(Note: This message by Michael Duduit was presented at the Inklings Weekend in April 2011, which focused on the work of C.S. Lewis and had as its theme “Fools for Christ.”)

1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Sometimes, it seems, children are able to demonstrate some unique insights about life. Here are some examples of the wisdom of kids:
• Patrick, age 10, said, “Never trust a dog to watch your food.”
• Michael, 14, said, “When your dad is mad and asks you, ‘Do I look stupid?’ don’t answer him.”
• Michael, wise man that he was also said, “Never tell your mom her diet’s not working.”
• Kyoyo, age 9, said, “Never hold a Dust Buster and a cat at the same time.”
• Naomi, 15 said, “If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse.”
• Lauren, age 9 said, “Felt markers are not good to use as lipstick.”
• Joel, 10 years old, said, “Don’t pick on your sister when she’s holding a baseball bat.”
• Eileen, age 8 said, “Never try to baptize a cat.”

We can admire the wisdom of children. The truth is, most of us are in a search for wisdom, for understanding. We want to know — we have a hunger for knowledge. We read, we explore, because we want to know; and we admire those who have achieved a certain level of knowledge and wisdom; we celebrate those who are wise.

Certainly Jesus seemed to encourage us to make the maximum use of our minds. In Matthew 22:37, He challenges us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” The use of the mind is a way in which we love God; it is an act of worship. For those of us in Christian higher education, it is a great comfort to know that Christ affirms and encourages the life of the mind as a way to give glory to God.

So why in the world would we gather this weekend to talk about fools?

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.

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 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 Corinthians 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.” 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 who 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.

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 claim God’s wisdom, we must be willing to let the world consider us fools. There’s a second truth found in the Scripture:
To claim God’s wisdom, we must recognize that authentic wisdom is a gift of God.

Paul wants us to understand we can’t discover truth on our own. We are not the authors of wisdom; we are its stewards.

In verses 21-23, he writes: “So then let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come: all things are yours. You are of Christ, and Christ is of God.” Paul uses an imperative form of the verb here, which leads some commentators to render it: “No more boasting about men!”

Earlier in this letter, Paul quoted from Jeremiah when he asserted to the Corinthians: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (v. 1:31). Now he picks up that thought and reminds them that because God is the source of all good things, there is no place for boasting about themselves or other human beings. All that we have comes from God’s hands — the creation itself, the air we breathe, the life we live, the wisdom we may hold.

When Paul observes, “For all things are yours,” he is using a saying used by the Stoic thinkers to affirm their own self-sufficiency; but Paul takes that idea and turns it on its head, pointing out they are not, in fact, self-sufficient, but utterly dependent on the God who is the source of everything. These Christians do possess all things, but not because of any inherent value or capabilities of their own; they possess all things because of their relationship to Christ.

In other words, the man or woman who boasts in his or own wisdom is truly a fool.

There is an interesting twist here for those of us who serve as teachers or pastors or other leaders. As several commentators observe, Paul is reminding the believers they do not belong to their teachers or leaders; they are not aligned with a party of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. No, those teachers belong to them; their leaders are their servants, because all of us are in relationship to Christ.

We are all of Christ. We are not of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. We are not of Swindoll or Jeremiah or Keller. We are not of the Johns — Piper, MacArthur or Maxwell. We are not even of Lewis. We are all of Christ. He is the One who went to a cross to purchase our salvation, and rose from the grave to purchase our eternity. As the hymn proclaims:

“Jesus paid it all,
“All to whom I owe.
“Sin had left a crimson stain,
“He washed it white as snow.”

Wisdom is recognizing that all we need is Christ. He is all we have, He is all we need. Only in dependence on Christ are we freed to receive all that God has for us.

When we surrender our pretensions to wisdom and submit to the wisdom of God, we receive more than we could have ever imagined.

To claim God’s wisdom, we must recognize authentic wisdom is a gift of God. To put it another way: If you really want to be wise you should become a fool.

Last weekend, our family traveled to Charlotte to watch Max McLean’s performance of The Screwtape Letters. As I watched his masterful performance, bringing the devilish Screwtape to life on stage, I began to wonder: Who is the fool in this work?

There are plenty of candidates among the unseen players. Certainly you can make a case the Patient is a fool. The Patient is the young man who is being tempted by Wormwood under the experienced tutelage of senior devil Screwtape. Although the Patient becomes a Christian, he wastes much of his short life in side roads and misplaced enthusiasms. He could be our fool.

Then there’s the couple who befriend the Patient, offering him witty conversation and social status that is quite attractive. He enjoys being with these worldly wise folks who seem so trendy, so accomplished. They would draw him away from the faith he had come to hold and would redirect him into a worldly direction. Yes, we might think of them as fools.

The more I thought of it, the more I realized the ultimate fool was Screwtape himself. In his very last letter to Wormwood, he closes with these words: “Once again, the inexplicable meets us. Next to the curse of useless tempters such as yourself, the greatest curse upon us is the failure of our Intelligence Department. If only we could find out what He is really up to! Alas, alas, that knowledge in itself so hateful and mawkish a thing, should yet be necessary for Power!”

For all his experience and skill — shared with a young protégé — Screwtape never really understood the power of the cross, never understood grace. He never understood what God was up to. In every way that ultimately matters, he was a fool.

So there it is: In the economy of God, there truly is wisdom in folly. If you really want to be wise, you should become a fool. A fool for Christ. A fool for the cross. A fool who trades everything this world values — status, ambition, reputation — for the only thing that never can be lost: the power and the wisdom of God.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, 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, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. 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.

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