Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is God Vain?

The Bible is emphatic that God works all things to the “praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:12). This is true of creation (Revelation 4:11), redemption (Ephesians 1:5-6), and the consummation (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). The fact that God desires His own glory is clearly taught in Scripture.

And yet this teaching presents something of a problem. We do not like people who “toot their own horn.” And for good reason – the Bible says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled (Matthew 23:12); it says that love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5). So what are to make of these passages that teach that God does indeed seek for His own name to be exalted and for His own purposes to be accomplished?

This is a common allegation of unbelievers. A quick google of the terms God, vain, egotistical, will yield dozens of websites published by unbelievers which assert this charge. One bulletin board contained this entry:

Ask yourself this, if you had the powers of God, would you create something just for the sake of having it thanking you? God is an egotistical, self centered narcissist in a fairy book tale of right and wrong.

Even many Bible believers struggle with this issue. Cecil Hook, whose book Free in Christ has had some influence among younger Christians particularly, poses this question:

Have we not portrayed our Father as having a colossal ego problem which would cause Him to demand our flattery to satisfy His vanity, to require our gifts to feed His pride, and to bind arbitrary whims to build up His sense of power? It is more a picture of a child abuser than of a child lover. It puts praise, adoration, and devotion on a demand basis. This is one of the cruelest aspects of legalism. This concept was born of the legal ritualistic specifics of the Law of Moses, was developed by the medieval church, and was inherited by the reformers and restorers.

He goes on to declare:

God has no self-esteem problem that must be bolstered by man’s praise. God is concerned with saving man, not adding to His self-image. That which edifies man fulfills God’s purpose.

In certain respects I have more sympathy for an unbeliever who accepts at face value the clear biblical teaching that God demands our praise and adoration and questions it than someone who professes to believe Scripture and yet ascribes God’s desire for praise and obedience to distorted legalism. When Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire, God struck them down with this explanation: “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Leviticus 10:3). God most certainly puts obedience and glorification on a demand basis, to our grave peril should we ignore this demand.

So what are we to make of God’s desire for His own glory? In the next few posts I want to offer four responses to the charge that God’s pursuit of His own glory makes Him egotistical. Here are the four issues we will explore:
-The nature of God
-The nature of praise
-The nature of man
-The nature of love

Response 1 - The Nature of God
The first response I will make to the charge that God is vain for pursuing His own glory has to do with the nature of God Himself. What I have in mind in particular is the difference between God who desires His name to be magnified and self-centered people who “toot their own horn.”

Have you ever known someone who habitually fishes for compliments? I have. And I think I know why certain people are guilty of that habit - they are insecure. There is some sense of inadequacy that compels them to seek reinforcement.

Have you ever known someone who constantly boasted of their achievements? Maybe a businessman who brags about his wealth, or an intellectual who boasts of his education, or a gorgeous woman who flaunts her beauty. Aren’t these examples of an extreme sort of the same insecurity that leads a person to fish for compliments?

Further, every example I just gave is an illustration of derivative talents. What I mean is that no one is inherently wealthy or well-educated. A businessman depends on investors (or wealthy benefactors) to provide capital. An intellectual must have some resource for learning (books, schools, teachers). Even a beautiful woman must concede that she is a lucky winner in the genetic lottery.

God’s pursuit of His own glory comes from a much different stance. It is certainly not prompted by weakness or insecurity. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). “Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

Futher, God is the only being in the universe who can truly say that His attributes and perfections are inherent, and not derivative. He did not get His omniscience because of someone else! He is unique in His self-existence. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:2).

So it is a fundamental error to project how we feel about people who pursue their own glory onto God. They do so out of weakness; He does so out of strength. They do so despite their dependence on others for what they have (and ultimately on God! - James 1:18). He does so from the unique position of one who is reliant on no one for His greatness.

(By the way, I should acknowledge that many of my own thoughts in this series are derivative! I am especially indebted to John Piper’s book Desiring God, and to an article by Greg Koukl found here).

Response 2 – The Nature of Praise
A second reason why God is not vain for pursuing His own glory has to do with the nature of praise. We intuitively understand that some things should be praised. When you go to the Grand Canyon, for instance, no one has to teach you to go “WOW!” It just happens (if you are mature enough to understand that which deserves a WOW!). Some things are so beautiful and so majestic that they elicit praise.

Further, praise is a moral issue. Praise is the rightful recognition of worth. It is just and right to give honor where honor is due, and it is unjust and wrong to fail to give praise where it is due. If you took a friend to the Grand Canyon and they said, “Looks like a big ditch to me,” you would think to yourself, “That’s not right!” You would be alarmed that someone lacked the sense of propriety to praise the Grand Canyon.

