The God-Centeredness of God

Children Desiring God National Conference | Minneapolis

Whenever we teach children, we must be concerned not simply to indoctrinate them. Let me clarify this just as a protection against anything else I might say being misunderstood. What I mean by indoctrination, which we shouldn’t do, is putting thoughts into a child’s head without a due concern that they should have a good reason for believing them. In other words, indoctrination tries to preserve a viewpoint from group to group or from generation to generation without helping each new group or each new generation be able to test all things and hold fast to what is good.

So we have to not only think, “Okay, it would be right for me to take the truths that I know and put them into the heads of these little persons.” That’s right, you should do that. They’re going to have something in their heads, and it’ll be true or false. To want to have the truth go into their heads is a very good thing. But you should also care that in the process of putting the truths in their head, you’re thinking about the process by which they learn how to think of those truths, the process by which they learn how to support those truths and get more of those truths and spread those truths. So it’s not just a block of information that goes into their head and now they have a block of information. There are other things going on that prevent that from being indoctrination.

The assumption there is that we do what we do not only to get to what — that is, what is the truth; and we don’t only seek to get to the why — that is, why someday will they believe this; but there is also a third thing — that is, we should model how. So there is the what, the why, and the how. It’s about the how of getting that what in and providing the wherewithal to test and know the why. There’s a how. I’m very self-conscious, right now, about doing that. In fact, my approach here tonight will be a little different than the way I would ordinarily talk to any group because I feel like I’m talking to teachers mainly, or at least people who care a lot about teachers. Therefore, I’m thinking that the way I want to be heard here is not just, “Okay, here’s some information about God’s centrality,” but how I think about that.

In fact, I want to show how I think about thinking about that in a way that helps others think about it that way. Because that’s what teachers do. They sit down and they think about what they’re thinking about to get it clear in their own heads what they mean, and then they do these other things about those little minds out there and how they want those little minds to be able to know why they believe this and how they want those little minds to see how that truth is being imparted. When I preach, that’s the way I’m thinking about people. I’m preaching in a way that won’t just transfer one theological viewpoint from one head to another but will do it in a way that they think about thinking in a certain way, they think about the Bible in a certain way, and they think about supporting ideas in a certain way and talking about them in a certain way.

So all of that is just to put some distance between me and anybody who would say the job of teaching is to indoctrinate or transfer your ideas to the ideas of a child. It is so much more, as much as we believe in the transfer of a body of knowledge, because the Bible certainly sees it that way. That’s the first caution.

Exceeding Contextualization

Here’s the second thing. This is off my front burner in the last two days. And all this is setting you up to get to the real topic of God’s God-centeredness, which is my assignment. It has occurred to me in thinking about children and the teaching of them. It is amazingly illuminating for all missions and all communication to understand how we do it with children. It works better that way than the other way. Don’t think, “Okay, I’m going to analyze how I do contextualization over here and then I’ll go do it with children.” It works better the other way.

If you’re focusing on this little being and you think, “Now how do you do this?” the answers and the light that begins to dawn at that moment shed so much light on this missionary thing or this contextualization thing. So here’s the thought I had, contextualization is a very big buzzword today. It’s an old reality when it comes to cross-cultural missions. You’ve always had to learn a foreign language to do missions. The hot button today is that you do it in Boston and you do it in Seattle and you do it in Atlanta. And wherever you are, you are thinking of contextualizing to 20-somethings or contextualizing to urban professionals. That way of thinking is just hot today, and it’s right, but so limited. And the limitation of it became much more clear for me when I began to apply it to children.

Let’s take this little people group called three-year-olds. Now, how useful is the concept of contextualization with a three-year-old? Well, it’s useful, meaning there’s a context here, immaturity. There are not a lot of words and not a lot of concepts. So I need to find some overlap because if I use only words that they don’t know, I will communicate nothing except “that person is funny or interesting or don’t know what he’s talking about.” But if I use only words that they do know, I won’t grow them up beyond their present limitations and immaturity. And as I began to think through that, I realized that contextualization, as it’s usually understood, is of very limited value here to me. Because what I realize right away is that I’m not mainly dealing with a context there in their head and a context here in my head and how I need to find which categories in their head and which categories in my head match enough so that I can get some of mine into them. That won’t work.

