Is God for Us or for Himself?
Years ago I went to the Billy Graham crusade in Anaheim, California. There were about 50,000 people there that night, I think, and I sat in the left field bleachers and could see the whole massive crowd wrapping around the infield. When we sang “How Great Thou Art,” I managed to get out a few notes and then could scarcely sing any more. I had never heard anything like that. Fifty thousand voices singing praises to God! It so stunned my heart that I have never forgotten that moment. Nothing had ever seemed to me more right or more beautiful or more profoundly joyful than for 50,000 creatures to sing together with all their heart to God.
I really believe I got a little, tiny glimpse of heaven that night, because Revelation 5:11–13 pictures heaven like this:
And I beheld, and I heard a voice of many angels round about the throne, and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.”
And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him that sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.
The vision of heaven is the vision of innumerable myriads of creatures praising the Father and the Son with all their might. And those who have tasted the glory of the Lamb would not miss it for the world.
God Pursues His Own Praise
The Lamb is worthy. God the Father is worthy. And therefore we ought to praise them. And we will praise them. Most believers have no difficulty with that truth. But for two weeks now we have seen from the Scripture that God has not merely acted so as to be worthy of praise, but more, he has made it his aim to win praise. God does not merely wait to be exalted for his power and righteousness and mercy, he has taken the initiative from all eternity to exalt his own name in the earth and to display his glory. Everything he does is motivated by his desire to be glorified. Isaiah 48:11 is the banner over every divine act:
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.
Jeremiah 13:11 puts it like this:
For as the waistcloth clings to the loins of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory.
God’s goal in all he does is to receive praise for the glory of his name.
And lest we think that this is only an Old Testament emphasis, look carefully at the morning text: Ephesians 1. What a grand book this is! — with sentences that reach not only to 11 verses in length but also to heaven in height. There is a phrase repeated three times in verses 6, 12, and 14 which makes it very clear what Paul thinks is the goal of God in saving us from sin and for himself. Notice verses 5 and 6:
He predestined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Then verse 12:
We who first hoped in Christ have been predestined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.
Finally, verse 14:
The Holy Spirit is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it to the praise of his glory.
From the past eternal decrees of God in predestination to the future eternal enjoyment of our inheritance in the age to come, God’s goal and purpose has been that his glory be praised, especially the glory of his grace.
That God is praiseworthy, that we ought to praise him, that we will praise him — these are common truths among Christians, and we affirm them gladly. But less often do we hear the truth that the praise of God’s glory is not merely the result of his action but also the goal and purpose of that action. He governs the world precisely to the end that he might be admired, marveled at, exalted, and praised. Christ is coming, Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:10, at the end of this age, “to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at by all who believe.” But it has been my experience that people receive this truth with some uneasiness. It is all right for God to be praised, but it doesn’t seem quite right for him to seek praise. Didn’t Jesus say, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”? Yet, God’s clear purpose from Scripture is to exalt himself in the eyes of man.
My aim in this message is to show, as best I can, that God’s aim and effort to glorify himself is wholly good and without fault of any kind and is very different from human self-exaltation because it is an expression of love. Then I hope we will affirm this truth gladly and join God in his great aim.
Two Ways to Stumble over God’s God-Centeredness
There are two reasons, I think, why we may stumble over God’s love for his own glory and his zeal to get men to praise him for it. One is that we don’t like humans who act that way, and the other is that the Bible seems to teach that a person ought not to seek his own glory. So people take offense at God’s self-exaltation both because of their own everyday experience, and also because of some Scripture.
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. And unless we are one of them we disapprove of women and men who dress, not functionally and simply and inoffensively, but instead aim to be in the latest style so they will be thought in or cool or punky or laid back or whatever the world this week says you’re 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. And 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 real 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 by 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 God has no deficiencies: “All things are from him and through him and to him” (Romans 11:36). He always was, and 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 the eternal 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.
There is another reason from experience why we don’t like those who seek their own glory. The reason 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 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 three weeks we have seen Scriptures that teach that God is for himself. “For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, 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, then, God for himself or is he for us?
The Infinite Love of God in Pursuing His Own Praise
The answer which I want to try to persuade you is true is this: because God is unique as the most glorious of all beings and totally self-sufficient, he must be for himself in order 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 and stand or fall together. I think we will see this if we ask the following question.
In view of God’s infinitely admirable beauty and 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 the best, the most satisfying, that is, if he would love us perfectly, he must offer us no less than himself for our contemplation and fellowship.
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 conceived the whole plan of redemption in love to bring men back to himself, for as the psalmist says, “In your presence there is fullness of joy, in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (16:11). 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.
But now we are on the brink of what for me was a grand discovery and, I think also, 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 bent all 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; O, 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 along the St. Croix during an autumn boat trip.
But the great discovery I made, with the help of C.S. Lewis, was not only that we praise what we enjoy but that the 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 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 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. 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 all the universe for whom seeking his own praise is the ultimately loving act. For him self-exaltation is the highest virtue. When he does all things “for the praise of his glory” as Ephesians 1 says, he preserves for us and offers to us the only thing in all the world which can satisfy our longings. God is for us, and therefore has been, is now, and always will be, for himself. Praise the Lord! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.