Is Jesus an Egomaniac?
Overcoming a Major Obstacle to Christian Faith
Engaging Truth Conference | Lebanon
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. (Matthew 10:37–39)
Erik Reece is Professor of English at the University of Kentucky. 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. He published a book in 2009 titled An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. He did a radio interview about his book, and something he said there is why I am speaking to you about the question, Is Jesus an egomaniac?
At one point in the interview, the host of the show pointed Reece to page 28 of his book, where he quotes the words of Jesus that we just read from Matthew 10: “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.” Then, after quoting Jesus, Reece says, “Who is the egomaniac speaking these words?” The radio host asks him, “Would you elaborate on that reaction?”
Reece replies, “Well, it just struck me as, ‘Who is this person speaking two thousand 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 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.” The word is pretty self-explanatory. But the dictionary puts egomaniac in plain English: “someone who displays excessive selfishness and self-centeredness.”
Neither New nor Uncommon
Now, Mr. Reece is not the only one who feels that way. If this were an isolated opinion, I wouldn’t bother you with it. But it’s not. Take the young C. S. Lewis, for example. If you haven’t already met him in your reading, you will. He eventually became a brilliant, creative, courageous defender of the Christian faith. He was an English professor at the University of Oxford in England who died about seventy years ago. But he was slow to come to Christ — age 29 before he was converted.
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 be praised 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 above all others and over the self-exalting commands of Jesus that we love him above all others. To C. S. Lewis and Erik Reece, this was sheer egomania.
Then there is Michael Prowse, a writer for a major London newspaper. Here’s what he wrote in one of his columns:
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?
In other words, it’s a character defect for God to command his creatures to praise him and worship him. And we know what the name of that character defect is: egomania. If Prowse were here, he would say, “Why are all these young people letting themselves be coerced into doing just what this egomaniac wants them to do — namely, admiring him and praising him above everybody else in the universe?”
Then there’s Oprah Winfrey. You can go to YouTube and listen to her explain why she left traditional Christianity. She was describing being in a church service where the preacher was talking about the attributes of God, his omnipotence and omnipresence. Here’s what she said,
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-powerful, 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.
Why did she stumble over the jealousy of God? 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, because it belongs to him. 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). Oprah Winfrey walked away from that truth because God sounded to her like an egomaniac.
One more example. Actor Brad Pitt did an interview with Parade magazine. In it he describes how he stumbled over God’s ego. Pitt was raised a conservative Southern Baptist, like many of you, and like me. At first his faith seemed real. He said,
Religion works. I know there’s comfort there, a crash pad. It’s something to explain the world and tell you there is something bigger than you, and it is going to be all right in the end. It works because it’s comforting. I grew up believing in it, and it worked for me in whatever my little personal high school crisis was, but it didn’t last for me.
Why not? He points to the ego of God:
I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, “You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!” It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.
So there it is again. Erik Reece and the early C. S. Lewis and Michael Prowse and Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt — and I dare say thousands of people, maybe some of you — have turned away from the God of the Bible because they thought he was too self-exalting. Too self-centered. Too much the egomaniac.
Christianity’s Very Heart
I heard a wise New Testament scholar, Don Carson, say that as he did evangelistic outreaches on university campuses for decades, the questions from students have changed over the years. Thirty years ago, he said, they tended to revolve around historical problems with Christianity. Did Jesus exist? Did he do miracles? Did he rise from the dead?
Nowadays, he said, there are questions like, How can you worship a God who is 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? (Which is what worship is.)
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, Oprah Winfrey, and Brad Pitt 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). The death of Jesus, the Son of God, for sinners is the center.
That’s true. But amazingly 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 understandable, and reveals the deepest things about God in the death of Christ. So we are not dealing with something small or marginal here, but something central and crucial, when we face this accusation of God’s egomania and Jesus’s egomania.
No Impersonal Matter
I didn’t face this issue until I was about 33 years old — 54 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. That seemed obviously right to me. I never kicked against that.
But no one ever said to me that God lives for the glory of God. Then I read the New England preacher from 250 years ago, Jonathan Edwards, who wrote a short book called 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 do not 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 is the test of whether our own God-centeredness is real.”
