Not many of us want to be known as “low and despised.” And if a close friend calls us “foolish” and “weak” we’re not likely to be thrilled—right? So why was Paul so rough in writing to his friends in Corinth?
Our best answer is that he was being honest.
This young church, it seems, was not much to talk about. Members were not from the impressive side of society. Most didn’t come from the upper classes—with homes in nicer neighborhoods. No one was chasing them for autographs. Instead they were on the low side of ordinary: a socially, economically, and academically unimpressive lot.
That’s not to say they wanted to stay there! It seems the rhetorically impressive Apollos had turned some heads. His status, along with the status of some newly arrived guests who claimed to be “friends” of Peter, had stirred divisions. Church members were becoming 1st century groupies: looking to be important by ‘friending’ others who were already important. Paul was even told he had his own followers; and so did Jesus.
Peter was not impressed! Nor, he reminded the Corinthians, was God. Only Jesus was worthy of their following. So in 1 Corinthians 1:31 Paul criticized these groupies by citing Jeremiah 9:24—“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
This chapter in 1 Corinthians reminds me of what Augustine of Hippo wrote in Nature and Grace. Pride, Augustine argued, was the motivation in Adam’s fall: “For the serpent, in fact, only sought for the door of pride whereby to enter when he said, ‘You shall be as gods’” so that “‘The beginning of pride is when a man departs from God.’” [NPNF 5.132]
Augustine had already noticed how pride is an insidious moral trap because pride can be present even when a person does what is considered to be good: “For all other sins only prevail in evil deeds; pride only has to be guarded against in things that are rightly done.” [NPNF 5.131]
In other words lots of activities are obviously evil—and easily avoided by careful moralists—but the ultimate problem of sin is self-elevation or self-focus. It consists in any self-ward gaze that reduces God to the status of a helper or observer—even if good deeds are done in the process.
Was Augustine overstating his point? No. He was reading Paul—and Jesus—properly when he made the soul’s ultimate point of reference the indicator of sin or righteousness. In any moment we are living as those devoted to our Lord and loved one, Jesus; or we are devoted to our own security and status.
Boasting displays love—we talk about what we value, and we talk most avidly about what we love the most. As people created by God and for God our boasting is only sound when we most value our relationship with Christ and what he values. A heart captured by Christ is no longer proud or boastful about itself.
This makes sense of Paul’s litany of upside-down references when he wrote to the Corinthians. God’s plan is to expose evil and he does this in large part by setting humble people next to proud people. And this makes his point in tangible terms: how many of us enjoy self-absorbed people? At best they may be useful to us if we’re also self-absorbed. Yet everyone enjoys humble and selfless people: they’re easy to be with, ready to invite others into their lives.
So Paul made this his big idea in confronting the groupies of Corinth who wanted to boast about their particular affiliations with mere men rather than in their delight in Christ. God, knowing how to draw hearts to himself—without any coercion—knows that humble hearts are more accessible and responsive than proud hearts.
This, in turn, explains how God selects a people for himself. He knew what sin would do to humanity. Some would seem to prosper as they usurped God’s place by trying to be like God. Others, by contrast, would never stand a chance of being godlike—they’re too ordinary, plain, and low. So it is that, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
This may be consoling if and when we find ourselves around the spiritually, academically, morally, economically, and socially elite and discover we aren’t invited to their parties. That, we learn from Paul, isn’t so bad after all! But even that scenario—being rejected by proud society—isn’t to be our focus.
Our gaze, instead, should be on the remarkable reality that God loves us and wants us to be united with him through his Son and by his Spirit for the rest of eternity. And with the joy of that bond we readily invite others to come and enjoy the kinship we have in Jesus as we meet together at the lowly yet glorious cross.