Is God for Us or for Himself?
- John Piper Desiring God
- 2008 5 May
I would like to try to persuade you that the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. Or to put it another way: the chief end of God is to enjoy glorifying Himself.
The reason this may sound strange is that we tend to be more familiar with our duties than with God's designs. We know why we exist - to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But why does God exist? What should he love with all his heart and soul and mind and strength? Whom should he worship? Or will we deny him that highest of pleasures? It matters a lot what God's ultimate allegiance is to!
If you asked my four sons, "What's the most important thing to your dad?" and they said, "I don't know," I'd be really disappointed. But if they said, "I don't care," I'd be crushed – and angry. It ought to matter to a son what a father regards as ultimately important. It ought to matter a lot to us what God is committed to with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. What is the impulse that drives the Almighty? What does he pursue in all his plans?
God did not leave us to guess in this affair. He answers the question at every point in redemptive history from creation to consummation. Let's survey some of the high points to see what he says.
Why did God create us? Isaiah 43:6-7, "Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth (says the Lord), everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory."
Why did God choose a people for himself and make Israel his possession? Jeremiah 13:11, "I made the whole house of Israel ... cling to me, says the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise and a glory."
Why did God rescue them from bondage in Egypt? Psalm 106:7-8, "Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider thy wonderful works...but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name's sake that he might make known his mighty power."
Why did God spare them again and again in the wilderness? Ezekiel 20:14, "I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out."
Why didn't God cast away his people when they rejected him as king and asked for a king like the nations? 1 Samuel 12:20-22, "Fear not, you have done all this evil yet do not turn aside from following the Lord ... For the Lord will not cast away his people for his great name's sake."
Why did God use his sovereign power to bring back his people from exile after punishing four generations of sin? Isaiah (48:9,11) put it like this, "For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you ... For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another."
Ezekiel 36:22-23,32 puts it like this: "Thus says the Lord God, 'It is not for your sake, 0 house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name ... And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name ... and the nations will know that I am the Lord. It is not for your sake that I will act,' says the Lord God. Let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, 0 house of Israel.'"
Why did the Son of God come to earth and to his final decisive hour? John 17:1, "Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee." A beautiful conspiracy to glorify the Godhead in all the work of redemption!
And why will Jesus come again in the great day of consummation? 2 Thessalonians 1:9-10, "Those who do not obey the gospel will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed... "
From beginning to end, the driving impulse of God's heart is to be praised for his glory. From creation to consummation his ultimate allegiance is to himself. His unwavering purpose in all he does is to exalt the honor of his name and to be marveled at for his grace and power. He is infinitely jealous for his reputation. "For my own sake, for my own sake I act," says the Lord. "My glory I will not give to another!"
My experience in preaching and teaching is that American evangelicals receive this truth with some skepticism if they receive it at all. None of my sons has ever brought home a Sunday school paper with the lesson title: "God loves himself more than he loves you." But it is profoundly true, and so generation after generation of evangelicals grow up picturing themselves at the center of God's universe.
I am going to make the assumption, though, that the vast majority of you do not want to usurp God's place at the center of his universe. You probably have two other objections coming to your minds against making God so self-centered. One is that we don't like people who act that way, and the other is that the Bible teaches that we shouldn't act that way. I'll try to answer these two objections, and in doing so, I hope I can also show why God's commitment to his own glory is immensely relevant for your life.
First Objection: we don't like people who are enamored with themselves.
We just don't like people who seem to be very enamored by their own skill or power or looks. We don't like scholars who try to show off their specialized knowledge or who recite for us all their recent publications and lectureships. We don't like businessmen who go on and on about how shrewdly they have invested their pile of money and how they stayed right on top of the market to get in low and out high every time. We don't like children to play one-upmanship hour after hour. Unless we are one of them, we disapprove of women and men who dress, not functionally, simply and inoffensively, but to be in the latest style. They do this so they will be thought in or cool or preppy or north-woods or laid-back or whatever the world this week says you are supposed to look like.
Why don't we like all that? I think it is because all those people are inauthentic. They are what Ayn Rand calls "second-handers." They don't live from the joy that comes through achieving what they value for its own sake. Instead, they live second-hand from the praise and compliments of others. We don't admire second-handers, we admire people who are composed and secure enough that they don't feel the need to shore up their weaknesses and compensate for their deficiencies by trying to get as many compliments as possible.
