"What do you have that you did not receive?" (1 Corinthians 4:7). How would you answer that question? Think about your bank statement, the recent promotion, your marriage, children, grandchildren, your athletic abilities, your spiritual gifts, even your salvation? "What do you have that you did not receive?" I see only two possible answers:
You did not receive all that you possess — or — You did receive all that you possess.
The first response commits a heinous, theological crime: it confuses the Creator-creature distinction. God alone is the only being in the universe to possess without first receiving something. We, on the other hand, must receive something extra nos ("outside of ourselves") before possessing anything. After all, who can bestow on themselves the gift of life? The second response, then, is the most theologically accurate response a Christian could give: you did receive everything that you possess.
Nevertheless, it is one thing to affirm a theological truth in our heads and another to affirm it in our lives. In theory, we happily declare that God is the source (and therefore the rightful owner) of all that we possess. But, in practice, we slowly begin to take ownership of our most prized possessions and accomplishments. That is why Paul raises a second question in 1 Cor. 4:7: "If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?" Of course, the Corinthians would declare that they have received all that they own (see 1 Cor. 1:4-9). It would be preposterous to say otherwise. And yet, you can't read through much of 1 Corinthians without being struck by the obvious fact that they didn't practice what they preached. As Christians, they inconsistently adopted a culturally-acceptable mode of gaining honor in the Greco-Roman world: they boasted. Just read 1 Cor. 11:20-22 & 12:18-26 to see how they held their gifts over people oppressively, as if to say: "Look at what I have and you don't. Do you see my glorious possessions and accomplishments? I'm far more privileged spiritually than you."
Although it manifests itself differently today, boasting still runs rampant in the church and discloses a major inconsistency in the lives of believers. To put it bluntly, we often think and act like the world. We think that our house is the result of our hard labor at work, that our job is a direct corollary of our educational achievements and intellectual aptitude, or that favor from the world is a natural consequence of our unique personalities. We then begin acting in a way that confirms those beliefs. Our speech reveals the fact that we neither believe that the Lord gives nor that He takes away. Our actions demonstrate that we believe we can determine our own destinies. And our lives are characterized more by self-sufficiency than dependence on God.
By focusing so intently on our gifts as being ours, we become short-sighted in two distinct ways. First, we lose sight of the reality that all of our possessions are gifts from God. Without Him, we would possess nothing. He provides the strength and health to work. He gives the ability to grasp intellectual concepts and earn degrees. And He grants us favor in the eyes of the world. Second, we lose sight of the reality that all of our possessions are owned by God. When you receive a gift from someone, you own that gift. The giver surrenders his/her rights of ownership. When you receive a gift from God, however, you are the second owner, if you will. God never surrenders His rights as the primary owner. "For from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:36). All that He gives and all that He receives is His.
Recognizing God as the ultimate giver and supreme owner of all your possessions will, by the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit, generate Christ-exalting traits within you:
- Humility – as you consider your greatest achievements in life as undeserved gifts
- Divine Dependency – as you entrust yourself to our Creator, from whom all things flow
- Responsibility – as you use your possessions in a way that glorifies our Triune God
- Generosity – as you give just as freely as you have been given
- True Worship – as you combat idolatry by elevating the Giver above His gifts
May the only true and living God grant us the grace to hold our most cherished gifts in this life loosely, being willing to use them (and even lose them) to the glory of His name, so that we may live in accordance with Paul's command: "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:31).