Discern What Pleases God

New Attitude Conference | Louisville

I have two topics that I can talk to you about, and when I was told that the theme is discernment, and was given some freedom as to how I would fit in, I chose two things. The one, I chose because it’s growing out of what I am working on a lot in these days, which I’ll address. Namely, obedience and how it relates to our justification and how it relates to God’s Holy Spirit at work in us. In other words, discerning what pleases God, namely, our obedience and what kind of obedience doesn’t please God, and there is much obedience that does not please God.

The other one was not something that I am immediately working on, but something that’s been working on me for 30 years, and that has proved to be the foundation of my life and ministry. Namely, discerning what pleases God, namely, himself. That’s what we’re going to take up now.

It takes more discernment than it at first seems to know what kind of obedience pleases God, and it takes more discernment than it at first seems to know what kind of worship pleases God. Not all worship pleases God. “People worship me with their lips, but their heart is far from me, in vain do they worship me.” There is such a thing as vain worship. For 30 years, what has formed the rock-solid foundation for almost everything I have thought and done, is that the ultimate joy of God, the deepest pleasures of God, are pleasures in God.

A Discernment Test

To begin, I want to give you a discernment test that has seven questions. In your mind — and several of them deal directly with your heart — and in your heart, answer them for yourself before God. This will lead us into our reflection upon discerning what pleases God, namely, himself.

Seven Questions

  1. Who is the most God-centered person in the universe? Answer: God is the most God-centered person in the universe.

  2. Who is uppermost in God’s affections? Answer: not you, God is uppermost in his own affections.

  3. Is God an idolater? Answer: no, he has no other gods before him.

  4. What is God’s chief jealousy? Answer: God’s chief jealousy is to be known and admired and trusted and enjoyed and obeyed above all others.

  5. What is the chief end of God? Answer: the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.

  6. Do you feel most loved by God because he makes much of you, or because he frees you to enjoy making much of him forever like the song said? I leaned over to C.J. and I said, “That first song, especially next to the last two lines, is a good summary of this message.” God’s love freed us to glorify him forever. So the key question for your heart is this: Do I feel most loved by God because he’s making much of me, or because he’s doing whatever needs to be done that I might enjoy making much of him forever? That’s a hard question, to be honest about.

  7. The last question: Are you God-centered because God is supremely valuable to you, or are you God-centered because you believe you are supremely valuable to him? Which is driving you?

Those are delicate questions. I can’t answer those last two questions for you. I can answer the first five, but not the last two. Do you feel most loved by God? Are you God-centered because. . . ? You have to answer those, and I hope that your answers will be the one that pleases him by the time we’re done if it’s not already.

Christians Agree on These, Right?

Everybody who’s a Christian agrees that the first commandment is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” Everybody who’s a Christian agrees, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.” Everybody who’s a Christian agrees, “Christ is to be valued above all things. I count everything as loss for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.” Everybody who’s a Christian agrees that we should have no other gods before us.

“The root of pride is severed when we see that God does everything.”

Humble orthodoxy. I really, really love that phrase. I read one of the little phrases from a talk on somebody’s blog. I’ll butcher it, but the idea was, we are out there standing for the truth not because we’re right, but because we’re rescued. I like it a lot. The flavor of “I’m here on the street,” or “I’m in your face because I’m rescued” is so good, and so right. This is a passionate commitment to truth, but with a flavor. The reason I bring that in right here is because you might think that the four things I said all Christians agree on would sufficiently secure that.

Love God above all, not self. Glorify God in all things, not self. Value Christ above all, not self. Have no other Gods before you, especially, self. You’d think that would be enough, but I don’t think it is. At least in my experience, when I go where I’m about to go, much resistance rises in people’s hearts. I think we all agreed on what I said. So, where’s this resistance coming from?

Why do people bristle at what I’m about to say? This is the reason I’ve been working on this for thirty years, because I think I’m onto something. It’s not the whole truth. It’s a way of seeing the truth that seems to get at people’s sentiment of pride.

