I’m launching a series of posts about tricky questions we’re confronted with when we actually read the Bible, rather than just pretending that we’ve read the Bible. Here’s the first one…
You don’t have to teach kids to be selfish. We emerge from the womb loudly demanding that all our needs be met. We squawk, we get fed. Changed. Entertained. Burped. Coddled. When you are 2 years old it seems plainly obvious that you are the center of the universe, which was created purely for your enjoyment.
Typically, loving parents will intervene and gently wean us off this notion. “No, you ARE going to share that.” “No, you ARE going to wait your turn.” “No, you’re NOT going to hit your sister with the Fisher-Price telephone because she won’t address you as ‘your royal highness.'”
Good parenting steers us away from selfishness and toward selflessness. It is a slow, messy process, but we keep at it because we are told we can be more like Jesus, who was the best guy ever. And also happened to be God. So if we are less selfish, we are more like God, who, we conclude, must be all about others. In particular, all about us. He probably lives solely to see us succeed, like our parents clapping along at our first band recital where we all play “Let’s Go Band!” without any of the beats lining up, but our parents love, love, loved it anyway because they’re all about us. Just like God must be all about us.
And then we read in the Bible that God isn’t all about us. He’s actually all about himself. He doesn’t exist for us, we exist for him. To bring him glory. Our purpose is to glorify God. God’s ultimate purpose is to bring glory to himself.
What gives? That sounds selfish!
To be honest, it sounds like the opposite of what our parents tried to teach us and what we try to teach our own kids. It sounds like a terrible Sunday School lesson – “Remember kids, God loves you very much and he’s all about himself.” Long pause. “Oh – and guess what? He’s jealous, too! Says so right here in the Bible!”
What are we supposed to do with that? What do we tell our kids about a self-centered God? What do we tell ourselves about a self-centered God?
Here’s a very important point that affects much more than just this topic:
God is not a “people.”
We are people. Human beings. We have personhood, and we are people. God has personhood, but he’s not a human being. He’s personal, but he’s not a “people” like we are. We are created. He is uncreated.
So what’s the point?
There are ways we can be like God, and there are ways we will never be like God. The created is fundamentally different than the creator, and, therefore, the same rules do not always apply.
Here’s one example: The word “holy,” when applied to water or oil or a side of beef or a person means “set apart for God.” But God is also described as “holy.” So is God “set apart for God?” Like oil or a side of beef? That doesn’t even make sense. When we say God is holy, we don’t mean God is set apart for God, we mean God is set apart. FROM everything. God is profoundly “other.” Different than anything or anyone in existence. There is a profound and fundamental difference between the uncreated God and the created everything else.
So we are called to be loving as God is loving, but we are not called to be jealous as God is jealous or intent on our own glory as God is intent on his own glory. Why is that – exactly?
Because – okay follow this – we are wired to NEED God to be everything that he is. We NEED God to be loving, but we also need God to be intent on his own glory. As described by the first line of the Westminster Catechism, “Man’s end [purpose] is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We exist to glorify and ENJOY God. There is a link between the glory we bring to God and our own joy. It’s the way we’re wired.
If you’ve read any issue of any magazine ever published or watched any TV show ever, you’ll recognize this is not the message of the world. We are taught by our culture that ultimate satisfaction comes from self-glorification. From standing atop the Olympic podium or the Oscar stage. Gracing the cover of Time or Sports Illustrated or Fortune. From building a skyscraper and then pasting your name on top. In gold letters. (No, I’m not thinking of anyone in particular.)
But is it possible this is one of those things our culture doesn’t get quite right?
Let’s think about this. What happens when humans find themselves awash in limitless glory and success? Well, the best-case scenario is they go all Justin Bieber. (Nothing against Justin Bieber, but … seriously. Justin Bieber.) Trashing hotel rooms, harassing flight attendents on private jets and terrorizing your neighbors with your new Ferrari. Pick almost anyone upon whom limitless glory is thrust at a young age, and 3 or 4 years later you’ll find them in rehab. Or worse. (Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Belushi, Chris Farley, etc.) But that’s the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario a human drenched in glory becomes a despot. Stalin. Mussolini. Idi Amin. Charlie Sheen.
Glory is a substance the human system wasn’t designed to handle well – like dogs with chocolate or slugs with salt. Ironically, giving glory to God doesn’t subtract from our joy, it actually adds to it. Letting God sit on the throne protects us from our own catastrophic false reign. The same is true with jealousy. Among humans, jealousy is corrosive. But God is jealous for us – he wants us to focus on him exclusively. And doing so takes our attention away from mindless human passions and destructive desires. We turn from dead idols to a living God, and we find our joy in him. God’s jealousy protects us from destruction. God’s self-focus directs us toward joy.
So is God selfish? Well, “self-glorifying” might be a better way to say it. And jealous, too, though not in the human sense of the word. And we NEED him to be these things, because only in relationship with a God such as this can we reach our full potential as human beings.
Here’s a question for the whole family to wrestle with: Which characteristics of God are we able to share, and which are for him alone? (In addition to self-glorification and divine jealousy, omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence are also out of human reach. Shared characteristics include creativity, generosity, and the whole heaping basket of the fruit of the Spirit.)