Reason? They have hardly any categories. All the categories I care about they don’t even have yet, which means our task is not mainly contextualization as it’s usually understood, but concept creation, or category creation. And as soon as I saw that I saw that’s really what I’m about in most of my preaching. Why? Because even though these folks are adults out there, most of their categories have been shaped by television, movies, advertising, economics, and the world. And I not only have the huge task of creating some, I have to destroy others. At least with the children depravity is unformed. There’s going to be rebellion there, but they don’t have some really well-formed anti-Christ concepts to throw at me. I can build conceptualizations. I can build structures of the universe and of the world and of family life and everything I can create here if I’m thinking that way. That was very illuminating for me for what I do most of the time in dealing with more mature people to just think about how this concept of contextualization is of very limited value with a two or three-year-old.

And then I come over here with missions and I see that it has its great limitations in evangelism and missions as well because if you say that your only task is contextualization in evangelism with adults, you will assume something you shouldn’t assume — namely, that they have the constructs of thought, they have the categories of thought, and they have the concepts to take biblical reality and fit it in. They don’t. They don’t have them.

Category Creation

I’ll try to give you several examples here because that’s vague the way I’ve left it. Here’s what I mean by structures of thought that your average run-of-the-mill child for sure won’t have, and a grown-up, unchurched person probably won’t have either. Here’s a category, a way of thinking. God rules the world, the world of bliss and suffering and sin right down to the roll of the dice and the fall of a bird, the driving of a nail into the hand of the Son of God, and yet even though he wills that such sin and suffering be, he is perfectly holy and never sins.

Now that’s a category, that’s a view, that’s a way of conceptualizing God, holiness, sin, and freedom, in a package that for most people is inconceivable — that God would ordain the murder of the Son of God and be sinless in doing so. These are things that have to be created in people’s heads. That’s a hard job. It’s an impossible job.

Be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Romans 12:2).

That’s a work of the Holy Spirit. But he uses words.

Another example is that God governs all the steps of all people, both good and bad, at all times in all places such that all are totally accountable before him and will bear the just consequences of his wrath if they do not believe in Christ. They will bear the just consequences of his wrath, and he totally controls all their decisions. Your average person does not bring that conception to church. They hear it and it just sounds like double talk.

Third, all people are dead in their trespasses and sins and are not morally able to come to Christ because of their rebellion, and yet they are responsible to come to Christ and will be punished if they don’t.

Fourth, Jesus Christ is the one person with two natures, divine and human, such that he upheld the world by the word of his power while living in his mother’s womb.

Fifth, sin, though committed by a finite person in the confines of finite time, is nevertheless deserving of an infinitely long punishment because it’s a sin against an infinitely worthy God.

Lastly, by way of illustration, the death of one God-man, Jesus Christ, so displayed and glorified the righteousness of God that God is not unrighteous to declare righteous the ungodly people who simply believe in him.

If you try to say that to a Muslim, there are so many pieces of that sentence that are totally unintelligible. And it’s not because you can’t find words. They could say all the words. It’s structures of thought. It’s the way things fit together. It’s possible meanings inside structures.

Now what I’m saying is that with children, at least we don’t have to undo the wrong structures of the world. We have sin to deal with, for sure. But we are, as it were, starting from structural scratch. We’re starting from a conceptual blankness. This is a mystery. Philosophers used to argue about this and talked about the tabula rasa, and they would ask, “Where do concepts come from in a little child?” Are they there already and we’re just filling them up through empiricism or aren’t they there? And how do you create them? I don’t know. I just know it happens and parents are responsible and teachers are responsible to partner with those parents in building little minds that can, when they hear truths like those I just read, say, “I’ve seen that. I understand that. There are mysterious parts of it, but I’m not jarred by that. That fits in these places.”

Those two things, indoctrination and contextualization, are preliminary thoughts to set you up for how I’m going to approach my topic, which is to talk about God-centeredness.

