God’s Self-Glorification

July 1st, 2011 § 0 comments

I’m engaged in a very challenging and enjoyable email correspondence regarding justification. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned that God’s primary goal is to bring glory to himself.

In response, my interlocutor expressed concern that we might need to reconsider that notion in order to “save” God from “divine narcissism.” I responded with the following email. There are some details which will not be entirely clear because of the nature of our correspondence, but the general gist of the matter is pretty clear.


For someone to worship an idol is for them to attempt to attribute glory to that idol rather than attribute that glory to God. This is wrong, not merely in a moral sense, but in a mathematical sense. It is to treat an idol and God as things other than what they are. It is wrong (in a mathematical sense) to do that with squares and circles. A carpenter shouldn’t treat nails and screws as if they are the same thing. It isn’t right. A carpenter who does rightly will treat each appropriately.

So, too, with God. He must treat himself as God. For God to be willing to allow his glory not to be attributed wholly to him would be for God to commit idolatry. A righteous God must treat himself rightly. As a result of his righteousness, that he always acts rightly (which is the same thing as his justice, that he always dispenses justice appropriately, giving each what they deserve, including himself), he must pursue his glory over all else because he deserves glory over all else.

That may sound narcissistic, but to be otherwise would seem unjust and unrighteous. God cannot but be concerned for his own glory. For him to act as though anything else deserves glory (in the ultimate sense) is for him to act a lie, to be dishonest. It would be like saying that 2+2=5. God doesn’t go for that.

So his righteousness or justice is that he acts rightly and justly, that he treats things (including himself) as they deserve.

(Hmm, I’ve never defined righteousness before. It will be interesting to see if my definition holds up.)

Therefore, because he is righteous, he must pursue his glory. Also, because he is righteous, he must pursue his covenant. (To keep one’s word is to act rightly, especially if you’re omniscient/omnipotent when you give your word. If keeping his word were the wrong thing to do, then he should have known better than to give it. So his righteousness compels him only to make good covenants, and then his righteousness compels him to keep good covenants, which are the only ones he makes.) And lastly, he must keep his covenant because of how not keeping it would reflect on his glory. (That passage in Ezekiel is particularly strong here. Ez.36 (particularly vv.16ff) is considered by many to be the climax of the book.)

Because God is righteous, he not only pursues his own glory, but also cannot permit others to treat him contrary to how he deserves. That would be unjust. We don’t allow people to treat each other contrary to how they deserve; you can file a lawsuit or press charges if someone doesn’t pay what is due or of if they take what is yours. That’s justice. God also is just, so he cannot permit us to treat him other than he deserves; it’s not merely morally wrong but almost mathematically wrong. My math teachers never let me treat a circle like it was a square. So God cannot permit us to treat him as if he is something other than what he is.

But his divine narcissism is actually good for us. For God to treat himself as he deserves is what is best for us, at least for us believers. (And, as if I haven’t been going all John Piper on you already, it’s about to come hard ‘n’ fast now.) We find joy only in relating rightly to what is good, and God is what is good. So for God to permit us to be in wrong relation to him would be allowing us to be miserable. But that God cares so much about his glory that he will not permit me to treat him other than he deserves is to my benefit, because as I begin to treat God as he deserves to be treated, I can be happy, and that’s the only way to happiness. So if God’s highest priority is his own glory, this crazy thing has happened where God’s pursuit of his own glory is the only way that he can cause me to have any sort of happiness. (If that didn’t make sense, ignore it and keep reading. I’ll explain it again differently. Then you can come back and see if this makes sense.)

If God’s highest concern was for the welfare and happiness of his people, suddenly we are the pinnacle and end of his existence. We receive the glory. And that’s not just or right. But if God’s greatest goal is his own glory, then he won’t permit us to treat him wrongly, which means that, for those who are saved, he is transforming us (I don’t think this is justification but sanctification, but we’ll discuss that later, I’m sure.) so that we treat him rightly, and this inevitably results in our own happiness–or “good,” to put it in Romans 8:28 terms.

This boggles my mind, but I think this is true: We want God to be divinely narcissistic, because that’s our own key to happiness. We must enjoy God to have happiness, and God being fully absorbed in his own self-glorification results necessarily in him desiring us also to glorify him which is our greatest source of joy.

