Paul’s theology of the cross brings a new element to our discussion of achievement that has potential to invert our whole understanding.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved.” Paul is not addressing achievement per se, nor the related topics of work or excellence. He is talking about the message of the cross and what it means for the world. God’s wisdom makes the world’s wisdom foolish (v. 20) and is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (v.23). But in God’s wisdom, he saves those who believe the “foolish” message of the cross (v.21). Christ crucified is God’s power and God’s wisdom (v.24), which is wiser than human wisdom and stronger than human strength (v.25).
The “foolishness” of the message of the cross has significant implications for achievement.
The “foolishness” of the message of the cross has significant implications for achievement. The cross inverts our understanding of wisdom and strength. Worldly greatness is recognized through a superior measure of strength, which means that a powerful god or messiah ought to overthrow his enemies by sheer power. But Jesus died a humiliating, shameful death. How can this one be God? How can he be King? He is weak. He is mocked. He dies.
And therein lies the point. In the weakness of the cross, Jesus overthrows his enemies. He overthrows us by love. He conquers sin and death through sacrifice of himself. He defeats the powers of evil by being subjected to their hatred.
The message of the cross therefore overturns our worldly measures of greatness. What appears weak to the world is, in fact, the power of God for salvation. What seems pathetic and foolish is the wisdom of God.
Does this mean that achievement in the world’s eyes is not achievement from God’s perspective?
I think yes and no.
First the no. It is clear from the biblical exploration conducted so far that God is for achievement—and by that I mean achievement that is recognized as such by humanity at large. The combination of work and excellence for achieving certain outcomes characterizes God himself and his design for humanity, notwithstanding the ways that sin has warped achievement.
The cross reveals that God puts a very high premium on humility, on self-sacrifice, on other person-centeredness.
But also yes. Part of the way sin has warped achievement is that we may assess it incorrectly. We may think that achievement is primarily defined by strength and power. We may take pride in our achievements and lord it over others. We may think our achievements give us security and status. But the message of the cross brings these “warpings” of achievements under a lethal critique (pun intended). The cross reveals that God puts a very high premium on humility, on self-sacrifice, on other-person-centeredness. The cross reveals that weakness triumphs over strength when strength is self-serving and puffed up.
This means that achievement for followers of Jesus Christ may not be recognized as achievement by the world at large. Our “achievements in Christ” may be perceived as weakness and folly. And we must learn to be content with this, for it is necessary to share in his cross if we are to share in his resurrection.