On a personal level, it would be an injustice for a mother to work day after day to provide good meals for her family and never once be recognized for her work. And it is not as if she wakes up every morning expecting to receive a certificate of merit, since she is just doing what a mother does. But it would be wrong for her work to be ignored. It is a matter of justice that she be praised.

It would be an injustice for a father to work day after day to provide for his family and never once be recognized for his work. And again, it is not as if he wakes up every morning expecting to receive a medal of honor, since he is just doing what a father does. But it would be wrong for his work to be ignored. It is a matter of justice that he be praised.

Last week I saw a special about Hurricane Katrina. One scene showed a car embroiled in the swirling torrent of the flood waters, and a young man plunging into the water to get to the vehicle to try to save the person inside. If someone saw no difference in that and in taking a relaxing swim, you would be outraged. There is honor due such a hero, not indifference!

By now my point should be clear. God is so unique in the beauty of His perfections that we cannot simply ignore His greatness. Such splendor and excellence deserves our recognition. To ignore such wisdom, power, love, and holiness is an outrage. It is offensive.

Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness! (Psalm 150:1-2).

One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

God desires justice. And because of the very nature of praise it is only just and right that One as great as God be glorified.

Response 3: The Nature of Man
In this series I have been addressing the question of whether God is vain to pursue His own glory. So far I have argued that the very nature of God combined with the nature of praise make it a matter of justice that a God so awesome should receive glory. Praise is the just recognition of God’s unique beauty. Now I want to turn to a third factor – the nature of man.

Mankind inherently seeks pleasure. There are certain things that we all enjoy – good food, a comfortable bed, loving relationships, and so on. Further, part of our enjoyment in what gives us pleasure is sharing it with others. When we order a tasty dish, we enjoy sharing it – “Here take a bite and taste this!” When we find a comfortable recliner, we enjoy letting others sit in it. The point is that part of our pleasure in what we enjoy is the sharing of it.

Recently one of our families at church enjoyed the birth of a daughter. The grandparents were absolutely beaming with joy. But they did even more – they shared that joy by showing all of us pictures. And in glorying in their granddaughter by telling others about her their own pleasure was deepened. To illustrate it another way, the pleasure two lovers have in their relationship finds it greatest joy in the expression of that love, when they tell each other (and others) how special they are.

The reason it is not vain for God to seek our praise is because God knows that in Him we can find our greatest pleasure, and that our pleasure is deepened when we can tell others of His excellent greatness. Consider Psalm 84:

1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
2 My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise!

10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12 O LORD of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you!

God desires our praise not because He is vain or insecure, but because He knows that we love to share that which gives us happiness. In praising Him we can find our greatest joy. He gets the glory; we get the pleasure.

Response 4 – The Nature of Love
As my final response to the suggestion that God is vain for pursuing our praise and His glory, I would like to focus on the nature of love. After all, part of the reason that some people have a problem with God pursuing His own glory is because love “seeketh not her own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). So how can God demand our praise?

In my third response I argued that man desires pleasure, that only God can give us true and lasting satisfaction, and that our pleasure in something or someone finds is deepest enjoyment in praise. Therefore, if love is giving someone what they most need and what gives them the greatest joy; and if man’s greatest need and joy is glorifying God, then God’s love for us means that He must present Himself for our praise unto His glory. In doing so He is supplying what meets our greatest need and what gives us our greatest happiness.

I call my Granny every day. Last year, I called her on my birthday, and during the course of the conversation she failed with wish me happy birthday. I was a little depressed afterwards, because it mean that her age was starting to take a toll on her and she was forgetting things. But I was not nearly as upset by her forgetfulness as she was. When we talked the next day, she said, “Do you know what I forgot?” And then she apologized. I could tell she was really crushed that she had forgotten.

Last Friday was my birthday. Once again I called her, and once again she forgot. All day long I debated whether to remind her. And so I called her later that day and said, “Did you forget something today?” Why did I call her? On the surface, I called a person to remind them to wish me happy birthday. And on the surface that could appear to be vain and egotistical. But you know the real reason I called her to remind her it was my birthday? Because I love her. Because I know that her greatest joy (like every grandparent) is to dote on me, to express her love for me, and that she would have been crushed to have failed to do so.

God wants us to praise Him because He loves us, which means He wants what is best for us, and He knows that our greatest joy and happiness can come only in glorifying Him.

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