What God looks like?


Why is it important to be stunned by the God-centeredness of God? Because many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered. It is a subtle danger. We may think we are centering our lives on God, when we are really making Him a means to self-esteem. Over against this danger I urge you to ponder the implications, brothers, that God loves His glory more than He loves us and that this is the foundation of His love for us.

~ John Piper
Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry, Broadman and Holman, 2002, pp. 6-7

Now, I realize that Johnny Bravo is probably a cheap caricature of Piper’s point of view. But I bring it up to point out that Piper’s presentation of God is as much a caricature, although he’s not yet identified it as such.

To most, this oft repeated quote needs no specific refutation: it’s obviously bad. But for those not yet convinced, and to get something off my chest that’s been there since I first heard Piper present this theology in person a few years ago…

John Piper wants to emphasize the importance of not thinking the universe revolves around us, which I agree is all too real a danger. But I believe that Piper’s end can be met by telling us to do what the New Testament authors insisted that we do: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…” They thought we could look at God’s face as seen in Christ and be instructed how we should order our relations with everyone else: by imitating Him. If being centered on God and others to the neglect of his personal glory was the hallmark of Jesus’ life, then we have an entirely sufficient reason not to think the universe revolves around us — and we can accept that reason without maintaining a repugnant view of God that the NT explicitly tries to correct.

For all the world, what Piper seems to be maintaining is that there are two types of love: self-sacrificial love (that’s our responsibility), and love meant to get people to love you more (that’s God’s love).

As long as we understand love to be as glorious as it actually is, we will see that God’s love can only ever be His glory, and cannot be merely a tool for His own self-aggrandizement.

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  • Well said, Steve! Those very thing nagged at me at that particular conference. Still good times, though!

  • Wm Tanksley

    “John Piper wants to emphasize the importance of not thinking the universe revolves around us.”

    No; Piper doesn’t want us to think about the universe.

    I think your caricature is appropriate and funny. It’s right on point, and Piper has used similar caricatures in order to address that obvious objection to his teaching. But Piper believes that God is the _best_ thing that exists and could possibly exists, that desiring God is the highest thing one could desire, and enjoying God is the best ultimate purpose, and the best thing to achieve. Therefore, when God gives us a desire for Him, He is giving us the second greatest gift; and when He promises to fulfill our desire, He promises the greatest gift.

    Let’s look at what I suspect is, for you, the center of why Piper’s quote is “obviously bad”.

    God loves His glory more than He loves us and that this is the foundation of His love for us.

    The hardest problem is that Piper here equivocates on “love”. God can’t “love” His glory in the same way He loves us, because we are persons and God’s glory is not a person. Clearly the equivocation is between the concept of “love” and the concept of “desire” (and I will attempt to use the two words distinctly). To love something is to want to give; to desire something is to want to take.

    God doesn’t need us to love him, nor does He want it for its own sake; He wants it only in the sense that He wants us to outpour His love, and that will of course be directed to Him as well as all others.

    God does, however, want us to desire Him — that is, He wants us to TAKE from Him, and to do so willingly and because doing so delights us. God does not desire us in the sense that we should desire Him; that would be silly in the utmost, since we are not the highest good and He is. God does desire His own glory in the way that He asks that we desire it — because God’s glory is GOOD to desire.

    In this manner — with the meaning of “desire” — it makes sense to say that God “loves” Himself primarily, and ourselves secondarily.

    In a different manner, it makes sense to understand that both the love between and desire between the Persons of the Trinity are primary, and God’s love for us is secondary. But that’s a minor and philosophical point, which I’m sure you’ve already considered.

    I think the presentation in Piper’s book, Desiring God, is quite adequate; and it’s free online, at his site.

    -Wm

    • Welcome as always, William!

      The hardest problem is that Piper here equivocates on “love”. God can’t “love” His glory in the same way He loves us, because we are persons and God’s glory is not a person.

