Saturday, March 16, 2013

God will Praise You: Examining Soli Deo Gloria

While journaling recently I was reminded of how I tend to look for my sense of adequacy, sufficiency, comfort, "right-ness" (pick whatever name works best for you) from people instead of from God. I did
a quick study of what scripture says about this:
  • John 12:43: ...for they loved human praise more than praise from God.
  • Romans 2:29: No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person's praise is not from other people, but from God.
  • Galatians 1:10: For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 4:5: Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.
The Bible is pretty clear that Christians are supposed to value praise from God more than praise from people. And when it's stated like this no one will have much of a problem with it. But have you stopped to think about what this means? One day (1 Corinthians 4 says the last judgment), God will praise us. Or, as Rob Bell would say,





I just realized how crazy this sounds, coming from a relatively reformed background. An analogy my church sometimes uses is that we are like straws through which God blows the Holy Spirit. The implication here is that we ourselves are just weak, passive, interchangeable conduits through which God acts. Who praises a straw for channeling air effectively? We pray that God may increase in us, that we are nothing without Him, that it's amazing that God would do anything through such a sinner as I. Soli Deo gloria!, the fifth sola goes.

I swear, I'm not actually trying to do a series on the five solas, they just keep coming up in posts that were originally about other things. Like with sola fide and sola scriptura, I'm not saying that the idea of soli Deo gloria is wrong: of course God, being the only God, is the only one worthy of glory and praise. But by turning this exclusivity into a total abnegation of our own role in the Kingdom of God, the "I am but a straw" mentality, verses like 1 Corinthians 4:5 become very hard to understand. And yet it's verses like this, exhortations to seek praise from God instead of from people, that are just what I need when I'm tempted to do the opposite and substitute people laughing at my jokes or being impressed at my blog posts (like this one) for the affirmation I'm supposed to be getting from my heavenly Father. I thought of three reasons (besides the blanket reason "sin") why it's hard for me to do this:
  • Human praise is much more tangible and immediately rewarding than praise from God, which 1 Corinthians 4 says we'll receive at the last judgment.
  • Theologically emphasizing total depravity, total human lack of pure motives, our righteous acts being like "filthy rags" before God, etc. makes it hard to see how anything I do is praiseworthy by God. In fact, putting any stock in this praise seems like legalism, trusting in your works of righteousness instead of in God's grace.
  • And related to this, emphasizing the total unconditionality of God's election, grace, blessings, etc. makes it sound like by believing we already have all the praise from God we're ever going to get, so trying for more is hopeless.
Reason 1 is just an effect of our broken relationship with God that we all have to work through, but I think the other two are effects of me taking soli Deo gloria too far. In this view, because our acts of righteousness are "filthy rags", all that matters is God working His righteousness through us like blowing into a straw, and His blessings to us are all unconditional, it's futile, self-aggrandizing, or even Pharisaical to expect any praise from God for what I do. This view is false and dangerous, just as much so as expecting your righteous acts to make you a spiritual bigwig. Does anyone else tend to think like this?

I think Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30, minas in Luke 19:11-27) speaks to this. It prevents us from simply concluding that this praise will only consist of attributing Christ's vicarious righteousness to us and passing over our sin, i.e. that it is the same for everyone and unaffected by how we have lived. God gives us each gifts and abilities (or, shall we say, talents). On their own, these gifts are not powerless; the point of John 15:5 is that only in Christ can we "put them to work", in the parables' language, for the Kingdom. And if we do put them to work, we will be praised, as the master says: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

This helps us make sense of Jesus' final warning in the parable: "For whoever has will be given more and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." This isn't immediately clear; on a face-level reading it sounds like an apt description of the game of Monopoly. If someone does not "have", how can anything be taken from him? Didn't the third servant have one talent/mina? It seems like Jesus is using "has" in two different ways. The third servant is given one talent, but does nothing with it, unlike the others who receive praise. I'm not entirely sure how "has" can describe this difference, but it is what Jesus is getting at in this parable. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." (Luke 12:48)

What, then, does it mean for God to praise us? Certainly not that we become more important than God, any more than the president giving an award to an exemplary citizen makes that citizen more important than the president. The analogy of God as heavenly Father is helpful here. Just as children are motivated by looking to their fathers for praise and affirmation, so we should look to God and the praise we will receive from Him as the better substitute for depending on praise from people. And just as praising a child equally for everything, good or bad, makes that praise effectively useless, so praise from God that is completely independent of what we actually do becomes ineffective, even "cheap". Friends, know that God does care about how we live with all that He has given us and strive to please Him, and Him alone, in all that you do.

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