Another fun question: What might go wrong if humans were given God’s exclusive attributes like omnipresence or omnipotence? (Remember Bruce Almighty?)
Want More Tricky Questions?
IS GOD SELFISH? (TRICKY QUESTION #1)
IS GOD CRUEL? (TRICKY QUESTION #2)
IS GOD “AN OLD MAN IN THE SKY?” (TRICKY QUESTION #3)
IS GOD LIKE SANTA CLAUS? (TRICKY QUESTION #4)
IS GOD A GENOCIDAL BULLY? (TRICKY QUESTION #5)
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Interesting article. The answer to the title question is easy if we remember that “selfish” is sinful. So, no, God, being without sin, is not selfish. But the more interesting question you explore—why are things sinful when we do them and NOT sinful when God does them?—is tougher. I like the fact that you don’t shy away from things that are hard.
Great article…but man..that picture….got stuck in my mind for a while.
That’s God, by way of Monty Python!
I loved that you used that picture man
Thank you! I have been bothered by this question for quite some time, but thought to myself that something must be wrong with me for thinking that way! So, thanks for reassuring me that i wasn’t alone here. ?
God bless you!
“God’s ultimate purpose is to bring glory to himself.”
On what basis would we argue that bringing glory to himself is God’s ultimate purpose? In a quick scan of all the occurrences of “glory” in Scripture, I saw plenty of instances which indicate that God has glory, is worthy of it, intends to receive it, etc., but I didn’t notice any statements which seemed to say that bringing glory to himself is God‘s primary or ultimate purpose.
That’s a good question, and it isn’t as simple as pointing to single verse. Saying this is God’s “ultimate” purpose may be an oversimplification, I suppose. But the Bible begins with God creating, and ends with everyone he has created gathered around his throne giving him glory. Jesus said his purpose was to bring glory to the Father. Our purpose, at least as summarized by the Westminster catechism, is to give God glory and enjoy him forever. Our aim is the glorification of God the Father. This was also Jesus’ aim. And it’s how the story ends. So the point I’m arguing is that this is an attribute of God that we don’t share – heaping glory on humans leads to corruption. Not so with God. What sounds selfish to us isn’t necessarily selfish to a being that is beyond our easy comprehension. If that makes sense. But you’re right – there’s no single verse that simply says, “God’s ultimate purpose is to bring glory to himself.” It’s a theological summary, and possibly an oversimplification, though it’s hard to say for certain.
The direction I was going with that question is that maybe God receiving glory is a means rather than an end. Maybe God’s ultimate purpose concerning us is not to receive glory from us, but to love us and be with us, and him receiving glory from us is a means to that end, because it is the proper relationship of creation to Creator.
I understand everything everyone is saying about this topic and I Agree, God is the creator of everything and he should get all the glory but this is not the reason I searched “Why is God Selfish” Most of your postings use our earthly parents as an example so I will do the same with explaining my Question in hopes to find my answer. If a child asks his/her Father to buy them a sucker after he/she sees their father buy their siblings a sucker.why does he say no or ignore you until the time has passed and it’s too late to get what you ask for, God has Everything Why can’t God give you such insignificant things to allow you to feel Love. I do not worship other Gods, I have always given God all the “Glory” I know I’m not perfect but I try to achieve what God wants me to do, Doesn’t that show “I LOVE HIM” !!!! If God is “EVERYTHING” And “EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE “ with God, why can’t he give me the Petty things I Pray for “CRUMBS” is all it would take to fill my heart with “Joy” but all I get is No Responce followed by No Crumbs, I feel so alone and empty trying to follow a God that is “That Selfish”
Daniel, I saw your response to this thread and thought I’d jump in and give you my take. The truth is, God has already demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He did this because He loved the whole world. “Feeling loved” is really just a matter of accepting His free gift, not trying to earn what He’s already given. “Doing” so that you receive isn’t really love. It’s trading on our wares, and we can never give to God what we owe. Never. That’s why we have to accept His payment on our behalf, His act of love that He freely gave. It’s in surrender of our being in charge, of trying to get God to do for us, that we experience the love He’s already made available. I suggest reading Romans, for a month or more. Study it. Ask questions, see what God says there about our freedom from the Law, and about His grace.
Hope something here helps.
Becky Thanks for your thoughts but I think your not getting exactly what I’m sayIng, I know God scraficed his only son Jesus “ Our Lord and Saviour.” Because he Loves us, I am truly grateful for that. I DO NOT DO GOOD TO RECEIVE !!!!! The only reason I do good is because I Love our Father and I want to be closer, all I’m looking for us just a little “Personalize Attention from Our Father” … I hear people all the time say I prayed for that and I received it or God answered my prayers. And I see the Joy it brings them. That’s what I’m looking for. I used a child asking for a sucker as an example because it fits, If people get the Joy of receiving what they ask for and others don’t get any responce it makes you fall out of faith. Even a child would stop asking for a sucker eventually, even though he knows he’s Loved it’s still a bummer and causes harsh feelings. I will study Romans and see if I can get a better understanding but as for now I have just stopped asking, lol maybe that’s what God wants me to do anyway, just shut up and be Thankful…… if it is, I have learned the next time my children ask for something I can tell them ! Shut Up and Be Thankful !!!!
