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I Am the Greatest!

In 1964, the Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali touted, “I am the greatest!” After his match against Sonny Liston, he escalated his claim and said, “I’m not the greatest. I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round. I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today.”

Ali continued in his self-promotion in 1976 as he toured wrestling matches around the nation to build hype for his upcoming fight against a Japanese wrestler. According to the rumors of that day, his managers asked Ali to sit in the front row, then at the set time, jump in the ring, and knock out the wrestler with one (fake) punch.

However, on June 2, 1976, something changed. After the first wrestling match ended, Ali threw off his coat, tie, and shoes, and stepped into the ring with the professional wrestler, Gorilla Monsoon. Ali moved around the ring trash talking and jabbing at Monsoon, who dodged every punch. Tired of the charade, Gorilla picked up Ali, turned him around in an airplane spin, and threw him down. Dazed, Ali stood up – with the help of his managers, and then slumped inside the ropes. Humbled, Muhammad hopped out of the boxing ring, pointing and shouting insults at Gorilla as he left the building.

No one knows for sure whether the men preplanned that event; however, it is doubtful that Muhammad Ali would ever arrange to take a fall for any reason. His ego wouldn’t have it.

The video of that fight will live on to remind us that from that moment on, “The Greatest” had a chink in his armor that would start his journey towards humility.

Later in his life, after his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali stated, “Sometimes I feel a little sad because I can see how some things I said could upset some people. But I did not deliberately try to hurt anyone. The hype was part of my job, like skipping rope. Now the things that once were so effortless—my strong voice and the quickness of my movements—are more difficult. But I get up every day and try to live life to the fullest because each day is a gift from God.”

Pride, in full force, is inordinate, unreasonable, and drips with conceit. Its desire is self-glorification, the suppression of others, and the need to separate from those whom you value as less than you are. The constant boasting of one’s accomplishments and talents can lead to disrespect.

Even so, is it ever okay to boast about yourself?

Many of us will say no; however, the Apostle Paul found himself boasting to counteract the lies of the men who attempted to suppress or change the gospel message. For example, in 2 Corinthians we see the false teachers casting doubts about Paul and his authority as an apostle of God. To re-establish his credibility, Paul brags about his ministry and his accomplishments. In chapter 12:1-4 he says, “I must go on boasting, though there is nothing to be gained by it. I will mention the visions and revelations I received from the Lord.  Likewise, fourteen years prior, I entered paradise and heard things shared only with me; secrets, which I could not tell anyone.” (Paraphrased – ESV).

How’s that for being unique?  He pops into heaven, listens to secrets, and drops back down to earth. Who does that? Paul and only Paul.

Even so, instead of allowing the apostle to ride the tides of mini godhood, (like Ali) God humbled him. He gave him a “thorn in the flesh,” that continued to bother him. The annoyance became so troublesome that Paul continued to ask God to remove it. But God didn’t. God kept him humble – to Paul’s delight. That’s right; Paul rejoiced in his humility. He says in 2 Cor.12:9-10, “But he (God) said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 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.” (ESV)

So what is the lesson learned from these two men? With quick wit and rhyme, Ali boasted of his abilities, his good looks, and his confidence to beat anyone in the ring, to enhance his career. Paul bragged of his ministry to save the Corinthian congregation from the Leaders who tried to propagate lies. Therefore, Paul’s motive was his love for the brethren.

Volume 6 of The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel (pgs. 645-648) states, “The true sin of self-glorifying is man’s failure to acknowledge God as the Author and Lord of all being and Giver of all good things. It is his forgetfulness of God and ungrateful usurpation of His glory. The righteous man avoids such boasting. He seeks to serve God alone, for he sees himself and he realizes that he is dust and ashes. He recognizes God as the Lord of life and death, and he knows that he has received his soul and all that he has only as a loan entrusted to him by the Creator. In this humble submission, he attains to God’s grace and true glory, for the humble stand high with God.”

“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” 2 Corinthians 10:17 (ESV)