John Piper likes to misquote the Westminster Catechism. And out of everything I have heard him say, this misquotation has shaped my thinking the most.
The Westminster Catechism declares that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. While Piper affirms the truth of that statement, he says it is of secondary importance. Our starting point should be that “the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever”. So when Michael W. Smith sings that He “thought of me above all”, he’s wrong. God is concerned with His glory above all else, not mine. I don’t think it is possible to understand much of scripture if we don’t start with this presupposition. For example, if we are what God thinks of ‘above all’, how do you explain the genocides he commanded in the Old Testament? How do you explain the story of Uzzah in 1 Chronicles 13? What about the injustices we see around us today?
Dan Haseltine, lead singer of Jars of Clay, recently did an interview with Christianity Today talking about their new album that releases next week, Good Monsters. He touches on this subject of God’s justice and our concept of it in this excerpt:
We just spent some time in Rwanda, and real violence makes me ask those questions too—the all-out violence of man to man. We visited this church in Rwanda where they’d set up a memorial to what happened in the genocide in ’94, where 800,000 people were killed in less than a hundred days. Five thousand people died in this one church, and they’d left the bodies there; now it’s just bones.
Gary Haugen from International Justice Mission was with us. He was the head of the UN investigation into the genocide, and he had actually visited this church in ’94 and had to go through the bodies and do the forensics of the situation. He was describing the way people would get up in the morning, and they’d kill, kill, kill, then stop, have lunch, go back, kill some more, and then have dinner. Very systematic. It began as these quick killings, and then it turned into something more primitive as the restraints came further off. It began to be torture and humiliation and mutilation. It takes a long time to kill 5,000 people in a church. Think about being in there with your family as these murders get closer and closer, and to hear the screams.
I’m sure those people weren’t praying, “God, please help me have a better car, or please increase my land.” It was, “God, please stop the hand of our aggressor,” and it didn’t happen. That prayer wasn’t answered for anybody in that church. And this wasn’t the military doing this violence; it was their neighbors. That kind of stuff really sent me into a spiral: “What is going on? How does this fit in?” It does two things. It causes a bit of a crisis of faith, and at the same time, it also makes me realize there has to be a God, because my own sense of justice does not have a context for this. Only God’s greater story of redemption can fit something like this into it, for 800,000 people to die, you know? God promises that there is redemption, so where is it?
If I am the most important thing to God and He doesn’t work the way I think He should or doesn’t bring redemption where He promised, I am left with no other honest option but to stop believing in Him. But what if we cannot put Him in a box and define his every response, as many today believe? What if I can only see a small part of His plan, and He can see the whole picture with His glory in the center of it?
Piper has written frequently about the supremacy of God, and in his classic work Desiring God – Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (which you can read online here), he builds his argument from this misquotation of the Westminster Catechism. Here is an excerpt of the first chapter:
The ultimate ground of Christian Hedonism is the fact that God is uppermost in his own affections: The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.
The reason this may sound strange is that we are more accustomed to think about our duty than God’s design. And when we do ask about God’s design we are too prone to describe it with ourselves at the center of God’s affections. We may say, for example, his design is to redeem the world. Or to save sinners. Or to restore creation. Or the like.
But God’s saving designs are penultimate, not ultimate. Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These he performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment he has in glorifying himself. The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God’s allegiance to us, but to himself.
Here is an interview with Piper where he addresses this issue, if you want to read more.
One last thing. I think the root of misunderstanding God’s character can be traced, in large part, to an inability to understand anthropomorphic language, that is, conception of divinity as being in human form or having human characteristics. Arguments such as the classic Armenian “God is a gentleman” line come from this misunderstanding. J. I. Packer explores this more fully in his contemporary classic Knowing God in the chapter on God’s wrath:
What God’s Wrath Is Like
The root cause of our unhappiness seems to be a disquieting suspicion that ideas of wrath are in one way or another unworthy of God.
To some, for instance, wrath suggests a loss of self-control, an outburst of “seeing red” which is partly if not wholly irrational. To others it suggests the rage of conscious impotence, or wounded pride or plain bad temper. Surely, it is said, it would be wrong to ascribe to God such attitudes such as these?
The reply is: Indeed it would, but the Bible does not ask us to do this. There seems to be here a misunderstanding of the anthropomorphic language of Scripture – that is, the biblical habit of describing God’s attitudes and affections in terms ordinarily used for talking about human beings. The basis of this habit is the fact that God made us in his own image, so that human personality and character are more like the being of God than anything else we know. But when Scripture speaks of God anthropomorphically, it does not imply that the limitations and imperfections which belong to the personal characteristics of us sinful creatures belong also to the corresponding qualities in our holy Creator; rather, it takes for granted that they do not.
Let us all strive together as we seek to know God more, but most importantly we must remember that all our theology is useless if it does not at some point becomes doxology.