I don’t think the root of pride is severed without seeing that God keeps the first commandment to love God above all else. I don’t think the root of pride is severed until we see that God does everything, whether he eats or drinks to the glory of God. I don’t think the root of pride is severed until we see that God sees Christ as supremely valuable as his divine image. I don’t think the root of pride is severed until we really like it that God has no other gods before him, and that he alone is God in his own eyes.

God Works All Things for His Glory

Where I’m going now is to try to argue from the Bible that God is supremely valuable to God, that there’s no more God-centered person in the world than God, that God is not an idolater, and that God has no other gods before him.

Jonathan Edwards was the one that opened my eyes to this. Once you see this, I promise you, if God does an illumining work in this hour, you’ll never read your Bible the same because a simple, little color lens will have altered in the framework of your brain, and you will see this everywhere in the Bible. Therefore, I don’t feel any great need to do any big argument here, except to try to turn that lens a little bit, so that on every page of the Bible you will see God is big time into making much of God.

It’s amazing how we get it wrong in our children’s curricular, but I’ll leave that for another time. You may have grown up on that curricular that doesn’t understand what David and Goliath are really about. It’s a missionary story. You will know that there’s a God in Israel and all the nations will bow. That’s what David and Goliath is about. God is in to making much of God through slaying giants through little boys. That’s why he chose a little no-count so that he would look great. If our kids don’t come home with that resounding in their hearts, we’re blowing it with our kids.

Let’s walk through the Bible together. We could walk here for hours, we’ll walk for a few minutes, and take the high points of redemptive history to notice what God says about why he does what he does in history. The answer is always, “I do what I do, ultimately, for my glory, not just you do what you do for my glory. I do what I do for my glory.” That’s what people begin to bristle at. They’re okay if you tell them what their duty is. Duty: make much of God. Lands well on Christians, of course, but if you start telling them God makes that much of God in everything he does, they squirm, because deep down they really do think they’re square at the center of his affections rather than himself.

God’s Glory in Election

Let’s start before history with predestination, looking to Ephesians 1:5–6: “God predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the kind intention of his will, unto the praise of the glory of his grace.” Collapse that down into the beginning and the ending: “God predestined us,” now skip to the end, “unto the praise of the glory of his grace.”

As clear as day, it says God’s design in your predestination is his glory. It couldn’t be clearer. Once you begin to see these things, they’re everywhere. We slip over them until the lens gets corrected. Our experience of grace is penultimate. The echo of God’s glory in it is ultimate.

God’s Glory in Creation

Next, we move to creation. Isaiah 43:6–7: “Bring my sons from far, my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone whom I created for my glory.” You are made, everything is made, all people are made to make God look good. Colossians 1:16: “All things were created through him and for him,” and the “him” being Christ. “For him,” now, that’s an ambiguous statement, right? “All things were created for him.”

When my assistant went out and got me a sandwich and came in with it, he could’ve said, “This one is for you,” meaning, strengthen yourself with this since you need it to be sustained. This is for your good, for your strengthening. That’s not what this verse means.

When it says “all things were created for him,” it doesn’t mean he made stuff so that the stuff would make him stronger, wiser, more loving, and more glorious. No way. You can’t make God more glorious than God is. So, what does “for him” mean? It means for the display of his glory.

God made the world and he made you to magnify him like a telescope, not a microscope. That’s my favorite illustration. A microscope magnifies by making little things look bigger than they are, and a telescope magnifies by making unspeakably big things look more like they really are. You look at the stars at night, they look small. Believe me, they’re not small, but you have to have a telescope, oddly enough, to magnify them so that they look more like what they are. That’s why you were made.

“Our experience of grace is penultimate. The echo of God’s glory in it is ultimate.”

God looks small in Louisville. He looks small in Minneapolis. He is hardly a dot in the night sky of most people. What are you for? Why did he make you? He made you so that you’d be like a glass put to the eye of an unbeliever to make them go, “What! I didn’t know he was like that, doing things in Uganda for little girls who have smelly sores in their hair.”

