For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
Here Paul refuses an alluring and easy mindset for ministry: Counting. The misleading teachers in Galatia apparently wanted to count circumcisions (a fairly graphic and theologically troubling endeavor); we like to count baptisms or conversions or members or attenders or visitors or dollars or books sales or campuses or church plants. Like them, we are prone to counting for the sake of boasting, if only to ourselves.
We like to take credit for the good; we prefer to blame someone else for the bad. Somehow, we’re able to boast about our congregation’s strength and complain about our congregation’s weakness simultaneously. Bonhoeffer comments on the latter:
Pastors should not complain about their congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. Congregations have not been entrusted to them in order that they should become accusers of their congregations before God and their fellow human beings. When pastors lose faith in a Christian community in which they have been placed and begin to make accusations against it, they had better examine themselves first to see whether the underlying problem is not their own idealized image, which should be shattered by God. And if they find that to be true, let them thank God for leading them into this predicament. But if they find that it is not true, let them nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of those whom God has gathered together. Instead, let them accuse themselves of their unbelief, let them ask for an understanding of their own failure and their particular sin, and pray that they may not wrong other Christians. Let such pastors, recognizing their own guilt, make intercession for those charged to their care. Let them do what they have been instructed to do and thank God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer,Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: DBW 5, pp. 37-38
We should neither boast nor complain. As much time and effort as pastoring requires, we will only escape these two infections if we remember this: “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Only new creation counts, and only God can create anew. Thus, we need only (can only) boast in the surprising cross of Christ.
It’s a joy to come back to Seattle and see former youth group students thrive in relationships, jobs, faith, service, character, and insight, not least of which because the gap between what I taught and what they do, what I modeled and what they’ve become, what I understood and what they have mastered looms so large. The chasm reveals that I can’t count any of these young adults as “my creations.” In terms of human ministry, other people with gifts and wisdom I lack have cared for and raised these men and women. Zooming out, God has directed all this new creation.
It is only left to me to “do what I have been instructed to do and thank God.”
“Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”