Our culture doesn’t think much of fools. If someone had come up to you last week and called you a fool, I suspect you would not have felt complimented and admired. In fact, the primary definition of the word is “a silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense.” I have to tell you, I’ve had nicer introductions than that. No, there are many words I might be happy to have used in describing me, but fool isn’t at the top of the list.
And yet, the apostle Paul seems to turn the tables on us in his first letter to the Corinthian church. In chapter 3, beginning in verse 18, he writes:
“Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile. So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. ”
So Paul says if you really want to be wise you should become a fool.
What is Paul talking about here? He is extending a discussion that began in chapter 1, beginning in verse 18, where he wrote:
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1:18-25)
Paul wants us to understand that true wisdom is found only in Christ, and it is rooted in the reality of the cross. Out of brutal death has come eternal life. What the world considers foolish is actually the greatest wisdom we can ever obtain. Jews seek truth in the Law and Gentiles seek truth in their own minds, says Paul, but the truth of God is found in the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus Christ on a cross. What makes no sense from a human perspective is the greatest truth any man or woman could ever discover.
There are a couple of important truths found in these passages. One is that:
To claim God’s wisdom, we must be willing to let the world consider us fools.
Paul writes in chapter 3: “If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.”
As David Garland observes, “To be wise, one must be willing to become a fool in the eyes of the world.” And that’s not something we enjoy, is it? Particularly for those of us who live and work in the academe, being considered a fool is not exactly at the top of our job descriptions or our list of personal goals.
No, we want to be recognized as brilliant thinkers, shrewd analysts, gifted scholars. I’ve looked at a lot of advertisements for faculty positions, and I’ve yet to see one that reads: “Faculty vacancy. Required that candidate be a fool.”
The Corinthians certainly didn’t want to be considered fools. They valued philosophy, reason, the life of the mind. They were attracted to the traveling scholars who spoke in the marketplace; they became intellectual groupies that connected themselves to the best and brightest of their culture. Even the believers in this young church had picked up on the desire to connect to their own celebrities, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas.
And Paul replies, “Let him become foolish that he may become wise.” The world wants to impress others with their so-called wisdom, but you must be different, even if that means appearing to be fools in the eyes of the world.
As one commentator put it, “The Corinthians must see the contrast between Christianity and the world and then accept the label fool.” The world may operate on the law of revenge and getting all you can for yourself; you must operate on the divine law of love for enemy, forgiveness of those who act against you, sharing with those in need, even if they have nothing to offer you in return. The world looks at that and says: fool. God looks at it and says: wisdom.
(to be continued)
Michael Duduit is founding Dean of the College of Christian Studies and the Clamp Divinity School at Anderson University. He also serves as Professor of Christian Ministry. He is the founder and still serves as Executive Editor of Preaching magazine, one of the nation’s premier publications for pastors. His email newsletter, Preaching Now, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences. He is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Joy in Ministry: Messages from Second Corinthians, Preaching with Power: Dynamic Insights from Twenty Top Communicators and Communicate With Power.