A Glitch in Our Theology

Now, all of us in a sense are talking about God-centeredness here. I’ve looked at their topics. I don’t want to tread on anybody’s territory. Everybody’s going to talk about a life that’s God-centered, a family that’s God-centered, a church that’s God-centered, a curriculum that’s God-centered, a sex life that’s God-centered, and a workplace that’s God-centered. Now, here’s the problem. I’m pedagogically taking you with me on a thought process for the next little while, which is the rest of the message. I spent 30 years mainly trying to make that one point. God is great, you should be blown away by it, and everything should change.

And if you use language like God-centeredness and say that a seminary curriculum should be God-centered, and chapel services should be God-centered, and worship services at Bethlehem should be God-centered, and children’s curriculum should be God-centered, and youth ministry should be God-centered, I’ve never met a person who says, “That’s a bad idea. I don’t think we should be God-centered,” because they know the alternatives are self-centered or man-centered and that just doesn’t sound right. So they agree. I’ve done this with seminary deans. I say, “I want the school to be God-centered,” and they say, “Oh yes, absolutely, we agree totally.” And then a year later I’m watching what’s done, and I think, “There’s a glitch here. This is not happening. They’re not getting it.” And what I realize is when you’re trying to create categories of thought, getting people to agree on words is not going to do it.

Because if you choose words like “God-centered”, there are very few people going to rise up and say, “No.” So what do you do? Because this is what you’d have to do with children. If they’re just nodding their heads when you say, “God is sovereign,” and they don’t have a clue what you mean, you have to find a way, whether adults or children, to make it so that when you say it, they go, “Oh.” Because then you get at the nub of what they’re missing. So I’ve developed a strategy on this topic that I’ve used hundreds of times in the last 30 years, and if you’ve ever heard anything I’ve said you probably heard it. So here goes.

My simple strategy for making sure that when I talk about God-centered anything or everything, I insist that people first sign on to the God-centeredness of God, and as soon as I try, they start saying, “That doesn’t sound right.”

Questioning Our Self-Centeredness

You can have a God-centered life, a God-centered church, a God-centered curriculum, and a God centered family — yes, yes, yes. And then they go away and they’re man-centered. But what about a God-centered God? He is radically, totally, completely centered on his glory. That does not sound right to them. Okay, now we can make some progress.

At that point when I’ve got them shaking their head, just to push on it as much as I can, I like to give them a quiz. And here’s my quiz. After I make the point — my all-shaping conviction is that God created the universe in order that he might be known and worshiped with white-hot intensity by created beings who see his glory manifested in creation, history, and redemption; that he made history that he might be praised — and after I get them all saying, “No, that sounds so self-centered. It sounds so unloving. It sounds so vain. It sounds like a megalomaniac. I don’t like what you’re saying. It doesn’t sound like John 3:16. It doesn’t sound like Sunday school that I grew up in. This is weird. I don’t want you to talk like that anymore. Revert to the sentences that I can agree with,” then I give them a quiz and it goes like this.

Question number one, what is the chief end of God? They’re used to saying, “What is the chief end of man?” but I say, “What is the chief end of God?” Answer: the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy displaying his glory forever.

Question number two, who is the most God-centered person in the universe? Answer: God is the most God-centered person in the universe.

Question three, who is uppermost in God’s affections? Answer: God is uppermost in his affections.

Question four, is God an idolater? Answer: no, he has no other gods before him.

Question five, what is God’s chief jealousy? Answer: God’s chief jealousy is to be known, admired, trusted, enjoyed, and obeyed above all others.

Last question, number six, and this is the one that really gnaws at people. Do you feel most loved by God when he makes much of you, or when he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? It’s a very threatening question, partly because so many people have never asked themselves that question and they’re taken off guard by it. They know that the first half feels good. I feel like I’m being loved if you come up to me and say, “You’ve been a very helpful pastor to me,” or, “That was a good sermon,” or, “Thank you so much for writing that book.” Everybody knows that feels really good. And so it’s easy for me to say, “That’s love in you. You’re making me feel good. That’s love.” Everybody can connect with that, and then I’m saying, by virtue of this question, that may be a problem.

Do you feel more loved by God that he makes much of you or that by dying for you and suffering for you and sending the Holy Spirit in you to liberate you, you are now enabled for the first time in your life and forever to experience maximal joy in making much of him forever? And your highest joy will not be being made much of but making much of him. It’s a shocking thing to people because very few children’s curricula have helped them get ready for this. Self-esteem is the fabric of most motivating educational enterprises. The thought is to constantly show love to kids by complimenting them. Performance will follow self-esteem. That’s universal in America.

