The Blazing Center

Part 2

Bethlehem Baptist Church Youth Retreat | Minneapolis


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

We started with creation. God put forward all that is for his glory. We take the middle of history — the cross — and that’s for his glory. And now we go to the end of history. Listen to the way Paul describes the reason Jesus is coming back:

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

Jesus is coming to be glorified and to be marveled at. Now if I walked into this room, and after being gone for so long, I stepped forward and said, “Now the reason I’m here tonight is so that you would marvel at me. And the reason I’m here is so that you would glorify me. I have come to be glorified tonight. I have come to be marveled at tonight.” I hope that you would all rise and leave in protest — or wait for the joke to end.

Is Jesus an Egomaniac?

But this is no joke in 2 Thessalonians, is it? Jesus is coming back to be marveled at. That’s why he’s coming. So is he not absolutely vain? Does not all of this talk about God’s pursuit of God’s own glory make him a megalomaniac that nobody possibly could admire? That’s not a question that goes unasked.

Puffed up with Pride

I brought along this sheet, a page in the London Financial Times. I was over there two years ago and ran into this article by Michael Prowse. It’s a book review, I want to read you the first paragraph of this article so that you can see that there are people, lots of people, who, when they read the Bible, are absolutely turned off by everything I have said for the last thirty minutes: God’s pursuit of God’s glory. Christ’s pursuit of Christ’s exaltation. They say, “I don’t want anything to do with a God like that, thank you. I want a God of love.”

This is not my made-up illustration to set the tone; this is what Michael Prowse, who writes for Financial Times regularly, said,

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? It was such worries spurred by reading too much Bertrand Russell that helped me turn off to religion as a teenager.

This man, as a teenager, was thinking thoughts that I’ve just been sharing, he was not liking what he heard and turned off. And I wonder where you are right now. All this talk about Christ’s exalting activity and God’s self-exalting passion turned him off totally because he could not conceive that it was loving.

God’s Highest Virtue

And that’s not a bad question, is it? How in the world can it be loving to be so self-exalting? How can John Piper stand up in front of anybody and say, “God’s self-exaltation is his highest virtue and his most exquisite demonstration of love.” How in the world can he talk like that? And that’s where I want to go and wind up tonight with a solution to that problem.

“God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.”

So, how in the world can it be loving for God to be so self-exalting? Get into C.S. Lewis somewhere along the way in your life. He was not a perfect man, but he wrote some great things. My life was deeply, deeply shaped by much of Lewis. 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.” And so did Michael Prowse.

What’s saying, “Praise me, praise me, praise me.” If I did that, I’d be sick and you’d leave. If God does it, why isn’t he sick and why shouldn’t we leave? Why is this not just tolerable, but at the heart of God’s love for us?

Magnify the Lord with Me

God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s the main point of these sessions that we have together. I better stop here and say a word about this word glorified. What image is in your mind when you say, “God, be magnified by my life.” Do you have in mind what a microscope does or what a telescope does?

In the English language, we use the word magnify for what a microscope does and what a telescope does. Isn’t that strange? Because they do opposite things. And we call them both magnify. A microscope makes things that are really little look bigger than they are. A telescope makes things that are really big, but look little to our eye, become more like what they really are. Right? Would you agree with that? That’s the difference between a microscope and a telescope.

So which is it for God? If you say, “When I magnify God, I’m a microscope.” Well, you’re blaspheming, right? “Poor little God, he’s so tiny, like a little teeny germ, a little atom, a molecule, and I’m going to help him look bigger than he really is.” That’s blasphemy, if that’s what you mean by magnify. But, if you say, “I’m a telescope. Not a very powerful one, I admit, and my lenses are all smudgy. But I’m a telescope because I just want to put my life to this galaxy, this universe, this star which the world looks at and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I believe in God. He’s a little speck in my sky. He’s there.’” And your life should put the lens to that, and then they look through your life and say, “Whoa, I did not realize that’s who he was.” That’s what we ought to mean by magnify.

