Is God Vain?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

Have you ever been asked “Isn’t it arrogant of God to demand that we praise Him?” Find out what Greg has to say about God’s worthiness, and our own vanity.

I was confronted about a week and a half ago at a conference up at Mount Herman in Northern California with a very interesting question. It’s a question you might be confronted with as well. The question was simply, Isn’t God vain in wanting us to praise Him? And if vanity is bad for us, then it’s bad for God. This young man didn’t know how to respond. So he asked me about it. I’ll give you my response.

How can God ask for our praise? Isn’t that vain of Him? Isn’t that arrogant? Isn’t that self-centered? My response to the gentleman was this. First off, just because something is wrong for us, doesn’t mean it is wrong for God. We explored this concept, if you recall, when we explored mass loss of life in the Old Testament a couple of months ago. If it is wrong for us to kill, then how can God kill so many in the Old Testament? The answer is, because God is God. The Author of life has the right to take life. Or to put it colloquially, man can’t play God, but certainly God can play God. The reason is obvious. Different appropriate freedoms accrue to different persons by virtue of their office or character. Kids have bedtimes; parents don’t. Doctors can explore private parts of your body; strangers can’t. The President of the United States has authorities and powers and liberties we don’t possess. So it simply doesn’t follow that what is inappropriate for us (vanity in this case, desire for praise or adulation or worship) is also wrong for God. So the main presupposition I guess here is faulty.

But even so, it may be that the expectation of praise, here described as vanity, is inappropriate even for God, though not for the reason that we just mentioned. So let’s take a moment and look a little closer. Let’s have an exercise of clear thinking here as we dissect this problem. Vanity, according to Webster, is being excessively proud of oneself or one’s qualities or possessions. Praise on the other hand, is to commend the worth of. So both praise and vanity relate to worth. Praise is ascribing worth. Vanity is a distorted sense of worth. OK? Worship, the highest form of praise, might be called “worth ship” because you are ascribing worth to someone, in this case, God.

I think that a person who raises this kind of issue about vanity isn’t objecting because they think that praise per se is foolish. In other words, that praise in itself is irrational or unreasonable. When we praise someone, we acknowledge a certain kind of worth that person has. We saw he has produced something of worth or he manifests in his person or in his character something of worth. Praise per se is only foolish or irrational if there is nothing of worth in anyone in the whole world. And if no one had any worth, then ascribing worth of any kind would simply be error because nothing praiseworthy existed anyway. But clearly this can’t be true. Only an extreme cynic would suggest such a thing. If he does suggest that nothing in the whole world has any worth, then it strikes me that the burden is on him to prove that everything is worthless and not on me to prove that some things have value. It seems obvious. There are many things in the world of value. Many acts of value people perform. Many qualities of value that people possess.

So praise in itself seems to be rational. Of course, we all know this. That’s why we praise others in some measure. That’s why we are constantly seeking praise ourselves. We think it is deserved. It is reasonable. It makes sense. So praise is a rational concept. That’s the first thing.

Second, it’s not vanity to expect praise for praiseworthy acts. In other words, praise goes naturally with merit. Vanity is excessive pride, not appropriate pride in someone’s accomplishments. If one displays merit of some sort, in a deed, in a design, in a desire, well, then, praise commensurate with the particular merit seems to fit. So praise is appropriate where it fits the merit. We are making progress here, right?

Third, praise is even obligatory. What do I mean by that? Well, think of this: years ago there was a plane crash. It was winter. The airplane lay half submerged in a turbulent, icy river. You might have seen the video tape capturing this dramatic scene of rescuers throwing themselves in that frigid torrent to save the few who survived the impact of the crash, bobbing around amidst the ice flow there. Do you remember that? Let me ask you a question. What is our appropriate response to that? Is it morally sound for us to look at such a scene, such a dramatic display of goodness and selflessness and be completely unmoved? Is it rational for us to treat that act with the same kind of moral disinterest as somebody taking a short dip in a refreshing pond? I don’t think so. If we have no room in our heart for praise of an heroic act like this, people would call us cynical, right? And they’d be right. It is cynical not to acknowledge worth in an eminently worthy thing. In our silence, we are saying that something that appears worthy actually has no worth at all.