It stands to reason, therefore, that any teaching which would seem to put God in the category of a second-hander would be suspect to Christians. And for many the teaching that God is seeking praise and wants to be admired and is doing things for his own name's sake, does in fact seem to put God in such a category. But should it? One thing we may say for certain. God is not weak and has no deficiencies. "All things are from him and through him and to him" (Romans 11:36). He always was. Whatever else is, owes its being to him and so can add nothing to him which is not already flowing from him. That is simply what it means to be God and not a creature. Therefore, God's zeal to seek his own glory and to be praised by men cannot be owing to his need to shore up some weakness or compensate for some deficiency. He may seem, at a superficial glance, to be in the category of second-handers. But, he is not like them and the superficial similarity must be explained another way. There must be some other motive that prompts him to seek the praise of his glory.
Second Objection: seeking one's own glory is not loving.
There is another reason, from experience, why we don't like those who seek their own glory. It is not merely that they are inauthentic, trying to conceal weakness and deficiency, but also that they are unloving. They are so concerned for their own image and praise that they do not care much for what happens to other people. This observation leads us to the Biblical reason why it seems offensive for God to seek his own glory. 1 Corinthians 13:5 says, "Love seeks not its own." Now this indeed seems to create a crisis, for if, as I think the Scriptures plainly teach, God makes it his ultimate goal to be glorified and praised, how then can he be loving? For "love seeks not its own." "For my own sake, for my own sake I act, my glory I will not give to another" (Isaiah 48:11). But if God is a God of love, he must be for us. Is God for himself or is he for us?
Here is the answer of which I want to persuade you. Since God is unique as the most glorious of all beings and totally self-sufficient, he must be for himself if he is to be for us. If he were to abandon the goal of his own self-exaltation we would be the losers. His aim to bring praise to himself, and his aim to bring pleasure to his people, are one aim. They stand or fall together. I think we will see this if we ask the following question.
In view of God's infinitely admirable beauty, power and wisdom, what would his love to a creature involve? Or to put it another way: what could God give us to enjoy that would show him most loving? There is only one possible answer, isn't there? HIMSELF! If God would give us that which is best and most satisfying, that is, if he would love us perfectly, he must offer us no less than himself for our contemplation and fellowship and joy. "In thy presence is fullness of joy. In thy right hand are pleasures for evermore." (Ps. 16:11)
This was precisely God's intention in sending his son. Ephesians 2:18 says that Christ came that we might "have access in one Spirit to the Father." And 1 Peter 3:18 says, "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God." God is after us to give us what is best – not prestige, wealth or even health in this life, but a full-blown vision of, and fellowship with, himself.
Now we are on the brink of what, for me, was a grand discovery, and is the solution to our problem. To be supremely loving, God must give us what will be best for us and delight us most; he must give us himself. But what do we do when we are given or shown something excellent, something we enjoy? We praise it. We praise new little babies that manage not to be all bent out of shape in birth; "O, look at that nice round head; and all that hair; and his hands, aren't they big!" We praise a lover's face after a long absence. "Your eyes are like the sky; your hair is like silk; 0, you are beautiful to me." We praise a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth when we are down by three runs. We praise the trees in the fall.
But the great discovery I made, with the help of C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, was not only that we praise what we enjoy, but that this praise is the climax of the joy itself. It is not tacked on later; it is part of the pleasure. Listen to the way Lewis describes this insight from his book on the Psalms.
But the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars ... My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are, the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 93-95)
There's the key: we praise what we enjoy because the delight is incomplete until it is expressed in praise. If we were not allowed to speak of what we value and celebrate, what we love and praise, what we admire, our joy would not be full. Jonathan Edwards said, "Joy is a great ingredient in praise ... Praise is the most joyful work in the world." Therefore, if God is truly for us, if he would give us the best and make our joy full, he must make it his aim to win our praise for himself. Not because he needs to shore up some weakness in himself or compensate for some deficiency, but because he loves us and seeks the fullness of our joy that can only be found in knowing and praising him, the most beautiful of all Beings.
God is the one Being in the entire universe for whom self-centeredness, or the pursuit of his own glory, is the ultimately loving act. For him, self-exaltation is the highest virtue. When he does all things "for the praise of his glory," he preserves for us and offers to us, the only thing in the entire world, which can satisfy our longings. God is for us, and therefore has been, is now and always will be, first, for himself. I urge you not to resent the centrality of God in his own affections, but to experience it as the fountain of your everlasting joy.