      You say he “equivocates”, as though he intentionally, ostensibly rhetorically, switches definitions; I say he is actually functioning from two definitions, and is making a faulty assertion. The entire point of the quote, which doesn’t just occur in the book I cited, is to say that God wants something more than us. He doesn’t say that God loves us and so He wants something wonderful for us, which is Himself. I have heard Piper say the latter on other occasions, but it’s not the point of this quote, which is manifestly to assert that we should not expect God to have us in mind in precisely the sorts of ways that explain His giving us the greatest “gift”.

      God does not desire us in the sense that we should desire Him; that would be silly in the utmost, since we are not the highest good and He is. God does desire His own glory in the way that He asks that we desire it — because God’s glory is GOOD to desire. In this manner — with the meaning of “desire” — it makes sense to say that God “loves” Himself primarily, and ourselves secondarily.

      Assuming you are speaking for him, I would say to Piper that all this treating of abstracts such as “glory”, “goodness”, “desire”, even “love” as objects or commodities makes much more sense in a discussion of economics than it does for people and God. Indeed, one could imagine that a company with excellent customer service could be thus described as loving its customers in that it’s giving them the greatest good (its products and services), and winning in the end because it’s making money off of its customer’s satisfaction! It’s commerce, supply and demand: God wants something, and gives us something that will be beneficial to both of us, contingent upon our investment. Another win-win for capitalism! I’m all for free trade, but this view of the relationship of God to man is hard to find justification for, especially within Scripture.

      I don’t need some business enterprise to love me for buying its stuff, by giving me its stuff in return. I need a Father who loves me even to the very devastation of the objects and commodities He most prizes. Essentially, it doesn’t matter that God wants to give us the best, or that He is the best: it’s why He wants to give us the best that’s at issue. I could will my utter destruction and obliteration if it meant that I could save my family. If this is what Piper means, he should just say it and dispense with the double-speak about some phantom and wholly made-up construct called “glory”.

      • Wm Tanksley

        Thank you, Steve.

        I didn’t mean “intentionally equivocates”; I meant “equivocates”, as in using a word with two opposing meanings, whether on purpose or by accident.

        The entire point of the quote, which doesn’t just occur in the book I cited, is to say that God wants something more than us.

        Yes, I said this, using the word “desire”.

        He doesn’t say that God loves us and so He wants something wonderful for us, which is Himself. I have heard Piper say the latter on other occasions, but it’s not the point of this quote, which is manifestly to assert that we should not expect God to have us in mind in precisely the sorts of ways that explain His giving us the greatest “gift”.

        I agree entirely with the first half, up to the word “manifestly”. The latter half is vague and hard to understand, and I’m fairly sure I’m missing your point. What does “have us in mind in precisely the sorts of ways” mean? Whatever you mean by that, you’re apparently asserting that without God doing THAT, He couldn’t rationally give us the greatest “gift”.

        If by “have us in mind” you mean “desire gifts from”, then NO, God does not desire anything from us. We can bring nothing to him except what He’s given to us, and He has all that in abundance. If by “have us in mind” you mean “desire to give us something good for our benefit”, then I don’t understand how your paragraph opposes mine (although you set it in opposition). If by “have us in mind” you mean “be thinking of nothing but us”, you need to be clearer; but since I suspect this is what you actually meant, I’d like you to confirm.

        I don’t need some business enterprise to love me for buying its stuff, by giving me its stuff in return.

        I think you’re correctly identifying “love” as “giving”, but you’re incorrect in assuming that performance of a contractual obligation can attach to that definition of love. This is something that Piper points out constantly, by the way. My use of “giving” as a thumbnail definition of love is not intended as a COMPLETE word-for-word synonym, but rather as a contrast to the opposing definition of “love” as desire.

        “[you, parodying Piper:] God wants something, and gives us something that will be beneficial to both of us, contingent upon our investment.

        Piper’s a Calvinist. This means that he doesn’t believe there’s any contingency to the “transaction”. But God doesn’t need either us or our delight in order to achieve His objectives; His creation of and delight in and through us is entirely uncompelled*, and that also manifests His glory. He was entirely complete without our creation.

        *: I originally wrote “gracious” here, but that word is theologically FREIGHTED.