It’s a delicate thing because I’m not into beating kids up. I love, as a parent, to spontaneously effuse over my daughter’s virtues when I hear a teacher at school mention one of them. That is a good and right thing for a parent to do. But woe to us if we begin to massage that thing and manipulate that thing so that it becomes the defining paradigm for getting this child to do what we want, if everything is revolving around how much I compliment them and don’t compliment them, commend them and don’t commend them, instead of pointing them away from that craving of the sinful heart to be known and stroked and approved — that craving that’s in every sinful heart — to a kind of joy that has to be Holy Spirit wrought and is a thousand times more satisfying.

Not a Hall of Mirrors

The way you can feel how it is more satisfying is to imagine heaven. Do you want heaven to be a hall of mirrors where you like what you see, or do you want all mirrors gone and God magnificent to admire with ever-expanding glories forever? Everybody knows this who’s been to the Grand Canyon, or the Himalayas, or the Alps, or just pick your favorite nature spot where some dimension of grandeur has drawn you out of yourself. I have a few points in my life, just a few, where that happened. There was a mountain in Utah where for the first time I understood what Milky Way really meant. The stars were so many that they combined and it was a sheet of white. It was unspeakably powerful that night.

Then three years later on the way back from California with my wife we were pausing and stopping in Montana somewhere, big sky country. You’re probably just used to it if you’re from there, but we got out of the car at this gas station. It was as flat as you could imagine for every direction, and you looked up and clouds were moving in four different directions at one time. There were so many layers of them. And it went on forever. I felt like my soul was just being pulled out of me. It was the kind of experience where for a flash I thought what heaven might be like, and it had nothing to do with mirrors. It’s a golden moment of self-forgetfulness when you’re looking at this magnificent flat land. Isn’t that amazing?

So we all know that this motif of self-esteem that works with children, and that has a grain of truth in it, is not what we are after. I’ve been in so many settings where preachers or counselors are trying to help people with a drug problem and they get around finally to the gospel, which happens to be, “You need to feel good about yourself and the gospel of Christ crucified is the way that you can feel good about yourself, because he wouldn’t have died for you if you weren’t something.” That’s not the gospel. Oh my.

Drawing People Out of Themselves

So we are trying to create a concept of God-centeredness which draws people out of themselves. People do not understand it, they’ve never tasted it, and so you knock their blocks off by saying, “You must embrace God’s God-centeredness to know what I’m talking about.” They’re resisting, and so the work is cut out for us. So what do you do then? You’re going to take this back and you’re going to have a teacher’s meeting and you’re going to try to transfer some of this into a group of people. What do you do then? Because frankly I don’t blame people who have not been taught for stumbling over God’s God-Centeredness, because the Bible says we shouldn’t self-centered.

Love doesn’t seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5). Jesus says, “Unless a person takes up his cross and denies himself, he can’t be my disciple” (Mark 8:34–35). People think, “We hate pride. You sound like you’re portraying a kind of God who’s simply morally defective. Why would I want to listen to you?” You have to create that kind of dissonance, I have found over the years, otherwise they don’t ever get through the crud and the haze that is a man-centered interpretation of God-centeredness. What I have found is this, if a person is God-centered because they believe God is man-centered, their God-centeredness is man-centeredness.

If you make much of God because he makes much of you, you are making much of you. If you treasure God because God makes much of you, then you don’t treasure God because of the excellencies that he has in himself. So this is a very, very big issue — helping break apart people’s thought that they are God-centered when they’re not. They’re not. They’ve never been shocked enough by what the Bible really says.

The God-Centeredness of God

That’s where we are now. We are at the Bible and I’m just going to take seven or eight minutes here to list maybe 15 or 17 passages of Scripture. I’ve chosen these passages of Scripture a little differently than I sometimes do to take you from eternity to eternity, right through the way we experience God. And all these texts are chosen simply to show you that the Bible really, really stresses God’s God-centeredness.

Now, I think you can make some headway with Bible believers here. You might be able to make some headway with unbelievers because the word of God has power. Even if they don’t believe it, it has power to break in on them. Let me just read these to you.

