Many people misinterpret God’s character when looking at his demands and actions in history because they imagine what they would think of a fallen human being who did the things God has done, and they recoil. Failing to picture God as he is, they picture instead what they’re familiar with—a sinful, human tyrant imposing his preferred laws on people by force, destroying nations, or demanding worship.
But a fallen human being who has illegitimately grabbed power over others in order to use them for his own selfish purposes and vain ego is simply not analogous to a perfectly good being—a perfectly just and righteous Creator and Judge with legitimate authority over all, a God who sought the good of his enemies at his own expense, a loving Father of his people.
God, as the perfectly good and just Creator—the very standard of morality—has the kind of authority no fallen human being could ever rightly have, and so he can rightly do things no fallen human being could ever rightly do. That might sound odd to you at first, but the idea that a particular action can be wrong for one person but right for another is not a foreign concept to us. In our everyday life, we all live according to the understanding that the acceptability of a person’s actions can depend on his authority and role. For example, if I were to lock you in a building for a decade, my action would be morally wrong—even if you were, in fact, guilty of something. But if the government were to rightly convict you of a crime and lock you in a building for a decade, its action would be good and just. The difference in the morality of our actions—though it’s the same action in both cases—is determined by the authority and role of the government and my lack of those things.
Now apply that principle to God. Just as there are ways the government can act that are good and just that would not be good and just if I were to act in those ways, so there are things the ultimate being in the universe can rightly do such that if any fallen, finite human being did those things, we would rightly recoil. Only the loving, omniscient, righteous Creator and Judge of all can create and enforce just laws for everyone, judge our innermost thoughts, or claim to be our Savior.
So now we come to the issue of God promoting his own glory. The same principle applies to God doing things “for the sake of his name” and “for his glory” and requiring people to worship him. If you are troubled by the thought of this, consider the possibility that you are imagining how you would respond to a human being who did this—a fallen, sinful human being who did not deserve your worship. That is not who God is. And so, in order to understand God rightly, we need to adjust our interpretation of his actions in light of his moral perfection, not judge him as if he were also a fallen human being with a dangerously inflated ego.
This might take some imagination—especially for those who are not well-versed in Christianity—since our greater familiarity with fallen human beings abusing power can easily color our interpretations of God’s actions. To that end, I appreciated John Piper’s efforts in his book Providence to correct our misinterpretations by giving us new imagery to more accurately shape our understanding of what it means for God to do things “for his glory”:
But what if God’s continual acting for his own glory proved to be less like an insecure, self-enhancing, needy bully and more like the star professional basketball player who drives his Porsche into the neighborhood because he genuinely loves inner-city kids and wants to give them the unimaginable pleasure of playing with their hero?
What if God’s calling attention to his glory turned out to be less like a quack doctor who hangs out a sign that he’s the best and more like a real doctor hanging out a sign because he is, in fact, the best, and he alone can do the procedure that will save the community from the spreading disease?
What if God’s making known his superiority is less like an anxious college art teacher touting the greatness of his classes to shore up his reputation by attracting more students and more like the best artist in the world going to the poorest college and announcing that he is going to give an absolutely free course so that he can show the lowliest student the secrets of his superior skill?
What if God’s public promotion of his power is less like a narcissistic, fame-hungry, military general who seeks victory by sacrificing thousands of soldiers from his safe position behind the lines and more like the truly greatest general who wins both victory and fame by willingly dying at the front line for the troops he loves?
In other words, what if, in the end, we discovered that the beauty of God turns out to be the kind that comes to climax in being shared? And what if the attitude we thought was mere self-promotion was instead the pursuit of sharing the greatest pleasure possible for all who would have it?
Nothing God does can be rightly understood apart from his being, character, and authority. We have to start there, interpreting his actions in light of who he is, not interpreting his character in light of how we would perceive a fallen human being who illegitimately took those same actions.