Tooting Your Own Horn?

If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. (Galatians 6:3-4)

Is it ever a good thing to speak well of yourself?  Or even to think well of yourself?  After all, if you don't speak up for yourself, who will?

It seems that the scripture above is saying that it is good, at times, to speak well of — to even boast about — yourself.  But this just doesn't seem to be in accord with what we were taught as children.  We were all told that we shouldn't brag, right?

The context of the preceding five chapters

Let's step back for a few moments and examine this statement, and its context, a little more closely.  The message of Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia is this:

Don't let anyone steal the freedom you have in Christ by trying to make you follow a set of man-made rules.

Then, after driving home this important message, the apostle emphasizes this balancing principle: 

Don't use this freedom as an excuse for following your fleshly appetites, but rather, use it to serve others.

In order to achieve this lofty objective, he encourages his readers to follow the leading of God's Spirit and thereby bear the fruit of God's Holy Spirit, rather than pursuing their base desires and producing the works of the flesh.

The fruit of God's Spirit is encouraging and edifying: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

The works of the flesh are divisive and destructive: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

He ends chapter five on this high note:

Since we have come to experience eternal life by the working of God's Spirit, let's determine to live this life by the inner working of God's Spirit as well.

Now he introduces the words of the final chapter in this way:

Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

You see, the Galatian Christians had been pushed around by a group of legalistic Christians who were trying to tell them that they needed to keep man-made rules in order to be godly.  But Paul just told them that the whole law of God really all boils down to this one commandment:

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Living by rules does not make for a harmonious Christian community.  Instead it turns everyone into the judge of the others.  This is why Paul has just said: 

Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

The immediate context of chapter six

So he begins Galatians, chapter six, with an exhortation to NOT judge brothers or sisters in Christ when you see that they have stumbled into sin.  Rather, with profound humility and gentleness, we should come alongside such a person, seeking to bring spiritual health and strength.  And we should do this with an acute awareness of our own vulnerability to sin.

Paul goes so far as to say that we have a responsibility to help each other with the difficulties of overcoming the sins that trip us up.  

Now, as you find yourself helping a brother or sister recover from their stumbling into sin, there may be a tendency to think that you are something.  There will definitely be a possibility of becoming proud, or of even succumbing to the temptation to boast, as you compare yourself with the ones you are helping with their troubles.

You could even become like the Pharisee that Jesus used as a negative example.  That person prayed this way: 

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.1 

Now let's consider the first of these two verses

So, now, we finally get to the verses that precipitated this study:

If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

Wait a minute...are the scriptures saying here that I am nothing?  That you are nothing?  But what about positive self-esteem?  What about having a healthy evaluation of yourself?  What about personal pride...the so-called good kind of pride?

Perhaps we're misreading this text.  Are there other places that the scriptures speak this way?  Well, yes...consider these words of the apostle Paul:

• So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.2 

• If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.3 

• For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.4 


When the apostle Paul became the subject of much criticism by these same legalists, he felt compelled to defend his calling as an apostle of God to the Corinthian church.  Here is what he said:

I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody.5 

And when Isaiah the prophet was given a vision of the glory of God in heaven, he responded:

Woe is me, for I am ruined! 

Because I am a man of unclean lips, 

And I live among a people of unclean lips; 

For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.6 

As I have examined the scriptures, it seems that it is the sinful and immature who think they are something.  Those who have drawn the closest to God are the most cognizant of the great distance there is between them and God.  They are the ones who truly understand their insignificance compared to him.

The foolish and proud don't even acknowledge the existence of God.  Remember the great king Nebuchadnezzar?  As he looked out on the magnificent beauty of the city of Babylon, he said:

Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?7 

And God responded and said: "I'm going to have to show you that you are not the person you think you are."  And God took the kingdom away from him and he lived like an unreasoning animal for seven years.  Then, God had mercy on him, and he came to his senses and said:

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but the Most High does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth.8 

So, you see, "If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself."  Jesus said that it is the wise person who takes the seat of lowest honor at the banquet table.  For, perhaps, someone might recognize him and invite him to move to a seat of greater distinction.  It is the fool — the one who thinks he is something — that takes for himself a place of honor, for he is likely going to be disgraced, being asked to take a seat of lesser prominence.  

As we live our lives before God and man, we should strive to follow the example of Jesus, who took the place of the servant, and as a result, God the Father has exalted him and given him a name above every name.9  In fact we are exhorted not only to occupy the place of the servant in our daily lives, but to have the mindset of the servant.

In other words, we're instructed not just to reluctantly play the role of a servant in our relationships with others, but instead we are to think of ourselves as simply humble servants of those around us.

Now let's look at the second of these two verses

So, what about the second part of the text we're examining...the part that talks about boasting?  Let's look at this:

But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another.

So, the apostle says, "Since you are nothing, don't look around and compare yourself with others; compare yourself with yourself.  It's easy to find someone else that you think you are besting in life, and boast: "Just look at how much better I am doing than so-and-so!"  

Don't do this, Paul says.  Compare yourself with yourself.  How are you doing today compared to where you were yesterday, last week, last month, last year?  Are you becoming more Christlike?  Are you exhibiting more of his love, his joy, his peace, his patience, his kindness, his goodness, his faithfulness, his gentleness, his self-control?  Are you living in such a way that there is consistently less and less of the works of the flesh seen in your life?  

If you can truly say: "I am a better person today than I was a year ago today, because I am more like Christ and less like the world," then you have a reason for boasting.  If you have adopted more of the mindset of Christ — the attitude that moved him from heaven to the cross — then you have a reason for boasting.   