        I need to discuss Piper’s concept of the mercenary a little in order to complete this point, I think. Next post.

        -Wm

      • Wm Tanksley

        Piper admits up front that some people see his ideas as being mercenary — first, that we should seek to glorify God only because we expect to enjoy Him (rather than glorifying God strictly because it’s our duty to do so); and second, that God should seek to give us wonderful things merely because He’s seeking His own glory.

        Piper responds circa page 125 of the online Desiring God, under the subheading “Love Keeps the Reward of Love in Mind”. In addition to some discussion, he quotes Lewis, the passage in which Lewis says: “Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he married a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

        http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/online-books/desiring-god

        Lewis said it better than I can, I think.

        A merchant selling you goods “because I love ya!” is being mercenary about his love (at best). When you question modern evangelical culture because it causes contempt to be heaped upon God, you seek to glorify God. This is not mercenary, even if you happen to enjoy it: it is altogether fitting and proper that you do this.

        So… The question remains: is God being mercenary for creating and loving us when He’s primarily attempting to glorify Himself? I think the question could stand some discussion — but it can’t standing being assumed, as you do.

        -Wm

        • William, I could respond point-by-point, but I won’t. It’d be a waste of
          both our times, no doubt — not because you’re not fair, but because, like
          me, you’ve looked into all this and found your present position to be the
          most compelling. Let me say this, though, and I’ll give you the last word.

          In no way would I say that I had children for my glory, but it would
          certainly be stretching it to say that I had them only for their benefit: in
          large part I had them because I wanted little people to give my love to, to
          raise into adulthood, and replicate my ideals in. To the extent that
          fathering my children met those personal goals (“desires”), I suppose one
          could say that I, in part anyway, had them for my own benefit. I could
          forgive God for that, for the same reasons I can forgive my parents for
          bringing me into this world, and now that they exist, I can easily say that
          no matter how little “glory” they brought into my life, how little they
          loved me in return, how much they sought to abandon the ideals I seek to
          instill in them, I would love them. What I cannot so easily accept is the
          idea that God brought us into existence primarily so that He could have
          someone to show Himself off to: yes-men who would be forced to agree how
          awesome He was, and a very fine set of depraved no-men who He could take
          equally as much glory in tying to a bottle rocket or burning under a
          magnifying glass. This is Piper’s Calvinism as I see it, and until that
          understanding is refuted in my mind, I’m absolutely going to continue to
          “assume” that it’s mercenary, exploitative, and altogether unlike the God I
          know.

          • Paul D.

            I definitely see strains of this perspective in the other Calvinists I argue with. One guy, during a discussion on Hell, gushed on and on about how amazing God’s wrath is and how awesome it is that God will give condemned sinners the full weight of his “justice” by tormenting them for all eternity. Or take Mark Driscoll, who said Jesus must be a bad-ass prize fighter with tattoos because he can’t worship a Jesus he could beat up.

            This perspective on God is getting to me, so I’m not going to mince words. Many or most Calvinists seem to have a warped sense of what God is and why God is worthy of worship. It has nothing to do with any characteristics one would consider truly virtuous or loving, and everything to do with God being the biggest and most egotistical bully in the universe — and I can only assume that someone who projects such a view of God must secretly believe self-centered, wrath, and intimidation to be superior to peace, love, humility, and other “hippie” values.

          • Wm Tanksley

            Good Driscoll quote — by “good” I mean “abhorrent”, of course. Ditto for the other one, although I’m more willing to suspect there’s a way to contextualize that quote (since “the full weight of his justice” might mean “the full weight of appropriate justice”, rather than simply the full weight of God’s own ability to harm). (Driscoll was clear, and clearly WRONG. I think the centurion at the foot of the cross most directly refutes him.)

            BUT… When you “don’t mince words” here, you also fail to make correct distinctions, and overgeneralize, and sit in judgement inappropriately, and practice guilt by association. This thread is about a Calvinist who’s proclaiming that God is NOT all about wrath and fire; to divert it to proclaim that “many or most” Calvinists are all about wrath and fire is absurd.

