Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes is one of those wonderful stories for children that has much to say to adults. If you remember, the emperor is a boastful sort who is taken advantage of by two tailors promising to make him the finest set of clothes ever seen—sort of. The catch is that the clothes are so wonderful they are only visible to the most important and powerful people. No ordinary person can hope to even get a glimpse of them. Of course, the emperor is unable to see them but he’s much too vain to admit that. Finally, when he is parading his new clothes in front of all of his subjects, a child blurts out the truth that everyone else is afraid to say—the emperor has nothing on! His pride and vanity have blinded him to the tailors’ deceit.
Boasting is really a pointless endeavor, isn’t it? “To speak with exaggeration and excessive pride, especially about oneself,” (Dictionary.com), offers a short term-gain at best, but more often it repels rather than attracts. I suppose we boast in an attempt to carve out a bigger niche for ourselves—a little more attention, a little more admiration (if you can call it that), a little more recognition from others. Maybe the worst thing about boasting is its intent—to separate ourselves from others by virtue of some supposed superiority on our part. For some reason, boasters aren’t content to be part of the crowd. They have to be different and stand out. Something like this was happening at the church at Corinth. Some of the disciples had formed little groups according to which leader they liked the best. Naturally, each group thought its leader was better than those of the other groups and promoted their view. Before long, the situation had seriously disintegrated and people who were supposed to be known by their love for one another were instead known for jealousy and quarreling (3:3). They were even taking each other to court (6:6).
Long before Hans Christian Andersen penned his story of a proud man with no clothes, Peter told the Christians he was writing to “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another,” (1 Peter 5:5). Humility is spiritual self-honesty. It is to see ourselves as we really are. When we do, we see that we are much more like others than unlike them. All of us are flawed human beings; known intimately and loved ultimately by the same Father. That’s why humility brings people together and boasting drives them apart.
Back to the Corinthians. Paul had a simple, two-question test to ground them in reality. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). These are good questions to keep in mind to ensure we’re wearing the right clothes.