What Will Satisfy?

So when I talk about glorifying God, that’s what I mean by glorify: make him look more like he really is in all of his perfections and majesty. Let’s go to the Bible for a few minutes here before we close.

John 11 relays the story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus is sick and dying, and they ask Jesus to come.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (John 11:1)

This is the same Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. So here was a sweet relationship between Jesus and these sisters.

So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Now, love is a key word. I want to know how it is that God’s zeal for his glory can be loving. It doesn’t sound like love to a lot of people.

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)

Now we have both love and glory on the table. And I want to know how they relate to each other. That’s the point of tonight’s talk: How does God’s pursuit of his glory and our longing to be happy, to be loved, relate to each other?

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:5–6)

Does that make sense? No, it does not make sense. There’s only one explanation for that and he’s given it in verse 4: “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God.” Jesus regarded it as more loving to show Lazarus and Mary and Martha the glory of God than to keep Lazarus alive. He let him go through that horror of dying. This poor man has to die twice now. And he let him go through that horror of dying, the grief of these women, and he says it’s love.

“In America today, we have totally redefined what it means to be loved.”

We have a lot of people suffering at Bethlehem right now. I am so thankful to be part of a church that understands God’s love has not been lifted when we walk through suffering. Because it is more loving for God to show his glory than to spare us from suffering. Now we’re getting close to the solution.

What will satisfy your soul most deeply? If God refuses to give you that, he doesn’t love you. What will satisfy your soul most deeply and for the longest period of time? If God doesn’t give you that, he doesn’t love you. And what is it? Himself. God is the one being in the universe whose best gift is himself. If he were to substitute something other than himself and give it to you as the eternal satisfaction of your souls, he would not be loving because it would not bring eternal satisfaction to your souls. If I offer you myself as the satisfaction of your soul, I do not love you. If I love you, I point you away from me to God as the satisfaction of your soul.

A Strange Way to Pray

Let me take you to one more part of John. Let’s go to John 17. I’m going to assume that you agree with me that this chapter called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus is a loving prayer. I am going to assume that it’s a loving prayer because everything Jesus does for those who are his own is loving. And he’s praying for you in verse 20,

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.

So that’s everybody in this room who’s a believer. He’s praying for you in this prayer. I find that staggeringly exciting. I can actually read the prayers that Jesus is praying for me. Now look how he prays in verses 1–5,

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.

What a strange way to pray for me. The first request of his prayer for me is that he be glorified. That’s really strange. And what is eternal life?

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 11:3)

So now he’s said it twice: “Glorify me. Give them eternal life — that’s all about knowing me.”

I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Now that is a very strange way to pray for other people, is it not? I want you to have your minds absolutely boggled with your Christ. We’ve got him so neatly packaged and in our back pocket, and we think we understand this glorious God-man, Jesus Christ. And here he is praying for you, and his first three petitions are: glorify me, give them eternal life — which is all about knowing me — and make sure I get glorified. How in the world is that a prayer for you?

Real Love

If you can’t answer that question by the time we’re done this weekend, I have failed. The answer is given in verse 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.

Jesus was asking his Father that he not be left in the grave, that he not be left with all those bloody stripes. How much ignominy, how much ugliness, how much horror, how much disrespect was upon the Son of God? And he was saying, “Father, just don’t leave me in that condition. Bring me, magnificent and powerful and glorious and supreme, out of the grave.” Why? Like it says in verse 24: “My people have something glorious to see and savor and love and admire and be satisfied by.”

“Love is doing whatever you have to do in order to enthrall someone with what will make them happy forever.”

One of the reasons that we can’t feel that a God-centered God is loving is because in America today, we have totally redefined what it means to be loved. We have said that to be loved is to be made much of. “Just make much of me and I will feel so good, I will feel so loved. Talk about my skills. Talk about my gifts. Talk about my looks. Oh, please, make much of me. Mom, dad, brother, sister, schoolmate, coach, please, make much of me and I will feel loved.” As long as we’re thinking like that, we do not know what love is. And therefore, when you try to apply that to God, it won’t work.