But 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? As long as God is me-centered, then I’ll be God-centered, which is really a way of me being me-centered. Which is what I want. So the crucial question is: Does my opposition to God’s God-centeredness reveal that my supposed God-centeredness is just a cover for wanting myself to be at the center?
Stamped Across Scripture
Reading the Bible with these eyes, I began to see what Erik Reece and C. S. Lewis and Michael Prowse and Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt were seeing. God really is radically devoted to being exalted by his people. God is radically committed to seeing to it 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: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6–7).
- God elects Israel for his glory: “I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory” (Jeremiah 13:11).
- God saves them from Egypt for his glory: “Our fathers . . . rebelled [against God] by the sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power” (Psalm 106:7–8).
- God restrains his anger in exile for his glory: “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” (Isaiah 48:9–11).
- God sends his Son into the world the first time “that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:9).
- God sends his Son at the end of the age for his glory: “He comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:10).
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 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, the end, and the middle — the predestining of our salvation at the beginning, the consummation of our salvation at the end, and the purchase of our salvation in the middle — just at these points the problem of God’s apparent egomania finds its amazing solution. So consider a passage of Scripture about each of these points — the beginning (predestination), the end (consummation), and the middle (propitiation).
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. (Ephesians 1:4–6)
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.
“The glory of his grace shines most brightly in your enjoyment of it.”
So from the very beginning, we see that God made his exaltation and the joy of our salvation one piece. You don’t have to choose between God’s glory and your joy, because the apex — the highest point — of your joy is its overflow in praise of God’s grace, and that grace is the apex of his glory. Your joy in his grace and his zeal for the glory of his grace are one. They happen together. The glory of his grace shines most brightly in your enjoyment of it.
C. S. Lewis broke through to the beauty and goodness of God’s self-exaltation (though he stumbled over it at first). Here’s the breakthrough:
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 the glory of 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. If Jesus wants you to have the greatest and longest happiness, what would he give you for your enjoyment? He would give you the greatest, most beautiful, most admirable, most satisfying reality in the universe — himself. In Jesus Christ, who made that gift possible. That’s what Jesus prayed for, as the greatest thing God could do for us:
“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.” (John 17:24)
That’s not egomania. It’s love. Because nothing will make us happier forever than to be with the greatest Person in the universe, to see his glory, and to be changed to be like him. This is why Psalm 16:11 says, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
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 this: “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, to paraphrase, 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” (Matthew 10:37), he is not hurting anyone! 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. I am not an egomaniac. I am your all-satisfying friend.
But of course, there is a great problem — namely, 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.
At 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 own glory, precisely and amazingly in the joyful salvation of sinners.
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. (Romans 3:23–26)
So here’s the argument:
1. What did God do?
Romans 3:25: He put Christ “forward as propitiation by his blood.” Christ died to remove the wrath of God.
Romans 8:3: “[God did] what the law could not do . . . he condemned sin in the flesh.”
Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
2. Why did he need to do it this way — by dying on a cross?
Romans 3:25: “This was to show God’s righteousness.”
3. Why did he need to show his righteousness?
Romans 3:25: “. . . because in his divine forbearance [or patience] he had passed over former sins.” Sins like David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband — for which David should be hell!
4. Why does passing over sins call God’s righteousness into question?
Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
To “fall short” means to “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. Here’s something else I want more.
So when God passes over that, it looks as if he agrees, that he agrees that he is not to be preferred above all. 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 in a way that shows his glory is supremely valuable. His righteousness is his commitment to uphold and display the infinite worth of his glory. And that is what the cross does.
By requiring the death of his only Son for my God-belittling sins, God shows how valuable the glory of God is. This is what it cost to vindicate the worth of the glory of God that I had so belittled by preferring other things.
Glorious Giver of Grace
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, all-satisfying Treasure of the universe.
“God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is not the act of a needy ego.”
The greatest news in the world is that in the death of Christ, God has made a way for his glory to be exalted and my sins to be forgiven in the very same act. God is ultimately glorified in us, and we are ultimately satisfied in him. And they happen together.
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 because we won’t be fully happy until we give it.
This is not arrogance. This is grace. This is not egomania. This is love.