Don’t waste your life trying to look good. Spend your life making God look good. That’s why you were made. The weakest among you, the most homely, have, perhaps, the greatest chance to do that. The rest of you are too good-looking, you distract people, but if you’ve got a little hunch in your back, a little pot in your belly, and your hair’s not doing what you wish it could, you might be a candidate to get attention for somebody else.

God’s Glory in the Incarnation

Regarding the incarnation, Romans 15:8–9 says, “For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision, the Jews on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers.” That’s the first reason he came as the incarnate Son of God to the Jewish people: to confirm the promises. Second, verse nine: “and for the Gentiles to glorify God for his mercy.”

I remember I used to argue with seminary students who were assigned to write a paper in their last year at seminary with the integrating motif of the Bible, and what they believe it is. Regularly, they would choose the love of God. I said, “Fine, fine, it has a remarkably integrating power in the Bible, however, it’s not the ultimate integrating motif. It’s not the ultimate one. You can write your paper on a penultimate motif if you want, I would encourage you to write your paper on the ultimate integrating motif of the Bible. That’s what I would do.”

They would say, “Oh no, nothing more ultimate than love. God is love.” I would go to verses like this, Romans 15:8–9: “He became a servant to the circumcision, so that the Gentiles would glorify God for his mercy.” You’ve got mercy and you’ve got God-given glory. How are they related? God is getting glory on the basis of his mercy, for his mercy. You get the mercy, God gets the glory.

The ultimate goal of his extending mercy to you is that so you magnify his all-sufficient, overflowing, mercy-giving self. That’s the order. The ultimate integrating motif of the Bible is the glory of God, not the love of God. That’s one of the ways the glory of God is displayed, thank God.

God’s Glory in Propitiation

Propitiation is one of the most precious words in the biblical language. Romans 3:25–26 says, “God displayed Christ publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness because he, in his forbearance, passed over sins previously committed. For the demonstration, I say, of his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

There’s the cross, and perhaps the most important paragraph about the cross in the Bible. At the center of it is the intention through propitiation to demonstrate God’s righteousness. Why? Because he had passed over former sins. What’s the problem? Why is passing over sins a compromise of the righteousness of God that requires the death of the Son to vindicate the righteousness? What’s going on?

The average American, if you told them, “God passed over your sins,” he’d say, “Well of course, that’s what God does, and I, frankly, am worthy of it, not as bad as that guy.” Paul, on the other hand, has a universe very different from that one and says, “If God passes over sins, Son of God has to die.” Why? In order to demonstrate his righteousness.

How is the righteousness of God called into question by the passing over of sins? The answer is in verse 23. Everybody knows Romans 3:23 if you are into evangelism: “All have sinned and fallen short,” literally exchanged or lacked, “the glory of God.” Now, we’re at glory again. That’s why I’m here at this text.

“God made the world and he made you to magnify him like a telescope, not a microscope.”

Sin is an attitude or an action that belittles the glory of God. It makes a choice, which can only be explained that we value something more than the glory of God. That’s what sin is. Sin is the way you think, the way you feel, the way you act, when you don’t prize God’s glory as much as you should. You prize money, sex, approval of man more, and therefore, you do stuff in accord with that prizing instead of God, and therefore, you trample the glory of God in your simple preference for something else.

Romans 3:25 says God passed over that sin. It means he looked upon the trampling of his glory, and he acted as though it didn’t matter. That is the meaning of unrighteousness. Unrighteousness is when you do something profoundly wrong, and don’t do something profoundly right. The right thing to do when God’s glory is trampled is to vindicate it. The wrong thing to do is to act as though nothing has happened like passing over it.

God has acted in a profoundly unrighteous way in passing over your sin unless there is a way to display the worth of his glory differently than sending you to hell, which would do it just fine. Those are the two options in front of us. You can either go to hell to vindicate the worth of God’s glory that you’ve trampled, or the Son of God can die to vindicate the worth of God’s glory that you have trampled.

God, being rich in mercy, sent Christ into the world to vindicate his glory’s worth, which is righteousness. Therefore, right at the center of our gospel is God’s God-centeredness. God sent his Son to die to vindicate the worth of his glory, and to establish his righteousness clearly.

