1 Corinthians 3:18-23
I used to play the trombone in high school and college. I really enjoyed playing in musical groups, and I even took trombone lessons from a trombonist at the Seattle Symphony. During one of the lessons (probably to encourage me to work harder), he told me about another of his students, one who longed to become a professional musician… but just wasn’t very good at playing the trombone. Sadly, that student had deceived himself into thinking that he was good enough to become a professional. I myself had no such self-deception; I knew I wasn’t that great and was just doing it for enjoyment.
Sometimes we see ourselves in a proper light, as I did with respect to trombone playing. But other times we are like my fellow student. In fact, there are many different ways in which we deceive ourselves, whether thinking too highly or too lowly of ourselves. For instance, we might convince ourselves that we are better, smarter, prettier, more important, or more influential than we actually are. Conversely, we may view ourselves as less capable or less influential than is the case. Too often we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not sinful, when God’s Word declares that all have sinned. Or we may claim that we are “self-made,” when in fact we are indebted to countless others for any good in our lives. (I wrote about this here.)
In today’s passage, Paul is speaking about a specific kind of self-deception. The key to understanding his perspective is found in the context. In the preceding verses, Paul speaks about building the temple of God, and he urges his readers to build in a way that endures the coming fire of judgment. Moreover, this section of 1 Corinthians deals with the problem of factionalism in the church. The Corinthians were boasting about their association with certain teachers. (See 1 Corinthians 1:12: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, I follow Christ’ [TNIV].) From this broad context, we can see that the Corinthians were relying on their connections to secure their good standing, rather than viewing themselves from God’s perspective. The self-deception pictured here, therefore, is thinking that aligning oneself with the “right” faction will guarantee a better outcome at the judgment.
The underlying thinking of the Corinthians reflected here—thinking that would have corresponded to the worldly wisdom of the day—seems to have been that if you affiliate with the right crowd and if that crowd approves of you, then you are secure. Worldly wisdom claimed that if you are wise in the eyes of others, you are wise, indeed. Paul is saying that such thinking is worthless. Better to become a fool in the eyes of the world and pursue wisdom in the eyes of God. The latter type of wisdom includes attending to the quality of one’s workmanship (as we saw in last week’s devotional) rather than concentrating on what others think. We must care more about what God thinks than what people think. Thinking that we are ok despite what our consciences say simply because others say we are ok is self-deception. God’s opinion of our character counts, not what others might say.
You may have heard the old yarn: you can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time–but you can’t fool Mom! Today’s message is that you can even fool yourself, but you can’t fool God. We cling to our self-deceptions because they represent cherished dreams (like the trombone player) or because the deceptive thoughts feel safe, comforting, or empowering. But such feelings are themselves deceptive. Safety, comfort, and power based on misperceptions are neither safe nor comfortable nor powerful. It is better, therefore, to evaluate oneself in light of God’s view. Only with God’s perspective can we operate according to the way things really are. Only then can we work to please Him, not others.