To the Praise of His Glorious Grace

Ephesians 1:5–6 says:

He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace . . .

He predestined us to be his sons to the praise of the glory of his grace. That’s why he predestined us to be his children. It’s so that we would praise the glory of his grace. That’s what I mean by God’s God-centeredness. That’s God designing that. We usually go to that verse, and people who are looking at it through the grid of man-centered God-centeredness see that we should praise God. That’s not a problem. Yes we should. But did you read the verse? The logic of the verse says that God predestined us for that. It was his idea that you do that. It would be like me saying to you, “Now, the way I’ve planned this evening is so that when I’m done, you will all really applaud loudly for me.” And if I made that clear to you, you would feel bad about that. You would think I’m sick, and you’d be right. So we’re trying to get over the hump of why it’s so bad for me to do that, to be self-exalting, and so right for God to be self-exalting.

That’s what you have to do biblically. You have to think, why is that? Why is it right for God to be self-exalting and so wrong for everybody else to be self-exalting?

Psalm 19:1 says that God created the natural world to display his glory:

The heavens declare the glory of God . . .

Everybody says, “Hurray!” Who set it up that way?

A People, a Name, a Praise, a Glory

Isaiah 49:3 says:

And he said to me, “You are my servant,
     Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Jeremiah 13:11 says that God’s design for Israel is that they might be for him “a people, a name, a praise and a glory.” In other words, “I’ve chosen you, Israel, so that you might be my glory on the earth. It’s about me. You’re about me.”

Psalm 106:7 says that he saved them at the Red Sea for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power. He saved them for his name’s sake.

Ezekiel 20:14 says:

But I acted [in the wilderness] for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.

In 1 Samuel 12:0–22, after they asked for a king in a sinful way, it says:

Do not be afraid . . . For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake . . .

He’s not going to cast you away for his great name’s sake.

Ezekiel 36:22–23 says:

Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name . . . And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name . . . And the nations will know that I am the Lord . . .

Isaiah 48:11 says:

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.

Father, Glorify Your Name

Romans 15:8–9 says:

Christ became a servant to the circumcised (that is, he became the Jewish Messiah) to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

God sent Jesus as a Jewish messiah so that he might demonstrate God’s faithfulness to his promises and in order that nations might glorify God for his mercy. Mercy comes to the nations so that something will happen. What? And we usually say, “That they would be saved and go to heaven.” Right. But it’s not the ultimate point. When they get to heaven, what are they going to do and why would they want to go? Is the answer, “Well, hell is hot.” Bad answer. It’s because God is there and we find our ultimate joy in glorifying him. That’s why he died for us.

This is John 12:27–28:

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

That’s the way Jesus talked to his Father the night before he died. “Father, what shall I say? Deliver me here? No, let’s finish it. Let’s do what we came to do. Make your name great tomorrow morning.”

This is the gospel we’re talking about here. Know the God-centeredness of God in the gospel. Listen to this. This is 2 Corinthians 5:15:

He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

You see what that’s saying? Christ died for you so that you would no longer be centered on yourself but centered on him, which means he died to make himself central in your life. He died for you to make himself supreme in your life. The cross was radically self-exalting, while it was also the most self-sacrificing moment in the universe. The goal of it was to put the treasure of the universe in your heart, supremely esteemed above all other treasures — namely, Jesus. That’s why he died.

The Name Above Every Name

Philippians 2:9–11 says:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Now who is the actor at the beginning of Philippians 2:9? It’s God the Father. God raised him from the dead to get to the glory of the Father. The Father raised the Son from the dead so that the Father would get glory through the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot escape God’s God-centeredness in the Bible. It is everywhere. So I’m just pushing people’s faces in it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m just saying, “I don’t care how much you dislike this. I’m not letting you go until you see that it’s here. Now, we are going to turn this around for you. We’re going to turn this into gospel for you. We’re going to make you love this before we’re done. We’re going to put a foundation under your feet like you’ve never known before. But I’m not letting you get out of this. There’s no cheap, quick solution to this dislike for what you see here. See it, own it, dislike it, but don’t run from it. There is an answer. Stay with me.” That’s what we’re doing.

Isaiah 43:25 says:

I, I am he
     who blots out your transgressions for my own sake . . .

