Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor 1 : 20-25 NIV)
I think about money a lot lately. No, I don’t mean complaining I don’t have enough, wishing I had more, and planning how to get it fast. I mean asking, “What makes money have those properties people want it for?”
epSos.de, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A quick look in any introductory economics text shows why. Money is desired because it is:
- A unit of measure – In accounting as in science, we need a unit to make sense of magnitudes so we can compare different things. Money does that. We use it to measure ‘value’ so that we know $1000 is ‘worth’ more than $100 which in turn is more valuable than $20. It is a critical numbering unit for counting.
- A means of payment or exchange – In this sense, money is simply a currency. Some used seashells, today mostly coins and notes. If you go to a casino, it’s numbered plastic chips. Currency just needs to be generally trusted and accepted as a token for value in exchange among transacting parties.
- A store of value – All things being equal, a dollar tomorrow will be just as valuable as a dollar today (provide inflation or interest rates are not very high) because that dollar buys the same amount of goods or services. By the same token, a rose wouldn’t do because by tomorrow it would have wilted and become less valuable.
In short, money is used to record, transact, exchange and store worth, making it very desirable indeed.
When we apply the same reasoning to our sense of worth, we find we too need a reliable unit of measure for our ‘value’ as persons. Without it, we don’t know what counts, what counts most, and who’s counting.
Unlike money which we have to take as granted for the systems in which we live, we still have a choice of measure, use ours or God’s. Both have consequences.
Poet Alexander Pope1 once said that only man can be the reference for his own worth.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
The result is clear, when we are our yardstick for our own values, we become the reference. Our measurement of values is therefore entirely self-referencing. It rules out any hope of validation.
And the consequences of using our own measure of worth? Being seduced into a system of values that measures and rewards the wrong things and punishes the right ones.
So what – you ask – is wrong with our value system being self-referencing? Don’t we know enough of our moral compass to make the right choices and even define what is “right” in the first place? Simply this, a self-referencing system is doomed to failure trying to define itself.
Like the hands in Escher’s drawing desperately trying to define each other; neither one trying to draw the other is real. Neither can be. They are both doomed to fail trying to create their own reality.
The alternative is to trash our self-referencing measurements and adopt God’s.
The early history of the church demonstrates the power of such a reversal of value measurement.
We are asked to exchange one set of value measurements for another (Rom 12:2) because continued allegiance to ours will warp our sense of proportion (1 Jn 2: 15) and we will take the path of least resistance and follow everyone else going the same direction to our ruin (Exo 23:2).
Similarly, we’re asked to critically assess our measure of worth (Isa 55:2) to understand value in God’s eyes, the result of which will be a denial of our existing measures (Phil 3:7). Failure to do so will also have its own results when we stand at the judgment seat (Rev 3: 17-19).
Paul’s accounting analogy in Phil 3:7-10 could not have put the issue of choice of measurement system any more strongly. What was counted as a ‘credit’ item, is now a ‘debit’ in measuring the “profit and loss” for the worth of our lives. The balance sheet of value is completely overturned. What was formerly valued as worthy is now considered trash.
In critical times in the history of Israel, God himself chose differently from what we would have expected, precisely because He looks at different measures of value (1 Sam 16:7). Only with such a different measure of value would David have qualified to be king before Saul.
The CVs and resumes of the early apostles and converts were nothing much to shout about. Here is Paul himself describing the “qualifications” of believers in the early church (1 Cor 1: 26-28).
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,
Against the odds, a group of nobodies has affirmed a value system the world considered worthless. With this reversal of value systems, this motley crew took the world by storm by the strength of their conviction in a risen Christ who was their ultimate guarantor for their worth. And that worth extends to eternity and is independent of the disciples’ circumstances, their birth, their times, or their social status.
We are told that the same risen Christ is the source of all our worth because we are loved by Him, we are valuable enough for that first and last Man to die to recover our potential (John 3:16). We dare not think too lowly of ourselves or too highly (Rom 12:3), we peg our reckoning of value to the one measure that will outlast our world, our measures of value – Jesus himself.
Paul’s own unsuccessful struggle to deal with his thorn in the flesh is a case in point (2 Cor 12:9-10). Here is a learned and pious man who’s had to deal with throwing away all he once considered treasure; his social status among the Pharisees, his learning, his proud Jewishness. Recently converted to the Gospel, Paul is still fighting a losing battle dealing with his personal weakness. But instead of crumbling under its weight, Paul finds grace to accept it with the strength of Christ.
He says “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The Gospel is given to those who are weak. Those who by the reckoning of this world are strong, see little or no need for it. And yes, certainly by one set of criteria (the world’s), these so-called weaklings need a crutch to help them through life.
Yes, the weak feel the need for grace more than the strong because they have no substitutes for the illusion of self-sufficiency. But that does not make them losers by the values measured by God. Jer 9:23 warns the strong and the rich not to place confidence in their measures of sufficiency. It suggests that the only measure that matters is that they know God. That kind of value reversal identifies and grounds their true source of strength.
Now that’s value we can look forward to measuring!