          • Wm Tanksley

            I see I sidetracked the argument by mentioning that Piper’s a Calvinist. I know you’re also hostile to that, and I admit that I understand and respect your reasoning (and will not argue, although I disagree); but my point was that his Calvinism contradicts your claim that he thinks God is needy and taking. I didn’t say that in order to open up a whole new debate.
            Again, my central point: Piper’s God doesn’t _need_ us, and takes nothing from us, and WANTS nothing from us. THIS is God’s love: not that He needs to love us, but that He freely loves us. He doesn’t want us, doesn’t desire us, and above all doesn’t need us.
            He was eternally complete and satisfied without creation, and created for His own reasons, aware of what could/would happen because of His creation (I’m leaving the door open here for uncertainty ala Open Theism, although I don’t believe God was uncertain). Therefore, it’s impossible that God created us out of concern for us — there was no “us” to have concern for. Because God is Love, we know that His motive for creation involved love; but because we did not in any sense exist, we also know that the love for which He created did not involve us.
            Therefore, Piper’s concept that God’s FIRST concern is for something other than ourselves — in fact, something uncreated — makes perfect sense. This doesn’t mean that this is God’s ONLY concern; nor does is mean that God doesn’t enjoy giving us things; it merely means that God’s primary motive isn’t and can’t be really about us at all.
            This is opposed to Johnny Bravo, whose ONLY concern is himself — God COULD have justifiably have been like Johnny Bravo (in the sense of only being concerned for himself) if only He hadn’t created. Since He did create, He’s not like Johnny; but neither is he like any other man.

  • AMW

    God wants something, and gives us something that will be beneficial to both of us, contingent upon our investment. Another … [T]his view of the relationship of God to man is hard to find justification for, especially within Scripture.

    I don’t know; it strikes me as a rather accurate portrayal of the OT covenants.

    • You’re probably right; maybe I should have said “the NT”, because it revises
      things significantly.

  • Love this post Steve!

    I have a theory about the Piper Calvinist g*d being a metrosexual…….

  • I’ve had a bit of a struggle with a lot of contemporary worship songs ever since I read Stark’s suggestion that the notion of God seeking glory for himself may be a remnant of a polytheistic world view in which tribal deities vied for power and glory. Not sure what to make of it. Of course, God’s glory was still a prominent theme once monotheism had taken root, but perhaps with a different aim. I like your idea of God’s love being his glory. Piper’s view, on the other hand, is hard to distinguish from the version Stark criticizes.

    • Chris, I’ve had to rethink my ideas about worship as well. As a more conservative misfit evangelical I criticized the modern worship movements for focusing on touchy-feely aspects of worship while neglecting the good old songs that talked about God’s might and splendor. Nowadays, my uneasiness with a slavish, Stockholm-Syndrome-esque preoccupation with the latter is growing. I don’t want to excuse the disgusting sappiness and out-of-touch escapism of so much modern worship music, but I find that my own expressions of devotion to God are more likely to sound like a son who desires to commune with his loving, admired father whose absence creates a vacuum in my soul. So although my understanding of His transcendence (which I suppose I could refer to as “glory”) hasn’t been fully displaced, as I’ve come to understand more about the origins of our faith in the sands of the ANE, I’ve grown more uneasy with the high church picture of humanity as mere dust fawning on the monarch.