Do you enjoy being forgiven and having your sins washed away? Why did God do it? He did it for his own name’s sake.

The Giver Gets the Glory

First Peter 4:11, which is the most common verse I use in ministry I think, says:

Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

The giver gets the glory. Serve in the strength that he supplies, so that in everything he gets the glory. So God is giving my enablement right now so that he will get the glory. That’s why he’s put me here. I could be sinning right now, blowing it big-time inside. He’s not. He knows why I’m here. He knows what he’s up to and it’s all about him.

Acts 12:23 says:

Immediately an angel of the Lord struck [Herod] down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

Kings and princes should give glory to God. They should acknowledge God. Barack Obama should acknowledge God as the source of everything in his life. And if he doesn’t, he may be eaten by worms someday.

Second Thessalonians 1:10 says:

When he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed . . .

Why is Jesus coming back? He’s coming back to be marveled at. If we say to Jesus today, “Why are you coming back someday?” He would say, “Because I’m going to be praised. My oh my, what a day that’s going to be. There will be a kind of praising of me that day that has never been before or ever will be again. It will be the great day of Christ-exalting praise. That’s why I’m coming.” Does that sound vain? Well, sure it does to a lot of people. You have to figure out why. Why? Why is that not un-virtuous?

Habakkuk 2:14 says:

For the earth will be filled
     with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
     as the waters cover the sea.

Here’s the last text. Revelation 21:23 says:

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

God is so into being all in all and so overflowing with a passion to be pervasively, presently glorious that he’s going to replace the sun and the moon with himself in the last day. We won’t be disappointed in that, I promise you.

Is God for God or for Me?

So now we have a crisis in people’s lives, and I’ll just take a few more minutes to try to relieve the crisis. The crisis is that people think, “We liked your idea that all of life should be God-centered. We thought we agreed with you. You don’t think we agreed with you, and so you confronted us with this thing, namely, God’s God-centeredness, and we didn’t like the sound of that. It sounds vain, it sounds self-exalting, it sounds unloving. It sounds like a megalomaniac. And now you just spent 10 minutes rubbing our nose in it, and we don’t know if we want to even be Christians anymore.” That’s serious.

I have articles and letters of people who have refused to come to the faith precisely because the concept of God’s requiring praise seems un-virtuous to them. It seems vain. It seems like weak kings needing adulation. I don’t take this lightly. I have created a huge moral obstacle to faith in God at this moment, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t help me. Because I hate self-exaltation. I hate it in you, I hate it in me most of all. I hate it in my children. I hate pride. Pride is the worst, most horrible, rooted, causing-all-evils-in-the-world sin there is. Here I am describing almighty God in categories that for so many people feel wicked because they don’t have the categories I’m trying to create.

God’s Love and God’s Glory

But frankly, I just have not found any way to get breakthroughs for people without bringing them to this crisis over time. And so, the solution, as many of you know, lies in this. I’ll read a passage from John 11, get the solution from it, sum it up, and we’ll close. Here’s John 11, and here’s what I’m trying to do. I want help from the Bible now. What I think doesn’t matter at all. I want to say that to my children. I want to say that to my parishioners over and over again. My opinions don’t matter much; the Bible matters infinitely. If I can’t show you my opinions from the Bible, you shouldn’t care much about them. So what I want right now is help from the Bible for why that portrait of God that I just displayed isn’t ugly. In fact, it’s not only not ugly, it’s beautiful. It’s the foundation of life and joy and gospel and steadfastness, and I’ll use this text. John 11:1–2 says:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

I think that’s pointed out here, even though it hasn’t happened yet in the gospel, because he’s trying to make sure we know that the relationship between Jesus and these two women and their brother is really precious. It’s really deep, really sweet, and really loving. This is what we want God to be like. I do. I want him to be like this. I want him to have relationships like that — tender, warm, intimate, caring. John 11:3 continues:

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

Now there’s a second time it occurs. The first time was in the picture of Mary anointing Jesus. It says, “He whom you love is ill.” Maybe you’re thinking, “I want to know what love is. I want to know how God loves because you just painted a picture that doesn’t look loving to me. It looks selfish.” The passage continues:

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).

