Erik Reece is writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, teaching environmental journalism, writing, and literature. He published a book last April entitled, An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. On May 13, 2009, he did an interview on National Public Radio with Terry Gross on the program Fresh Air about his book.
What he said is in large part why I am giving this message the way I am. It wasn’t the first time someone had said this. But it may have been the most recent and most public and most blatant. And just so you know, I wrote to Mr. Reece a long letter with my concern in the hope that I could give him another perspective.
Reece grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, like I did. He rejected his. I loved mine and give thanks for it to this day. The background paragraph at the NPR website said that he struggled to find a different form of Christianity with the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and other American writes.
Jesus Christ, Egomaniac
In the interview, Terry Gross pointed Mr. Reece to page 28 of his new book. On that page, he quotes from Jesus in Matthew 10:37–39.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Then after quoting Jesus, Reece says, “Who is the egomaniac speaking these words?” Terry Gross asks him, “Would you elaborate on that reaction?”
Reece replies, “Well, it just struck me as ‘Who is this person speaking 2000 years ago, a complete historical stranger, saying that we should love him, (who we are really incapable emotionally of loving) more so than we should love our own fathers and sons?’ It just seemed like an incredibly egomaniacal kind of claim to make.”
So in his book, he says that if Jesus talked like this, he is an egomaniac, and then in the interview, he confirms that conviction that someone who would talk like this is egomaniacal.
So here is Jesus saying: “Love me more than you love anyone in the world. If you don’t you are not worthy of me.” And Erik Reece says: “That is an egomaniac talking.”
Now Reece is not the only one who feels that way.
Like a Vain Woman Wanting Compliments
C.S. Lewis, eventually professor at Oxford and great writer of Christian apologetics and fiction 60 years ago, was slow to come to Christ. He was 29 before he was converted.
And he says in his book Reflections on the Psalms that one of the great obstacles in coming to believe in the God of the Bible was that when he read the Psalms, the constant demand from God to praise him seemed (to him) to picture God as craving “for our worship like a vain woman who wants compliments.”
In other words, he stumbled, just like Erik Reece, over the self-exalting commands of God that we praise him, and the self-exalting commands of Jesus that we love him more than we love our parents or our children or our own lives. To Lewis and Reece, this was sheer egomania.
Human Tyrants Crave Adulation
Almost seven years ago in the March 30, 2003, issue of the London Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote the same thing from another vantage point:
Worship is an aspect of religion that I always found difficult to understand. Suppose we postulate an omnipotent being who, for reasons inscrutable to us, decided to create something other than himself. Why should he . . . expect us to worship him? We didn’t ask to be created. Our lives are often troubled. We know that human tyrants, puffed up with pride, crave adulation and homage. But a morally perfect God would surely have no character defects. So why are all those people on their knees every Sunday?
Or if he were here, he would say, “Why are these 20,000-plus students standing with their hands and their voices lifted in praise to a God and his Son who are such egomaniacs that they constantly demand that we think they are the greatest?
Why are all these young people cowed into doing just what these egomaniacs want them to do, namely, admire them and praise them above everybody else in the universe?
Until He Said, “Jealous”
My wife and I had dinner last night with Francis and Lisa Chan, and I was telling them about this talk and Oprah Winfrey came up as another example of someone who left traditional Christianity because of seeing God this way.
So I went back to my room and called up the YouTube clip of her statement and wrote it down. Here’s what she said. She was describing being in a church service where the preacher was talking about the attributes of God, his omnipotence and omnipresence. Quote:
Then he said, “The Lord thy God is a jealous God,” I was caught up in the rapture of that moment until he said, “jealous.” And something struck me. I was 27 or 28, and I was thinking God is all, God is omnipresent, God is . . . also jealous? A jealous God is jealous of me? And something about that didn’t feel right in my spirit because I believe that God is love, and that God is in all things. In Exodus 34:14, God says, “You shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” In other words, God demands that you and I and Oprah Winfrey give him all our worship. If we give any of our worship to another, he is jealous, and if we don’t repent, he will break forth in wrath. “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24).
So Erick Reece and the early C.S. Lewis and Michael Prowse and Oprah Winfrey all turned away from the God of the Bible because they thought he was too self-exalting. Too self-centered. Too much the egomaniac.
Such a Self-Exalting, Self-Centered God
I heard Don Carson, New Testament scholar from Trinity Seminary near Chicago, say a while back that as he has done evangelistic outreach on university campuses, the questions have changed over the years. Thirty years ago they tended to revolve around historical problems with Christianity.