      • Wm Tanksley

        I don’t want to endorse your use of the term ‘Stockholm syndrome’ to disparage people who worship God for His glory… But at the same time, I see much else in this post to admire, and not merely because I also dislike the ooey-gooey “praise” songs that sound more like baby talk.
        Can I suggest a perspective which might affect your reading of the Psalms? This is actually from CS Lewis, but it’s the main point of Piper as well… Both were looking at the Psalms, in which the praise of God is commanded, and he asked “does God really, through the Holy Spirit, demand that we recite praise to Him?” Many people have wondered at this; you’re not the first. Lewis’ (and Piper’s) answer is to look at people in love and see what they say. They turn to the world and announce how wonderful the object of their love is, and they ask the world to agree with them.
        Lewis, and following him Piper, then conclude that the message of the praise Psalms is not that we must praise God; it is rather that the Psalmists are overflowing with the enjoyment of God, and “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.”
        So God does NOT lay a moral obligation to praise Him on us — but He did design us to erupt into praise when we enjoy something. Clever!
        I think Lewis and yourself would then agree that the words of the Psalms need not be inerrant; one simply sees the fact that the author is using the words of praise that his culture knows, and deduces that the author is enjoying God (although using inaccurate words about God). Piper would disagree on this point, but I think we’re all used to a little disagreement here and there.

        -Wm

        • Let me hasten to state that I did not intend my “Stockholm Syndrome” remark to apply to all who exult in the majesty of God: I was saying that a lot of the groveling, “we are so totally worthless, you should have just burned us into oblivion long ago, you’re inexpressibly kind for even allowing us to breathe our next breath” kind of mentality behind some worship music is startlingly reminiscent of the nonsensical defense of an oppressor and unappreciative of the love a Father should be expected to have for His children.

          Actually, Lewis’s views on the Psalms influenced me years and years ago. However, my deepening understanding of an historical-critical approach to the OT does little to persuade me that the Psalmist really just basked in God’s sweet goodness: if anything, he seems to have been trying to maintain a good lord/vassal relationship, i.e. to get God to show him more favor than He apparently had in the previous Psalm, in which the Psalmist had to ask yet again, “Why are You not vindicating me?!” By all appearances, the OT saints had a transactional view of worship, and reminded God of their devotion when asking why God allowed problems to come their way. At any rate, I think it’s anachronistic to read their praise of God’s virtues in the OT and always infer the kind of ideas about God’s unmerited grace and love that Christians developed later on. Also, feelings of emotional closeness as in our love relationships were simply not understood by most of the writers of the OT that I am aware of.

          We can and should be in awe of His vastness and the wonders of the universe He created. Our surprise and delight should spontaneously erupt from us. But when it is said that we were created for God’s glory or made to worship Him, the way that most believers understand seems to be based in the OT/ANE understanding of how humans were to placate their deities. When someone believes that God is granting us an unimaginable boon by deigning to love us and feels an overwhelming appreciation to Him for not consigning us to “what we really deserve,” I can’t help that it reminds me of a brainwashed victim.

  • lac

    If I’m understanding right, I resonate with these thoughts. After leaving a more contemporary worship style, the liturgy and Anglican high church worship appealed to me for a few months before I started to feel uneasy with the monotony of it all. Similarly, I’ve struggled through reading my beloved Jane Austen b/c of the glaring class system. I somehow overlooked this all before.

  • John Piper’s really infected the whole of contemporary reformed Christianity with this Self-Centered God idea. Ironically the issue is not being God-centered or Man-centered, the issues is being Other-centered (good) or Self-centered (bad). We are to be Man-centered BECAUSE WE ARE God-centered and because He is Man-centered. Everything He’s done (that we know of) is for others, for humans and we should do likewise.

  • Martin Van Nostrand

    As a progressive Christian and ex-evangelical (over 2 decades), I shudder at comments like Piper’s “that God loves His glory more than He loves us and that this is the foundation of His love for us”. Makes me remember the old Puritan/Reformed ethic that made me nearly schizophrenic years ago.

    Why do we Christians make these realities so convoluted and difficult? Love of God, neighbor and self are not antithetical to each other but are a seamless organic whole. As we grow and mature, what may be out of balance becomes more fluid as we stop getting out of the way with our overly introverted and rational conceptualizations.

    • Martin Van Nostrand

      sorry, should be “stop getting IN the way with”…

    • Martin, thanks for commenting! Even in Scripture there seems to be a clear
      (but not necessarily unobstructed) trajectory toward this understanding. And
      I think it has been clear enough that even those merely brought up around
      historically Christian atmospheres have absorbed those concepts and now
      stand and look on those intent on conserving ideas like Piper’s in horror.