One of the clearest measures of our spiritual state is our response to the “must’s,” the commands of Scripture. We have all been acquainted with a person (perhaps we are one) who would happily do a task of his own free will, but, when it became a necessity, rebelled against doing exactly the same thing. Blessed is the person who puts down his flesh and willingly does what Scripture says he must do. Today’s text strikes right at the heart of our rebellious human nature. “Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise” (I Cor. 3:18). Everything about this verse is counterintuitive to our natural way of thinking.
1. “Let no man deceive himself.” In the first place, we are naturally disinclined to think that we have been deceived—or even that we are capable of being deceived. The idea that someone is more clever than we are and could “pull one over” on us is almost unthinkable. We’re not gullible; we can smell a rat. But should it ever cross our minds that someone might be capable of deceiving us, that we might be self-deceived never enters our heads. Should I be deceived, it’s because some nefarious person with no conscience has taken advantage of my charitable nature. But that I should be deceived on my own without any external influence? Absurd! Yet Paul’s God-breathed warning reminds us never to rely on our own sense of well-being or sufficiency, never to trust our own feelings, “instinct,” knowledge, or experience.
2. “If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age . . .” The whole thrust of our culture is toward becoming “wise in this age.” Young people feel tremendous pressure to acquire college degrees, then advanced degrees, to gain broad experience in as many cultural endeavors as possible. A bloated catalogue of educational, job, athletic, and cultural experiences is viewed as a resume enhancer. The problem with these things is not in themselves. God does not place a premium on ignorance and lack of practical experience or intellectual knowledge. The problem arises when we think we are “wise in this age” and substitute that wisdom (regardless of how valid it is) for the wisdom of God as revealed on the pages of His Word. Add to those facts, the reality that this age promotes self-esteem, teaching that a person who does not think well of himself and his abilities suffers from a severe lapse in judgment, and we have a recipe for disaster. The Scripture cautions us against self-reliance.
3. “He must become foolish.” At this point, we may find ourselves in full-fledged rebellion. This is beyond counterintuitive. It seems completely absurd! Who in his right mind would become foolish deliberately? Isn’t foolishness something to be avoided at all costs? Not the foolishness God demands. This “must” is not a call to jettison the natural things we have learned. But Paul is warning us neither to trust in nor to rely on those natural things. They are good, even essential, for constructing a building or creating a spreadsheet, but the truths of the Word that govern our lives, spiritual matters, cannot be understood and applied properly through human wisdom and natural understanding. The thought processes required to bake a cake or navigate a trip are not sufficient to enable us to understand and obey God’s will.
4. “So that he may become wise.” The knowledge someone relied on to pass a physics test, to repair an engine, or to run a business will not propel him to spiritual wisdom. They exist in two different realms. My ability to walk on land may prepare me to run, but it will not prepare me to swim in water. They are two different realms. In fact, I must leave the land and walking in order to swim. So it is regarding spiritual wisdom. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (I Cor. 2:14). In order to be wise in God’s eyes, in order to understand the Word, in order to walk in God’s way, we must become “foolish.” We must reject merely natural ways of thinking and natural ways of making decisions. Then, Christ will be to us “wisdom from God” (I Cor. 1:30).
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