Lord, you will establish peace for us, for it is you who have accomplished all we have done. –Isaiah 26:12
God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world. –Galatians 6:14
Summer days in the mid 90s most often found me in the company of Jessica Nielsen, a neighborhood girl about my age who, like me, thought the most important thing about childhood was spending interminable hours with anyone willing to play the role of best friend. We made grand plans to get rich quick, bossed our various siblings around, and played our favorite game ad nauseam: the Bragging Game.
This was an actual game we devised in which we took turns—you guessed it—bragging. It was a very gratifying game for a girl so consumed by the need to impress people. I’d learned that people frown on arrogance but I still wanted to make sure Jessica (and anyone who might happen to overhear) knew all about my Latin test, my ability to click my heels in the air, and my great-grandfather’s reputation.
Because, in the initial stages of the Bragging Game, ancestral accomplishments were fair game. Eventually, though, Jessica had had enough. She was still happy to play the Bragging Game but, she insisted, “It only counts if you did it yourself. Your family stuff doesn’t count.”
I remember being very disappointed. After all, my grandfather’s service record and my aunt’s musical talent were just as much my accomplishments as theirs, weren’t they? I was special by association.
It took years before I realized that Jessica was right: it doesn’t make sense to brag about something that somebody else did. It took years more before that childhood lesson took root in a deeper way, in the realization that all my gifts are just that—gifts. And it doesn’t make sense to be arrogant about gifts.
Isaiah puts it very clearly: it is God who has accomplished all we have done. If you’re very athletic, that’s wonderful. God made you that way. Sure, you were the one who worked hard—because God gave you a work ethic. Or he gave you parents who encouraged that. Or maybe he worked through your pride like he’s worked through mine. But your speed or beauty or intelligence or people skills are gifts. Every good thing in you is a gift. And it doesn’t make sense to brag about something you didn’t do.
Seeing the good in ourselves as a gift doesn’t diminish it; it gives us the freedom to appreciate God’s goodness without getting twisted in on ourselves. Because for all the Bragging Game was fun, it was a terrible way to spend my days. It got me more and more puffed up with pride while also convincing me that I wasn’t enough as I was. It filled me with both arrogance and self-loathing, because when we define ourselves by what we’ve done, and not what God’s done in us, it’s impossible to be at peace.
Paul knows exactly where peace lies: in the Cross. Glorying in ourselves—in what we’ve been given—leads only to emptiness. But when we have been crucified and raised up again through baptism, when we’ve been marked with the sign of the Cross, that’s something to sing about.
More often than not, we’ve got it backwards. We glory in ourselves and tuck the Cross away so that nobody can see it. We proclaim our test scores or salaries or clever senses of humor from the rooftops and murmur the name of Jesus where it can’t be heard. The Cross is scary, so we surround ourselves with the comforts of our achievements and try to ward off the emptiness that way.
It’s tempting, but that way lies destruction. That’s why Paul begs God’s power here: God forbid that I should boast in anything but you, Lord! When someone compliments me, God forbid that I become smug! Let me turn it to your glory, Lord. When I achieve something impressive, God forbid that I should congratulate myself! Let me rejoice in what you’re doing but far more in who you are: Love made man to live and die for me.
Through all those summer days, the one brag I never played is the one that would have blown the others out of the water: I am loved beyond imagining by a God who died to save me. In the face of that, everything else—everything else that he’s done for me and through me and in me—is nothing. May I glory only in that.