Okay, I think I got ahead of myself a bit in the arguing here. Let me step back a bit. Even before we get to glory, we have to start with the fact that God is good. Only good things can cause joy or happiness. (I consider joy and happiness to be basically the same thing. I don’t entirely ascribe to the distinction of C.S. Lewis, though it has some merit.)

When I taught a lesson in Sunday school on God’s goodness and glory, I had the students list all of the things that they thought were “good” in a broad sense, not merely in a Sunday school sense. We compiled a list that, among other things, included ice cream, and Jesus. Isn’t it strange that such different things fall under the same category? But what all “good” things have in common is this: they bring happiness (in some sense) to those who stand in right relation to them. It’s possible to stand in wrong relation to something good. Eating too much ice cream, for example, will eventually bring some amount of pain and suffering. Not standing in right relation to Jesus will eventually bring some pretty severe pain and suffering. But a good thing is that which brings pleasure to those in right relation to it.

Because God is righteous, he is unwilling that any, including himself, stand in wrong relation to himself. Because God is “The Good” this means that he is unwilling for us to stand in wrong relation to him. As we come to be in right relation to the good, we enjoy it (him) which is (obviously) to our benefit.

Therefore, (to repeat the thesis yet again) God’s pursuit of his own glory IS our good, and it is why all things work together for those who love him (those who seek his glory) but not for those who seek to attribute glory to an idol.

Okay, so enough of the glorification stuff. What does this have to do with justification? Well, I’ve given a preliminary definition of righteousness. It is compatible with but not identical with the definitions you’ve given. (Those definitions logically follow from my definition.) The trick then is this, how can God be just (treat us as we deserve to be treated) and justify us (which I’ll define, at least initially, as “declare us to be not guilty,” sticking wholly to the forensic sense until later perhaps.)

But I’ll leave the justification issue to a later email. It would probably be useful to come to some sort of common view of righteousness and glory before proceeding thence.

By the way, you may notice that I use a lot less scripture in defense of my views. That’s definitely a weakness of mine. I don’t believe it’s because I have a bad argument or an unbiblical one, but it’s a reflection of my philosophical process and temperament. I spend a lot of time thinking other people’s thoughts, be they Piper’s or Paul’s, but I tend to synthesize them and repeat them as my own. I don’t remember sources, by the Biblical or otherwise. It’s a weakness I’ll need to address if I intend to go far in academia, but it also means that I don’t depend on the crutch of other writers’ authority when I propose a logical argument.

But I will take just a moment to address the scriptures you gave regarding glory. First of all, I think they’re spot-on when they indicate that God’s primary motivation for his action is his self-glorification. Ez. 36, taken by itself, is clear on that. Of course, we shouldn’t take on passage in isolation. Other passage seem to fall into line with this idea, though, Ps. 143:11, for example, where God’s self-glorification is the basis of appeal, not the predicament of the psalmist.

Now, you give the counter example of the Exodus, where God looks down and has compassion. Is this a case of God having compassion? Well, of course it is, but even the pattern of the Exodus shows God’s interest in self-glorification. If you were to try to rescue a people from Egypt, would you, over and over again, harden the heart of Pharaoh? It’s like God’s playing against himself, trying to get the people set free, but also trying to draw out the process as long as possible. This is because his ultimate goal wasn’t merely to free the Israelites, but to demonstrate his power (to glorify himself). Exodus 6:1-9 expresses this implicitly. The tone of that passage is one of self-revelation. God says, “This is who I am, and this is what I will do.” His actions are not only from compassion, but are also intended that “you will know that I am God.’ (Ex 6:7; 16:6,12; 29:46). God’s motivation of self-revelation is much more strongly noted in Exodus than his motivation of compassion. They are not exclusive, to be sure, but God’s primary motivation was that the Israelites know him. Of course, this is the basis on which we glorify God. We cannot praise that which we do not know. Also, the very end of Exodus, the conclusion of the book is a statement of God’s glory. This is the result of true knowledge of God and what he was seeking by doing the Exodus as he did.

Simply, then, God’s righteousness is that he does right. This means that he must glorify himself and he must keep his covenants. He must conform to his own nature; he must treat himself as what he is and us as what we are. That’s righteousness/justice. That’s why God’s highest priority is his self-glorification. That’s why divine narcissism is a good thing for us, not something from which God needs “saved.”

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