Near the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi quotes a passage from the Book of Isaiah which warns of the dangers of boasting. Isaiah prophesies that the king of Assyria will claim full credit for his victory over the kingdoms of Israel and Syria and will not acknowledge God’s hand. Isaiah illustrates the foolishness of this position with a series of metaphors:
Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith? Shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? As if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself as if it were no wood! (2 Nephi 20:15, Isaiah 10:15)
What’s wrong with boasting? The clear message from this passage is that we are likely to get the facts wrong: to overstate our contribution to our successes and to understate the contributions of other people and of the Lord.
Why is this dangerous? Partly because we alienate the very people whose help we will need in the future. We may even convince ourselves that we don’t need their help and try to face similar challenges alone in the future.
“In their own strength”
About 30 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Nephite armies experienced a massive military defeat. After describing the scale of the losses, Mormon explains what happened: The Nephites had turned their hearts away from God. They had convinced themselves that they were entirely self-sufficient, that they didn’t need God’s help. “Because of…their boastings in their own strength, they were left in their own strength; therefore they did not prosper” (Helaman 4:13).
Mormon unfortunately saw this same behavior among his own soldiers, nearly 400 years later. After they won a battle decisively, he heard them “[boasting] in their own strength, and…[swearing] before the heavens that they would avenge themselves” (Mormon 3:9). As a result, he resigned his post as commander of their armies and refused to participate in their battles. He knew that their continued success would not be possible with that attitude.
“How quick to boast”
Mormon’s observation after studying about 1,000 years of Nephite history was that human beings have a propensity to exaggerate our contribution to our successes:
How quick to be lifted up in pride; yea, how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths! (Helaman 12:5).
“Do not pray as the Zoramites do.”
When Alma saw the wealthy class among the Zoramites offering a rote prayer on a tower in their house of worship, he was appalled by the arrogance and self-righteousness in the words of the prayer. For example, they said:
Thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee (Alma 31:17).
Alma was so disturbed by the words of this prayer that he later warned his son Shiblon not to slip into the same bad habits:
See that ye are not lifted up unto pride; yea, see that ye do not boast in your own wisdom, nor of your much strength….
Do not pray as the Zoramites do, for ye have seen that they pray to be heard of men, and to be praised for their wisdom.
Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times (Alma 38:11, 13-14).
“I can answer a clear conscience.”
So is it ever right to talk about your successes? It is, but with great care.
Sometimes, we need to give an accounting of our activities. When King Benjamin gathered his people together for his final speech, he took the opportunity to report to them on his activities as their king. He reminded them that he had kept their taxes low by laboring with his own hands. He told them that he had helped them to live peaceably together. But he quickly clarified that he wasn’t trying to draw undue attention to himself:
I have not done these things that I might boast, neither do I tell these things that thereby I might accuse you; but I tell you these things that ye may know that I can answer a clear conscience before God this day.
Behold, I say unto you that because I said unto you that I had spent my days in your service, I do not desire to boast, for I have only been in the service of God (Mosiah 2:15-16).
King Benjamin’s comments about his accomplishments served the purpose of acknowledging his duty to his people and to God. His words strengthened his relationship with his people and with God. When we have a responsibility, and we provide an accurate report to the appropriate people of our actions in that responsibility, that is not boasting.
“I will boast of my God.”
Expressing joy in our good fortune is not necessarily boasting.
As Ammon joyfully reviewed with his brothers the amazing success they had experienced as missionaries among the Lamanites, Aaron interrupted him, saying, “Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting” (Alma 26:10).
I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.
Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever (Alma 26:11-12).
Ammon went on to express his gratitude for the great blessings they had received as they exercised faith in God. Then, he concluded:
If this is boasting, even so will I boast; for this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo. Yea, blessed is the name of my God,… who has been mindful of us, wanderers in a strange land (Alma 26:36).
Today, I will be mindful of the dangers of boasting. When I speak of my accomplishments, either because I am reporting on my service or because I am expressing gratitude for my blessings, I will be careful not to overstate my own contributions. I will give appropriate credit to other people and to God.