And no wonder God doesn’t look loving when he’s exalting himself like Jesus in verses 1–5. And when he turns it our way by saying, “Now here I am, and I hope that you will enjoy seeing me. I pray that you will enjoy seeing me and being with me forever and ever.” Love is not making much of someone. Love is doing whatever you have to do, at great cost to yourself, so that they will be satisfied eternally with what eternally satisfies them — namely God.

Love is doing whatever you have to do in order to enthrall someone with what will make them happy forever. And it isn’t a mirror. Heaven is not a hall of mirrors with you liking what you see. Are not your deepest, highest moments of joy, your most lasting, rich, earnest moments of joy — are they not moments of self-forgetfulness as you watch something magnificent? I think that for that split second, there’s something that just inundates your senses that you forget about who you are. I mean, it’s just overwhelming sometimes.

What We Were Made For

There are parables of this all over your life. This is why you can share this with unbelievers. They will get this. Why do we watch the World Series? Why do we watch gymnastics when the Olympics rolls around? Why do we go to the Grand Canyon? Why do we go to the Alps? Why do we go to the ocean and look out over? Why do we want to get near bigness and beauty and magnificence and excellence? It’s because that’s what we were made for. We were not made for mirrors. We were made for standing in front of what is infinitely beautiful and having it so satisfy us.

I mean, just pick your own favorite human stunning thing. For me, I love gymnastics in the Olympics. I cannot believe what they do in the floor exercise in gymnastics. Triple back flip with no springboard — that is impossible. And so when that happens, I come out of my chair, especially if they nail it and don’t move their feet. Religious language is what we have to retreat to. We say, “Glory!” And if you read the newspapers during the Olympics, you find religious language all over the place on the sports page because it is so magnificent that they’ve got to grope for the language we use for God. Do you know why all that exists? Do you know why God ordains that there be such things as perfect, nothing-but-net, three-point shots as the buzzer rings, when you’re down two? The reason such things like that exists is to tell us little parables about what it would be like to experience verse 24: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.”

The Only Satisfying Reality

I wrote Michael Prowse a letter. I don’t hate people like him; I feel sorry for them. I wrote him a letter, and I addressed it to the Financial Times. In fact, I found him online and I found an email. I said,

Mr. Prowse, I understand why your view of God turned you off as a teenager. He seemed like a megalomaniac to you. He’s just always exalting himself, asking people to praise him. But have you ever considered that God is stuck with being absolutely beautiful.

He can’t help it. That’s just the way he is. He’s staggeringly, gloriously, infinitely, all-satisfyingly beautiful. And therefore, if he conceals himself from me, in mock humility, he hates me. He must show himself to me. He must work in my heart to create the desire for him and the love for him.

So that what God needs to do in this room tonight as we close is to work in our hearts so that we stop resenting his authority, stop resenting his power and his wisdom and his justice and his love and his grace. And we need to start realizing the reason he presents himself to us so self-exaltingly is because he’s the only reality that can satisfy our hearts.

Never at Odds

Let me sum it up and tell you where we’re going tomorrow morning. My problem that I painted tonight was God is radically God-centered. God is passionate for God’s glory. That sounds unloving. The reason it’s not unloving is because God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him.

“God is radically God-centered. God is passionate for God’s glory.”

And so, my fifteen-year-old heart longs to be happy. And as a 58-year-old I want to be happy. And I don’t want it to last eight thousand years and then end. I want it to last forever. Don’t offer me anything less than perfect joy that lasts forever. I want that, and I know that God wants to be glorious in my life.

And now, what I have seen is, they are not at odds. My passion to be happy and God’s passion to be glorified come together in one act of worship as I am happy in him. So I’m going to talk about a stunning implication of that tomorrow morning. If God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him, then I better make it the full-time vocation of my life to be happy and let nothing get in my way.