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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