Nowadays it is represented by questions like, How can you worship a God who so self-exalting and so self-centered as the God of the Bible — a God who is constantly pointing to his own greatness and constantly telling people that they should recognize this greatness and tell him how much you like it?
Touching the Very Center of Christianity
I don’t think that what we are seeing here is a small, marginal, or tricky opposition to Christianity. I think what Erik Reece, C.S. Lewis, Michael Prowse, and Oprah Winfrey are seeing touches the very center of Christianity.
If you say in response: I thought Christ crucified for sinners and risen triumphantly was the heart of Christianity, you would be right. Paul said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
That’s true. But the amazing thing is that it’s the intersection of God’s apparent egomania with the human condition of sin that makes the cross of Christ necessary and makes it intelligible and reveals the deepest things about God in the death of Christ.
So we are not dealing with something small here or marginal, but something central and crucial.
God Lives for the Glory of God
I didn’t face this issue until I was about 23 years old — 40 years ago now. I had grown up in a Christian home where I was taught 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” So it was clear to me that I should live for the glory of God.
But no one ever said to me that God lives for the glory of God. Then I read Jonathan Edwards’s The End for Which God Created the World, and everything changed. He simply blew me away with page after page of biblical texts showing God’s pervasive God-centeredness. That God does everything for his glory. That he is unwaveringly committed to uphold and display his glory.
And what became clear to me, and remains clear to this day, is that many Christians think it is good for us to be God-centered, but don’t feel at all comfortable with God being God-centered. We should be Christ-exalting, but Christ shouldn’t be Christ-exalting.
God’s God-Centeredness as the Test
What I have found in my own life, and in the life of many others, is that God’s God-centeredness is the test of whether our own God-centeredness is real: Do I rejoice in God’s unwavering commitment to uphold and display his glory — do I rejoice in God’s God-centeredness? Or am I God-centered only because deep down I believe God is man-centered, so that my supposed God-centeredness is really man-centeredness, even me-centeredness?
Does my opposition to God’s God-centeredness reveal that my supposed God-centeredness is just a cover for wanting myself at the center, and the use of God to endorse that because he is so centered on me?
God’s Radical Devotion to Himself
Reading the Bible with these eyes, I began to see what Erik Reece and C.S. Lewis and Michael Prowse and Oprah were seeing. God really is radically devoted to seeing himself exalted. God is radically committed to seeing that his glory is esteemed as the supreme value of the universe.
Here is a sampling of what I saw:
God creates for his glory.
Isaiah 43:6–7: Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, every one who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory.
God elects Israel for his glory.
Jeremiah 13:11: 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 saves them from Egypt for his glory.
Psalm 106:7–8: Our fathers rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name's sake that he might make known his power.
God restrains his anger in exile for his glory.
Isaiah 48:9–11: For my names 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.
God sends his Son at the end of the age for his glory.
2 Thessalonians 1:9–10: He comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed.
In all of redemptive history, from beginning to ending, God has this one ultimate goal: that his name be glorified. The aim of God in all that he does is most ultimately the praise of his glory.
All of redemptive history is bookended by this amazing purpose in God the Father and God the Son. And in the middle of that redemptive history stands the greatest event in the history of the world, the death of Jesus Christ.
And just at these points — the beginning and the ending and the middle (predestining of our salvation at the beginning, and the consummation of our salvation at the end, and the purchase of our salvation at the middle) — just at these points the problem of God’s apparent egomania finds its amazing solution.
God’s God-Centeredness from Start to Finish
Consider a passage of Scripture about each of these points — the beginning (predestination), the ending (consummation), and the middle (propitiation).
Beginning: Ephesians 1:4–6
God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Before the foundation of the world, God planned a redemption in Christ with this great and ultimate goal: that we would praise his glory. And the apex of that glory would be the glory of his grace.
So from the very beginning, we see that God made his exaltation and our salvation one piece. You don’t have to choose between God’s glory and your joy, because the apex of your joy is praise, and the apex of his glory is grace.
What We Delight to Do
C.S. Lewis broke through to the beauty of God’s self-exaltation (thinking at first that the Psalms sounded like an old woman craving compliments). He finally saw something very different:
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. (Reflections on the Psalms 93–95])
Lewis saw that praising God is the consummation of joy in God. Therefore, when God is pursuing — even demanding — our praise, he is pursuing the consummation of our joy.
