Formations 08.03.2014: The Dangers of Success

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Ildar Sagdejev. “Liquidation signs.” Photograph. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Ildar Sagdejev. “Liquidation signs.” Photograph. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Most business owners assume that success comes in a series of steps, with each success leading their business to new heights. What many overlook, however, is that each new achievement also produces counterproductive forces that must be addressed. The problem, according to business consultant Alon Popilskis, is that success can lead to the twin dangers of complacency and arrogance.

When a business gets complacent, it acts as if its track record is all it needs to achieve success in the future. It begins to cut corners. People merely go through the motions and lose sight of the important “little things” that are often vitally important to success. Whether this happens intentionally or unintentionally, the effects are the same.

With arrogance comes the assumption that success in one area guarantees success in any other field as well. Such a company forgets what made it successful, abandoning the core market it began in and instead chasing new markets—where it assumes its success is guaranteed.

It may sound backwards, but the biggest risk of failure often comes from success itself. In the end, it doesn’t matter what we have accomplished if we allow complacency or arrogance to be our undoing. If we are content to rest on our past accomplishments or if we convince ourselves that because we’ve done well at one thing, we are bound to be successful at something else, we are not far from disaster.

Paul knew this as well as anyone, so he warned the Corinthians about becoming either complacent or arrogant in their Christian walk. He was well aware that his message sounded foolish, but he took comfort in the fact that God defined wisdom quite a bit differently than the prevailing culture.

He urged the Corinthians to remember the humble origins many of them had—not wise, powerful, or of noble birth. And yet God demonstrated divine wisdom and power through such inauspicious people. Rather than boasting in personal accomplishments or credentials, Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers to boast in the Lord.

Alon Popilskis, “The Counterintuitive Reason the Biggest Risk of Failure Is Success (and How to Stop It),”, 9 July 2014!bkrMnl.


• When have you seen success turn into failure because of complacency? Because of arrogance?
• Do you think the Corinthians were more guilty of complacency or arrogance? What hints in today’s text lead you to that conclusion?
• How is humility a good antidote for these two failings?

Reference Shelf

Response to Reports of Strife

1 Cor 1:10 4:21 addresses the factionalism in the Corinthian fellow ship. After identifying three or four parties, including the Paul, Apollos, and Cephas groups, and, possibly, the Christ group, Paul develops the theme of the mysterious wisdom of Cod as revealed through the cross of Christ. The theme is forged powerfully, but subtly. Human perceptions of strength and wisdom are contrary to the activity of God through Christ. The wisdom of God transcends the wisdom of humanity and, therefore, calls for humanity to put aside ill-conceived notions of prestige and work together as good stewards of the wisdom of God. Paul punctuates this theme with illustrations of the cooperative spirit of ministry which allowed Apollos and Paul to work for the same goals in Corinth .

Richard F. Wilson, “Corinthian Correspondence,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 173.

God Chooses the Weak

As a paradigmatic proof of the counterintuitive nature of God’s wisdom revealed in the word of the cross, Paul asks the Corinthians to look at themselves at the point of their calling…. When they do, they are reminded of the status (or lack of it) for the majority of members: “Not many were wise according to the flesh (sophoi kata sarka), not many were powerful (dynatoi), not many were well born (eugeneis).” This verse has been taken as an indication that a few in the church did possess such social attributes. While it does suggest that, the emphasis here is that most of them lacked those laudable assets. Wisdom “according to the flesh” is wisdom from a human perspective. This is the main contrast Paul wishes to draw at this point since his argument thus far has focused on the difference between God’s wisdom and the worldly wisdom they cherish. Paul expands his focus here, however, introducing two other qualities to form a triad that he will refer to again in 4:10…. There he sharply contrasts the Corinthians with the foolish, weak, and disreputable apostles such as himself. Here the focus is on contradictory values of worldly wisdom and of God’s wisdom.

The point of Paul’s reminder of their
status at the time of their calling is not
 primarily to belittle them or to put them
back in their place, though that is partly
his purpose, but rather to stress the
radical nature of God’s wisdom. God acts 
counter to the world’s norms. God chose 
the foolish, powerless, and lowly. The 
second term is asthene, which is usually
translated “weak” and thus contrasts with
the “strong” (schyra) whom God has not 
chosen. The “strong,” though, parallel the
“powerful” of 1:26, so asthene may be
read “powerless.” The last term, agena, 
contrasts with the eugeneis of 1:26, but 
Paul adds a qualifier (ta exouthenemena=
“the despised”) to bring out the significance of the social attribute of being “well
born”: they are esteemed, while the lowly 
are not. The foolish, weak, and lowly are counted as “nothings” (to me onta) in the perspective of worldly wisdom. Yet, God had chosen such nobodies to render the “somebodies” nothing (1:28). In fact, God’s calling entails a reversal of the total order of the values of worldly wisdom. Paul asserts that God’s purpose in calling was to subvert all human boasting before God. His target here is not only the world outside the church but also the point where the world’s standards for boasting have penetrated the church. That those standards have done so is evident in 4:6-7 where Paul accuses the Corinthians of being puffed up and boasting. If his words were intended for the whole church and not simply for an elite that carried their external status into the assembly, then even the foolish, weak, and lowly were guilty of boasting. Of what? One answer often proposed is that they were glorying in their experience of spiritual gifts. Another is that they were boasting of the superiority of the leader of their faction, which signified that their own status was superior to members of other factions. Both views can be supported, and both may have been true. An eschatological (or noneschatological) perspective different from Paul’s was also likely involved. Paul saw the church as a “work in progress.” The Corinthians relished what they had already accomplished, and from the perspective guiding their assessment, they had accomplished much. That perspective was shaped, however, by worldly wisdom and its competitive standards. Paul again interjects his theocentric perspective asserting that before God no one can boast.

This God is the sole source of their life in Christ Jesus, who is always the crucified Christ (1:30). This crucified one has become wisdom for us from God (recalling 1:24). Three other aspects of God’s activity in Christ are added in 1:30: righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Together with wisdom, these terms may form a fourfold contrast to the foolish, weak, lowly, and discounted nobodies of 1:27-28.31 Or, the last three terms may define the results of God’s peculiar wisdom.32 The terms may also reflect the influence of Paul’s source for the quotation that follows in 1:31: “Let one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”… The reference to God’s action as steadfast love, justice, and righteousness may have led Paul to give a threefold explication of God’s wisdom enacted in the cross of Christ. In any case, the stress is on the fact that they are from God. They are gifts, as Paul reminds them in 4:7, and thus boasting is precluded, except for boasting in what God has done.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 90–92.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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