God’s Glory in Sanctification

Sanctification is the process by which we’re being conformed to the image of God’s Son little by little. Philippians 1:9–11 is a prayer, and therefore, Paul is asking God to do something in accord with God’s designs, and here’s what he asks. Philippians 1:9: “This I pray, that your love may abound still more and more.” He’s praying that people would love more in real knowledge and discernment, “so that you may be filled,” skipping to verse 11, “with the fruit of righteousness, which comes through Jesus Christ to the praise and the glory of God.”

Father, do in our lives the work of transformation, discernment, and holiness unto the praise of your glory. God, pursue your glory. That’s what he’s asking. Do include us in our holiness, but the beginning and the end of prayer, make it clear: God sanctify us unto the praise and glory of yourself.

First Peter 4:11 says, “Let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies, so that in everything, God may get the glory.” God supplies so that he gets the glory. The giver gets the glory. Why does God help you be holy? Why does he give you any victory at all over temptation? Answer: to make his name great.

God’s Glory in the Consummation

We have predestination, creation, incarnation, propitiation, sanctification, and finally, consummation. 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power when he comes,” he’s talking about unbelievers, “to be glorified in his saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, for our testimony to you was believed.”

Do you hear those two phrases of why Jesus is coming back? If somebody asks you, “Why is Jesus coming back?” You have at least two explicit answers. One, he comes to be glorified in his saints. Two, to be marveled at among all who have believed. He’s coming to be glorified, and he’s coming to be magnified. That’s why he’s coming, ultimately. He’s going to do a lot of other things, but Paul chose to give the ultimate.

My conclusion from those six clusters is that God is totally devoted to exalting God in everything he does. There are no exceptions. He doesn’t do anything for any other ultimate reason. In everything God does, God is exalting God.

Does This Compromise the Love of God?

To give the benefit of the doubt to those people who squirm at this, since they may never have heard anybody say this, there are some biblical reasons on the face of it why a person might squirm at that. The most obvious one is that it doesn’t sound loving.

You might say to me that Paul said, “Love seeks not its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5), and you’ve spent twenty minutes trying to convince others that God seeks his own. You’re obviously wrong because we know God is love, and you’ve just said he seeks his own, so you’re wrong.

I can see why people would go there. I hope that you are not so quick to write off all the texts that we just spent time on in the name of your favorite one. There are other understandings of love seeks not its own, rather than saying love can’t seek its own joy in the beloved, or love in God can’t seek its own glory in saving sinners.

The reason we know that, contextually, in 1 Corinthians 13, is because of the way Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3: “Though I give my body to be burned, and give away everything I have, if I don’t have love, it profits me nothing.” What’s the talk about profit for, if it’s wrong to seek your own? See, things aren’t so simple. Paul is arguing on the basis of seeking your own, not when you seek it in belittling others, exploiting others, using others, or exalting yourself, that’s not seeking your own, that’s seeking your destruction.

“Don’t waste your life trying to look good. Spend your life making God look good.”

“He who saves his life will lose it, he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” What are you arguing, Jesus, on the basis of our desire to save our lives for if it’s wrong to save our lives? You see, Jesus wants you to save your life. He wants you to seek your own pleasure, where it can eternally and fully be found.

It’s not wrong for God to seek his own glory in saving sinners, but I understand fellows like this. This is an article from the Financial Times in London from several years ago that I cut out when I was there, written by Michael Prowse. I’ve written to him to share my heart why he wouldn’t have to go here, but this expresses where a lot of people are. C.S. Lewis said the same thing seventy years ago. I’ll tell you what Lewis said in minute, but here’s what Prowse says,

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 these people on their knees every Sunday?

Wow. How many people that you know think this way? “God would be morally defective to demand worship.” That’s what he believes. “We know tyrants, who are puffed up with pride, and crave adulation and homage.” Like Piper just told you, God does — I never use the word crave because it’s full of connotations of weakness — but he uses language cleverly.