So now we have another category introduced. You have the love category introduced. He loves Lazarus and he loves the sisters. And he’s saying this sickness is all about glory. It’s about the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Then John 11:5 says:

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

This is the third time John is underlining that he loves them. He loves them, he loves them, he loves them. And then you get this category-exploding, and I pray, category-creating word — so, or therefore.

Therefore, when he heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

This is where you want to go with little children. They won’t be able to do this early. Different children come to the ability to do this at different ages, some at seven, 10, 13, others later, to handle logical relations like this. But I hope you can handle it. I’m just going to collapse it down. In John 11:5, it says, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” and therefore he did not go heal him, but let him die.

Now, there’s a category of thought here that I think is infinitely important. How can this be love? Clearly, in the Gospel of John, the writer of John wants us to ask that question. He emphasizes love, love, love. And then he says therefore, and the thing immediately before the therefore is love and the therefore leads to *let him die. He’s going to be dead four days. And then he goes and he raises him from the dead and he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). And that takes us back to John 11:4, which says:

When Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God . . .

I just step back from those six verses, having brought in the later verses in the chapter to know how the story ends, and I say, “What were you trying to tell me about the love of God and the love of Jesus here? What were you trying to tell me?” And I think this is the word. He’s trying to tell me, and he does it in numerous places in the Gospel of John, that the main way that God loves us is not by making much of us or by sparing us trouble, but by doing what he has to do to make the glory of his Father and himself hit home for our enjoyment.

Securing Our Deepest Satisfaction

Here’s the way it rescues the God of all those 17 texts. The God of all those 17 texts is consistently lifting up God. He is lifting up God. He’s saying, “Worship me, praise me, know me, love me, treasure me, be amazed at me, wonder at me, stand in awe of me.” And now you add that this is what love does. Love does whatever it has to do to provide the beloved with that which will provide the deepest and longest satisfaction, and that isn’t you, it’s God. The reason that it’s vicious for you to lift up yourself and say, “Praise me, honor me, worship me, love me, admire me, treasure me,” is because at the moment you do that, you are distracting people from the very thing that can give them the deepest and highest pleasure, namely God. But if God does it, if God says, “Worship me, praise me, love me, honor me, stand in awe of me, treasure me,” at that very moment, he’s lifting up the one thing that will provide you with the deepest and longest joy in the universe, namely himself, which is the meaning of love.

God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the most important act of love. You can’t copy him in this. The way to copy him in this is to say, “God exalts God in order to be loving, so I must exalt God in order to be loving.” It’s not, “God exalts self in order to be loving; therefore, I must exalt self in order to be loving.” That’s the trick the Devil played on Eve at the tree. He said, “Do you want to be like God?” She should have said, “We’re already like God in the way we should be like God, namely, we’re reflectors. Our joy comes from reflecting, from getting outside ourselves.”

And he comes with this tricky lie and says, “Now, the way it’s really cool and satisfying to be like God is to take over his role, to begin to have some of his independence, to begin to look in the mirror and see God.” And they bought it. We’ve been buying it ever since. We build whole curriculums around it. And one of the meanings of this conference is that we just desperately long to raise up generations of young people who don’t have to hear me or Bruce or Paul at some conference when they’re 25 have their world wrecked by God-centeredness because they already believe it, and they’re able to help all these people around them. They would think, “Why do you have a problem with what they’re saying? Come on, that’s in the Bible. I’ve known this since I was three.” That’s what we long for. We want them to be able to pour out their lives in rescuing people from self-centeredness and self-exaltation.

Conclusion: we are not into indoctrinating. We want to teach the truth and teach it in a way that enables children eventually to test all things and hold fast to what is good and to model for them a way of thinking that will make them strong in the way they handle the Bible and other thoughts someday.

Second, we don’t just do contextualization by trying to learn the words the kids have, use those words, and put into them what they can already understand. We have to create categories. We have to create thought forms and create concepts for them.

And lastly, the most important thing in the world is that all of life should be God-centered. All curriculums should be God-centered. Churches should be God-centered. And a good litmus paper test of whether you are God-centered is whether you will embrace God’s God-centeredness, and you can get to the point where you don’t stumble over it as sub-moral but exult in it as God’s highest excellency and your highest pleasure.