I see what you’re saying, Daniel. And I’m glad you are not looking for a works based relationship with God. But I guess the other point is this: it’s possible to want the joy of relationship more than wanting the relationship. I mean, what’s a sucker when the child has the father? We have this awesome relationship with God, whether I feel like I have it or not, because His Spirit lives in me. The more I spend time with Him, the more I am aware of His presence.
But to stop asking? I think maybe the better way to go is to ask for things God has said in His word He wants for us. Then there’s no doubt about whether or not it’s consistent with His will. Praying Scripture makes a big difference, I think.
Blessings on your journey through Romans.
God is selfish, and emotionless, nd its ultimate aim is to glorify himself. I believe it, not because I read this article, but I experienced it. He finds joy in other’s sufferings and pain. He wants everyone to be dependent on him, nd always keep praying him, he is hungry for attention all the time.
God regarding himself as selfish means he wants everything, and that’s a part of his holy nature. Because holy is actually wholly. God is the only complete and perfect unadulterated incorruptible thing in existence. Selfishness is not a bad attribute depending on the motive. As Paul says in him we have our being, God wants us to be whole and complete in him. God would leave the 99 to search for the one because he wants all of us. He wants all of creation restored. It shows that he views each and every one of us as irreplaceable. That’s his love. And as far as his glory is considered, in the beginning he created everything good. When the rich young ruler inquires of Jesus, Jesus says, “Why do you ask me about what is good, only One is good” Everything reflected God and his character. We glorify God not by our mouths with compliments, but allowing ourselves to be transformed into the image of God. As Jesus says “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. For God seeks such as these.” God’s glory is for creation to be reconciled to him and be holy as he is holy. He’s not glorious because he’s powerful. He’s glorious because of his immense character and perfect love.
Thanks, Phil, for the engaging thought-provoking material you produce. I’ve been truly blessed by the many things you’ve created.
I’ve been thinking about this post for the last week because it left me unsettled. It’s an issue I’ve had others express to me and that I’ve struggled with before. While I agree that God is different from us, holy and perfect, and that means the same rules don’t apply to him that apply to me, I don’t think your answer touched the heart of what I struggle with on this issue, nor what those I’ve spoken to about this would find as an answer to their question.
Hebrews 1:3 (as translated by the NET Bible) says, “The Son is the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence…” Jesus is the example of what God glorifying himself looks like. Jesus is what God’s “selfishness” in action looks like. And it looks nothing like how I would try to bring glory to myself or how I would be selfish. I would argue that the words “self-glorifying” and “selfish” can’t even apply because God’s way looks so different from what I mean by those words.
Jesus did not seek fame or fortune. He purposely subverted the earthly ways of politics and power. He looked out for the good of others, their supreme good. God’s glory, God enthroned, looked like Jesus bleeding, unjustly executed, and forgiving us for it. Not because he’s “all about us,” but because he’s all about being with us and making things right again so that the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth are no longer divided. “The kingdom of God is at hand…”
I don’t think that God’s ultimate purpose is to bring glory to himself. I think the reconciliation and restoration of all things is his ultimate purpose, but he’s so good, perfect, and holy that everything he does can’t help but be glorifying to himself.
When I and those I’ve talked to about this struggle with ways God might seem selfish or cruel, what we need is to read all of God’s actions through the radiance and primary display of his glory, through Jesus. Better yet, we just need Jesus.
Never have I nor will I ever meet a parent who told me to sign a decision card at the Church of parenthood who threatened to throw their child into the fireplace for all of eternity after their refusal to sign. Will you please stop equating God with a parent, because He is not.
If God would be selfish He would be a bad example for us humans. Just as a selfish parent or a selfish leader is a bad example. A selfish deity would be just another excuse for leaders and parents to keep being selfish, because supposedly the Big Boss is “all about himself as well”. Selfish leaders run society into the ground and selfish parents break their children into becoming codepentents. Self glorification means nothing. What use does it have? Real glory lies in accomplishment. In deeds. What makes God great? That He would be a compulsive admirer of himself? Or the fact that He created the world and gave it life? What in your opinion is the real reason why we would want to glorify God and be grateful to Him? What in your opinion is the real reason why we would admire a leader or a parent? That they sit in inert admiration of themselves or because their actions show us that they are truly great?
When we glorify God ( Mister Universe) with our best selves, then it makes God happy that He created us. The more we obey the Master of the Universe, the higher levels we are allowed to walk in love and understanding. We have to begin as the lowly. And it’s up to Him to lift us up if we have showed ourselves approved. God brags on those who are doing well in His school. He bragged on Job. It made the devil jealous but He did it. He bragged on Jesus Christ at His baptism. God’s glory is pure. Never selfish. He longs to perfect us. I’m a failure myself. But I feel like that’s what’s up.