But wait a minute: this kind of boasting sure doesn't sound very Christlike.  This really sounds like a huge contradiction.  How can you become more humble and Christlike, and then boast about it?  Jesus never boasted about himself.  He didn't travel about telling people that he was the Son of God and Creator of the universe.  He referred to himself as the Son of Man.

Here's what Jesus said about himself:

For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.10 

Even Paul himself speaks against boasting about himself, right in this very chapter:

May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.11 

So here's the bottom line about boasting: To boast about yourself is incompatible with Christlikeness.  We can't even accurately assess ourselves in order to boast about ourselves.  Listen to the apostle's words in this regard:

But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.12 

Putting it all together

So, why then, does the apostle seem to indicate that there is an appropriate time and manner to boast about ourselves?  To answer this question it is necessary to look at this one verse in the entire context of Paul's discussion.  And that is exactly what I have sought to do.

Paul is talking about interpersonal relationships among Christians.  We must make loving our neighbor and serving one another our goal.  If we really care about one another, we cannot stand idly by when we see a brother or sister stumble into, and become ensnared by, sin.

If we are to enter into the very delicate task of trying to help a brother or sister become free from sin, we cannot afford to begin to compare ourselves with others.  If we try to help a fellow Christian overcome sin, because we want to fix a problem they have that we don't, the body of Christ will be damaged.  

You see, anybody can point out sin in another person.  But what that other person needs is someone who will help him get free from the grip of sin.  To truly help someone get free from sin, we must understand that we are there to help release and restore such a one from the trap of sin and the damages it has done to him.

Imagine that your family dog has gotten caught in a old-fashioned mole trap — the bear claw type that grandma used to use.  It wouldn't do any good to just point it out to other members of the family or the neighbors, saying, "What a dumb dog, he got caught in a trap; doesn't he know that if he plays around mole traps he might get caught?!"  Nor would it be helpful to just tell the dog that he's caught in a trap.  Nor would it be beneficial to criticize him for being in a trap.  

No, what the dog needs is for you to carefully and tenderly extract him from the trap, without criticizing him.  And then he needs you to take whatever time and resources are necessary to restore him to health and strength.

If we would do this for an animal, why won't we do it for a brother or sister in Christ?  And yet, I've seen Christians treat other Christians with far greater callousness and unkindness than they would ever do for their family pet...or even the neighbor's dog!

This is how we are to live within the freedom God has given us.  Yes we are free from the laws which shackle men and women in religions around the world.  But we are to use that freedom, not as an excuse for fleshly indulgence, but rather to serve those around us.  We are freed for service!  And what a gift from God this is; for, as Jesus said, the happiness one derives from serving others surpasses the happiness that comes from being served.

So, no, Christlike servants do not go around tooting their own horn.  They realize that if there's anything good in them, it is the gracious work of God's Spirit producing his fruit in their lives.  

The fact is, it can be a dangerous thing to boast about yourself.  Even if there might be an occasion for boasting about yourself, because God loves us, he may bring adversity into our lives to keep us from doing it.  This is what Paul learned, after he asked God three times to remove from him a physical affliction:

There was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me — to keep me from exalting myself!13 

When the apostle Paul speaks of boasting, it is usually about boasting about others.  He might say to the churches in Galatia: "Just look at the godly example being set by the church in Thessalonica; they are showing the world what it really means to be followers of Christ."  This kind of boasting is a good thing and should be practiced.

And, of course, the apostle encourages us to freely boast about Jesus, our Savior.  It is good to eagerly tell others about what Christ is like and what he has done.  Boasting about our Savior and our fellow Christians, should be done in a way that gives all glory (and credit) to God.  Rather than just saying "Praise the Lord", this is how we actually praise the Lord — we boast about our God and what he has done.

Now I can think of a time when we might find it appropriate or necessary to "toot our own horn."  When we are applying for a job, we must tell our prospective employer what good things we have done in order for him to accurately evaluate our qualifications for the job.  However, we need to make sure that we come across with an attitude of humility, not with an attitude of pride.

We must recognize that if any good thing has been accomplished by us, it has only been by the enablement of God's Spirit working in and through us.  If our attitude is one of a humble servant, it will come across through our words and non-verbal communication.  

One further note is appropriate here.  Oft times people will want to complement you on the fine job you may have done in any of a variety of pursuits in which you may have engaged.  Rather than say, each time, "Oh, it wasn't me, it was God working in me," simply and humbly say "Thank you."  People aren't looking for a sermon on the greatness of God at that point, they just want to encourage you and express their gratefulness.  In fact, it could be argued that a simple "Thank you" is a better way to express your humility, drawing less attention to yourself than an explanation of why it was God and not you.

The bottom line

So, should you ever toot your own horn?  Listen to these words of Jesus:

So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2-4)

I guess the answer to the question is determined by whether you'd rather receive honor from people now, or honor from God later.  That's the difference between a foolish man and a wise man: a fool lives for right now; a wise man lives for the future.  Which do you want to be?

1 Luke 18:11-12

2 1 Corinthians 3:7

3 1 Corinthians 13:2

4 1 Corinthians 15:9

5 2 Corinthians 12:11

6 Isaiah 6:5

7 Daniel 4:30

8 Daniel 4:35

9 Philippians 2:5-11

10 Luke 22:27

11 Galatians 6:14

12 1 Corinthians 4:3-4

13 2 Corinthians 12:7

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