Now, there may be a problem with men’s expectation of praise. I think that there is. I’m not so sure that that problem applies to God as well.

There is a measure of praise that is appropriate for every person. After all, we will get rewards in heaven. So, clearly even God thinks that we are deserving of something. Our problem is that we don’t deserve as much as we think. We characteristically seek a lot more credit than we are due. And that is vanity. Vanity is wanting praise we don’t deserve.

Now here is something to think about. When you think about it, virtually everything that we think is worthy of praise of ourselves, in ourselves is actually derivative. In other words, it resides in us. We possess it, but it really came from somewhere else. Good looks, native intelligence, opportunities for education, social advancement. These things are almost entirely accidents of birth or circumstance. Some guy says, Hey, I met Robert Redford. I’m so cool. But how did he meet him? Well, somebody thinks he’s a big shot because he accidentally bumps into Robert Redford in the airport. And that’s why name droppers are so offensive. They usually are trying to take credit for something that happened to them by accident. OK, you’ve got the general idea there.

Now, let’s talk about God for a minute. God has many wonderful qualities. He has performed many marvelous deeds. He is a Person of immeasurable worth who performs acts of immeasurable worth. What’s more, for God nothing is derivative. Nothing about Him is a result of chance or accident. Every single goodness He possesses, ladies and gentlemen, every fine quality He has, every wonderful thing He has ever done is completely His own. To take it a step further, even the glories that you and I possess that are derivative (those are the things which include most of the things we seek praise for ourselves) actually are derived from a different source and that source is, guess where? God. If we are good looking it is because God made us that way. If we are intelligent, it is because God created us that way. And so on.

Think of the challenge here. The challenge is that God is vain because He desires praise. The irony is, that if praise is rational at all, virtually all of it goes properly to God, even the things that we want to take credit for. Because He is the source, to quote James 1, “He is the source of every good and perfect gift.” If praise is properly deserved, then as we mentioned earlier, it is properly obligatory. In other words, it is not only proper for God to receive praise, we owe it to Him. And in fact, we owe praise to God for the things that we think we ought to be praised for. In fact, what we are doing is we are stealing His credit and taking it for our own.

So, we’ve done a little exercise in clear thinking here haven’t we? Upon a little reflection we found that praise is rational, it is appropriate in certain circumstances and it is even obligatory in some circumstances. But we’ve really done more than that. We have learned that we ought to praise God regardless of who we are. And I might add, regardless of how we feel. This reflection has had a tremendous impact on me when I realized that praise is obligatory to one who is praiseworthy; the level of praise obligatory is that praise that meets the merit of the one being praised and that merit has absolutely nothing to do with my circumstances and my feelings. In other words, if God is worthy of praise, He’s worthy of praise whether my life is nice or miserable. He’s worthy of praise whether I’m happy or sad. Because praise is about Him, it’s not about me. If my life is happy and lots of good things are happening to me, well, those are additional things that I might praise God for and that’s appropriate because that kind of praise is a little different kind of praise. It’s called thanksgiving. Like saying, I praise you God for what you did and by the way, what you happened to do in this situation affected me. I’m thankful for that. I appreciate that.

So not only is it not vain for God to want praise, it is right for Him to demand it. And a person who cannot find reason to praise God is someone who is completely thankless, frankly. Is someone who feels he owes nothing to anyone, but that all his accomplishments are his own. Now, what do we call a person who feels like they owe nothing, especially thanks, to any one, they owe praise for nothing to anyone, but all of their accomplishments are utterly and completely their own? I guess arrogant would fit; self-centered would fit; how about vain? That would fit, too. We’d call them vain. So it turns out, that the person who thinks God ought not be praised is the very one who would take all the credit for himself. When he does that he robs it from the One who really deserves it, God Himself. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? The person who says that God is vain, says that God doesn’t deserve praise for anything, then if anything is praiseworthy in that individual, they are the ones who deserve it all. The person who says that God is vain, is in fact the person who is guilty of vanity themselves. And it’s no wonder then when you reflect like this that the Psalmist writes in Psalm 150:2, “Praise Him for His might deeds, praise Him according to His excellent greatness.” We praise God for what He does, we praise Him for who He is. We ascribe worth to Him. Only a vain cynic would argue otherwise.