified. On the cross, Jesus came under God’s righteous wrath due braggers like me so that we might be welcomed into God’s family. The fruit of repentance, then, is when we channel our bragging to that which and Whom rescues us from ourselves:
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).