This may feel at first counter-intuitive — that when we are small and feel insignificant, while God is great and central, at those very moments we reach our highest joy. But it’s not counter to our deepest sense of where joy comes from. Joy is not in thinking highly of ourselves. Joy reaches its height in moments of self-forgetfulness in the presence of beauty and greatness.
So if Jesus wants you to feel most alive, most joyful forever, what would he show you?
Ending: John 17:24
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
When all is said and done, and the history of the world is complete, and the new heavens and the new earth are established, and the infinitely joyful age to come is here, the ultimate joy, the ultimate climax of history for our aching hearts, is “we will see his glory,” and we will be transformed by it into the kind of people who can enjoy it fully and not be incinerated by it.
When Jesus says, “Love me more than you love your mother and father and sons and daughters and your own children and your best beloved on earth,” he is not hurting anyone!
What Jesus Is Saying
He is saying: If you find your ultimate joy in your most cherished earthly treasure, you will be disappointed in the end, and I will be dishonored. Because I am offering myself to you as the all-satisfying beauty and greatness and wisdom and strength and love of the universe. I am what you were made for. And I am telling you that, if you see this — if you see me as your supreme Treasure — then you don’t have to choose between your satisfaction and my glorification, because in the very act of your being most satisfied in me, I will be most glorified in you.
Jesus continues, “When I pray for you, that in the end you will see my glory, it is simply because, as God, I am infinitely glorious, and I want you to see infinite glory and enjoy it. I want you to be with me and be satisfied in me. I am not an egomaniac. I am your all-satisfying friend.”
The Great Problem of Sin
But of course, there is a great problem — and this is that we are sinners. Not only do we not want to treasure someone above ourselves, we don’t deserve that privilege. And so how will sinners like us be able to stand in the presence of God and enjoy his greatness as our all-satisfying Treasure?
Which brings us now to the middle of history and the work of Christ on the cross.
The Cross at the Center
The center of God’s plan — from beginning to end — stands the mighty cross of Christ. And in it we see the clearest statement of God’s passion for his glory — precisely and amazingly in the salvation of sinners. Romans 3:23–26:
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Note the argument:
What God did: He put Christ forward as propitiation by his blood (verse 25a). Christ died to remove the wrath of God.
Romans 8:3: “What the law could not do . . . God did: . . . he condemned sin in the flesh.”
Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Why did he need to do it this way — by dying on a cross? Verse 25b: “This was to show God’s righteousness.” Why did he need to show his righteousness? Verse 25c: “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
Why does passing over sins call God’s righteousness into question? Verse 23: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. “Fall short” means “lack.” We have exchanged the glory of God in every sin (Romans 1:23). Every time we sin, we say that the glory of God is not the supreme Treasure to be desired above all others. It is not satisfying. It is not to be preferred.
When God passes over that, it looks as if he agrees. And if he agrees, he is unrighteous. He is wrong. He is acting in contradiction to what is true. His righteousness — his commitment to doing what is right — is his commitment to act as though his glory is supremely valuable, which it is. His righteousness is his commitment to upholding and displaying the infinite worth of his glory. And that is what the cross does.
God Is Passionate for God
Therefore, from beginning to end — from predestination before creation to the final state of contemplation of the glory of Christ at the end of history — God is passionate for his glory.
In the center of that history, the greatest event that ever happened, the death of the Son of God for sinners like us, is the demonstration of God’s righteousness — the demonstration of his unwavering commitment to uphold and display the infinite worth of his glory as the supreme Treasure of the universe.
Forgiveness for His Name’s Sake
Which means that now when we come to him for mercy and cry out to him for the forgiveness of our sins we do it for his name’s sake — for the sake of his glory.
For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great. (Psalms 25:11)
And we hear the promise from 1 John 2:12, “[Y]our sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.”
The greatest news in the world is that in the death of Christ, God has made a way for his name to be exalted and my sins to be forgiven in the very same act. God is both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
The Foundation of Our Salvation: God’s Value
And what makes this so spectacular is that the foundation under our salvation is not our value but God’s value. The consummation of our salvation is not that heaven is a hall of mirrors where we like what we see, but that we will be glorified and the universe will be glorified to the point where we can fully enjoy the glory of Christ.
Here is the end of the matter: God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is not the act of a needy ego, but an act of infinite giving. The reason God seeks our praise is not because he won’t be fully God until he gets it, but that we won’t be happy until we give it.
This is not arrogance. This is grace.
This is not egomania. This is love.