As I write this, the world is in the middle of a giant display of the might of the gibborim. The contests of what are presumed to be the mightiest of the mighty men and women in the world of sports are underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
I hear the blood-pounding Olympic Fanfare composed by John Williams, and I cannot help but feel the exultant spirit of the Games. (Interestingly, the longer piece Williams composed for the 1996 games in Atlanta —I think, for the parade of the athletes during the opening ceremonies—is called “Summon the Heroes.” Most likely, you’ve heard it many times, even if you don’t recognize the title. Here it is, if you want to see for yourself.)
A couple of nights ago at the current games in Rio, American Olympic divers, David Boudia and Steele Johnson did amazingly well in Men’s Synchronized Platform Diving.
Between the moment of realization that they had won silver medals and the moment they were interviewed by NBC, the camera showed them huddling—and obviously praying—with their coach. Then, in the interview, both young men boldly and clearly expressed something wonderful. I don’t have the exact words they used, but they each said something pretty close to this: ‘Yeah, winning the medal is great, but our identity is not in diving. It’s in Christ. We knew going into this that, whatever the outcome, God is good. We are so thankful for the opportunity to come here and do this for Him.’
On primetime network television… Wow.
Contrast this with the exhibition of the most decorated Olympic athlete in the 120-year history of the modern games as he won his 20th gold medal. At the end of the race, Michael Phelps stood in the water, enjoying the ebullient cheers of the crowd. Looking right and left up at them, he raised his arms and signaled with his hands, gesturing as if to say, “Yes, that’s right! Keep it coming! Praise me! Worship me!” Okay, that may be overstated. I do not know just what was in Phelps’ mind and heart at that moment, but it would seem difficult to interpret his actions as conveying a message of anything like humility or gratitude.
It reminds me of Muhammed Ali’s “I’m the Greates’!”
All of this provides a good opportunity to review once again the Bible’s teaching on the phenomenon of glory-ing. The Scriptures are replete with messages about “boasting.” Oddly, the Bible does not prohibit it. In fact, it encourages it.
If that sounds strange, it is probably because we are used to thinking of ‘boast’ as a synonym of ‘brag.’ But that is not how the Bible uses the word.
In the New Testament, the noun kauchēma and other words in its family form the main vocabulary of boasting. The verb form means something like “glory in.” It is exactly what we see happening when an athlete scores a winning goal and celebrates by running around screaming and fist-pumping. And so, rather than telling us not to do it at all, the Scriptures teach us that we must glory in the right things.
This means, at least, boasting or glorying in God. But it seems that other good things, things having to do with our enjoyment of God and the work he has given us, are rightly to be gloried in. For example, the apostle Paul writes to the Christians at Thessalonica that they themselves will be his boast (kauchēsis) in the presence of the Lord at his coming (I Thess. 2:19)!
The Hebrew Scriptures treat it the same way: “Thus says YHWH, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the YHWH who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares YHWH” (Jer. 9:23-24).
Just as in the NT, the word translated “boast” here means something like “glory in.” What makes you jump up and down and celebrate, pumping your fist and yelling, “Yes! Yes! YES!!”? Is it the achievements you make with what I call the “Three M’s” (mind, muscle and money)? Or is it that you know the God of love and justice?
Oddly enough, the verb “boast” here in Jeremiah 9 is halal. It is intransitive here and so it is followed each time by a preposition: “of” or, better “in” (boast in wisdom, etc.). Throughout much of the book of Psalms it is transitive and is rightly translated “praise.” In fact, it is often written in an imperative form—hallelu—with its direct object attached; that object is the short form of God’s name, Yah. This is “Hallelu-jah!”
Like the over all biblical teaching about heroism that we want to explore here at “Geberology,” the Bible’s teaching about boasting is not as simple as one might expect upon first considering it. Just as we must ask whether and how we may rightly have (and maybe be?) human heroes, we need to ask how to be good boasters. Was it right of me to go to a Bengal game in Seattle a few years ago and get a bunch of Bengal signatures on my tiger-striped hardhat? Should Christian young people be encouraged to see David Boudia and Steele Johnson as heroes? Is it wrong of me to refer to, say, Richard Sibbes as one of my heroes in the faith? Or is there a sense in which such things are appropriate?
Well… it’s complicated.
And so is a biblical theology of boasting.
In the Corinthian letters alone, Paul develops a very complex theology of boasting. It is foolishness, and he literally mocks the Corinthians for it (I Cor. 4:6-10). But by the end of the second letter, he finds it necessary to do a little boasting himself and says it’s necessary (II Cor. 12:1) and, at least once, says it isn’t foolish, because it’s the truth (v. 6)!
Ahhh!… But we must read carefully!
Paul says, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me! (II Cor. 12:9)”
In another NBC interview, one that was prior to the winning of the silver, Boudia and Steele were asked about the excitement of participating in this Olympiad. “We can’t take the credit for this,” said Boudia. “To God be the glory.”
I think… the apostle Paul would approve.