Many Define Love the Wrong Way

What’s the answer to Michael Prowse? What’s the answer to the ultimate objection to God’s God-centeredness, namely, it’s morally defective. We don’t like people like that. It’s not loving. What’s the answer to that? The answer is that we define love in the wrong way. We define love, morality, to mean being made much of. You make much of me, if you’re really good about that, and I will like the way you love me. That’s not the definition of love in the Bible.

True Love

Here’s my suggestion of what love means, and then we’ll apply it to God and see if it works.

Love labors, plans, and suffers to enthrall the beloved with what is totally and eternally satisfying.

That’s my definition of love. Love is a heart commitment to plan and labor and suffer, if necessary, to die, or have your son die, to enthrall the beloved with that which will totally and eternally satisfy their soul. That’s love.

Here’s the catch. God is the one being in the universe, who, in order to do that, must be self-exalting. If God plays a mock humility and says, “I’m not all that valuable, I’m not all that important, I’m not all that central, I’m not all that ultimate,” he would be hateful. He would be cruel, he would withdraw from us and bury the one thing that will satisfy our souls totally and forever, namely, himself.

This is not a morally defective God. This is not an unloving God. God is the one being in the universe, for whom the highest virtue is self-exaltation. God is the one being in the universe for whom the most loving act is self-exaltation because in exalting himself, he’s preserving for me, and offering to me, at the cost of his son’s life, the one thing that will satisfy my soul forever and ever and ever.

Love labors and suffers to enthrall us with what is totally and eternally satisfying, namely, God. That’s the way we should define love, and when you do, you see that all of this self-centeredness, all of this self-exaltation is the meaning of divine love.

A little illustration of how people don’t quickly get that. In 1995, I was sent away by the church for two or three days to a little retreat center, and they said, “Come back with a list of value statements and an overarching mission statement for our church for a committee of 23 to work on,” which I did. I came back with those statements, and this mission statement for our church is still the mission statement on the wall of the downtown campus. It’s the mission statement of my life. I love being at a church where my life mission statement and the church mission statement are the same. It goes like this, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.”

A few years into that, after the church said, “Amen, that’s who we are. Let’s go for that. Every word counts.” I preached an eight-week series of messages, unpacking every word, and someone asked, “Where’s love for people in there?” I replied, “That mission statement is my definition of love for people.” I chose to define love.

“God is totally devoted to exalting God in everything he does. There are no exceptions.”

“I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ” means I exist to love. What else would I want to do if I were a loving person, except to enthrall people with God’s supremacy in everything for their joy forever through Christ? What more can be added to love except all the little practical outworking of how one might display or demonstrate that passion? I don’t think Prowse’s objection or the squirming that happens in the seat saying, “I don’t know if I want a God who’s so God-centered. It’s okay for us to be centered, it’s not okay for God to be God-centered.” I don’t think those objections hold.

On the contrary, I think those objections miss the very point that the essence of God’s love is to do whatever he has to do to make himself my thrall, my joy, my satisfaction. God’s love is not his making much of us, but his planning, laboring, suffering to enthrall me and you with what will satisfy us totally and eternally.

Do Not Begrudge God for Being God-Centered

Here’s a closing exhortation. In all your quest to be a discerning generation, do not begrudge God’s God-centeredness. If my life has taught me anything, it has taught me that this truth is like true North in the compass of my life. I don’t have answers to many, many questions. Practical how-to-questions in the church, questions about how to deal with my adult kids, questions about how to shepherd my little family that is left at home. I don’t have answers to many questions, but it is amazing, and I say this to young people as a father, it is amazing how to have one, good, clear, solid true North in your compass sheds light on everything. This is one that I live by day in and day out.

Does this behavior conform to this reality of God’s pervasive and eternal God-centeredness? Does it conform to the meaning of the love of God? Not as making much of me or anybody else, but of spending himself at the cost of his Son’s life, to save me to his glory, so that he is at the bottom and the middle and the center from him, and through him and to him are all things.

I commend it to you: may the Lord turn the lens so that the color conforms to this reality, so that for the rest of your life, you will see God’s radical passion for God on every page of the Bible, so that out of your heart will come, “Whom have I in heaven but you? On earth, there’s nothing that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”