An Open Letter to Michael Prowse
Dear Mr. Prowse,
It would be my great joy to persuade you that God's demand for worship is beautiful love, not ugly pride. On March 30, 2003 you wrote in the London Financial Times:
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?
I don't understand why you assume that the only incentive for God to demand praise is that he is needy and defective. This is true for humans. But with God there is another possibility.
What if, as the atheist Ayn Rand once said, admiration is the rarest and best of pleasures? And what if, as I wish Ayn Rand could have seen, God really is the most admirable being in the universe? Would this not imply that God's summons for our praise is the summons for our highest joy? And if the success of that summons cost him the life of his Son, would that not be love (instead of arrogance)?
The reason the Bible gives why God should be greatly praised is that he is great. "Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised" (Psalm 96:4). He is more admirable than anything he has made. That is what it means to be God.
Moreover, the Bible says that praise - overflowing, heartfelt admiration - is a pleasure. "Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant" (Psalm 147:1). And this pleasure is the best there is, and lasts forever. "In [God's] presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11).
The upshot of this is that God's demand for supreme praise is his demand for our supreme happiness. Deep in our hearts we know that we are not made to be made much of. We are made to make much of something great. The best joys are when we forget ourselves, enthralled with greatness. The greatest greatness is God's. Every good that ever thrilled the heart of man is amplified ten thousand times in God. God is in a class by himself. He is the only being for whom self-exaltation is essential to love. If he "humbly" sent us away from his beauty, suggesting we find our joy in another, we would be ruined.
Great thinkers have said this long before I did. For example, Jonathan Edwards said:
It is easy to conceive how God should seek the good of the creature . . . even his happiness, from a supreme regard to himself; as his happiness arises from . . . the creature's exercising a supreme regard to God . . .in loving it, and rejoicing in it. . . . God's respect to the creature's good, and his respect to himself, is not a divided respect; but both are united in one, as the happiness of the creature aimed at is happiness in union with himself. (Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World, in John Piper, God's Passion for His Glory, p. 248f.)
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 the obvious:
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. (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958, pp. 93-95])
Both Edwards and Lewis saw that praising God is the consummation of joy in God. This joy flows from the infinite beauty and greatness of God. There is no one who surpasses him in any truly admirable trait. He is absolutely enjoyable. But we are sinners and do not see it, and do not want it. We want ourselves at the center. But Jesus Christ taught us to be human in another way, and then died for our sin, absorbed God's wrath against it, and opened the way to see and savor God. "Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).
Therefore, the reason God seeks our praise is not because he won't be complete until he gets it. He is seeking our praise because we won't be happy until we give it. This is not arrogance. It is love.
I pray that you will see and savor the beauty of your Maker and your Redeemer.