You Don’t Want to Make God Look Bad… Do You?
From the “if you can’t say anything nice—or at least morally/theologically coherent—then don’t say anything at all” file… It seems John Piper has expanded his repertoire from terrifying adults about God to terrifying children about God. I’ve come across a number of references this morning to a recent children’s story that Piper told. Here it is (h/t: Internet Monk).
Let’s illustrate this for the children. Your daddy is standing in a swimming pool out a little bit from the edge. You are, let’s say, three years old and standing on the edge of the pool. Daddy holds out his arms to you and says, “Jump, I’ll catch you. I promise.” Now, how do you make your daddy look good at that moment? Answer: trust him and jump. Have faith in him and jump. That makes him look strong and wise and loving. But if you won’t jump, if you shake your head and run away from the edge, you make your daddy look bad. It looks like you are saying, “he can’t catch me” [i.e., he’s incompetent] or “he won’t catch me” [i.e., he’s mean] or “it’s not a good idea to do what he tells me to do” [i.e., he’s unwise]. And all three of those make your dad look bad.
But you don’t want to make God look bad. So you trust him. Then you make him look good—which he really is. And that is what we mean when we say, “Faith glorifies God” or “Faith gives God glory.” It makes him look as good as he really is. So trusting God is really important.
And the harder it seems for him to fulfill his promise, the better he looks when you trust him. Suppose that you are at the deep end of a pool by the diving board. You are four years old and can’t swim, and your daddy is at the other end of the pool. Suddenly a big, mean dog crawls under the fence and shows his teeth and growls at you and starts coming toward you to bite you. You crawl up on the diving board and walk toward the end to get away from him. The dog puts his front paws up on the diving board. Just then, your daddy sees what’s happening and calls out, “Johnny, jump in the water. I’ll get you.”
Now, you have never jumped from one meter high and you can’t swim and your daddy is not underneath you and this water is way over your head. How do you make your daddy look good in that moment? You jump. And almost as soon as you hit the water, you feel his hands under your arms and he treads water holding you safely while someone chases the dog away. Then he takes you to the side of the pool.
We give glory to God when we trust him to do what he has promised to do—especially when all human possibilities are exhausted. Faith glorifies God. That is why God planned for faith to be the way we are justified.
In hindsight, perhaps five minutes of silent prayer might have been a better option.
I shudder to think of what a small child would have taken away from this illustration. Ok, so I’m supposed to imagine myself in a truly terrifying situation—a vicious dog bearing down on me on the one hand, and the potential of drowning on the other—and then turn my attention not to, “how might my father who dearly loves me encourage me to respond in this situation, but to the real issue of how my response in this situation might enhance my dad’s reputation? How it might make my dad look good?
Whenever I come across the latest example of hyper-Calvinism run amok, I wonder to myself, “If we would never tolerate an earthly father (or mother) thinking/acting/speaking in this way, how on earth can we predicate such things of God?” If a human father really did respond to a human child in a rather desperate situation in this way—never mind how scared you are Johnny, it’s time to make daddy look good!—we would think they were insane (or worse). But with God? Well, I guess the categories are different. Or don’t apply. Or something.
Of course, if you really do believe that God is as desperate to guard, preserve, promote his own glory and reputation as John Piper seems convinced that God is, I guess your options are limited. Grown ups, small children—it matters not. The truth about God, no matter how terrifying or normal moral category obliterating, must be faithfully taught. I guess.
I wish Piper and countless other eager defenders of God’s glorious reputation would be a little slower to speak (or tweet or whatever). But mostly, I wish they would just pay more attention to Jesus. I wish they would let the one who welcomed children—the one who praised their faith and told the (learned) grownups to emulate it—inform their categories of “sovereignty” and “glory.” I wish they would allow the one who emptied himself and apparently thought very little of his “reputation” to shape their understanding of who God is and how God works in the world.
You simply cannot frighten someone into a relationship of love, trust, and obedience, no matter how old they are. It cannot be done. I wish people would stop trying.
Actually, considering the incarnational Jesus, the good Daddy wouldn’t wait for you to make him look good, he’d already be beside you on the diving board, he’d jump in the way, let the dog take him down into the pool while you climb down the ladder safely… now THAT’s a Daddy I’d trust… I’d trust a Daddy would stand in the gap for me rather than wait for me to jump… “While we were still standing on the diving board in fear, Jesus grabbed the doberman”
Although… that still kinda sounds Piperesque… but the difference is that the child didn’t have to do ANYTHING… The Daddy did it all… and our response, then is to love that Daddy because he already did it all…
I like your version of the story much better, Robert. That’s a Daddy I could trust too.
I thought the John Piper quote would be more controversial than it was. I actually don’t mind the example, just maybe the emphasis. Piper, of course, is trying to carry over the idea of bringing God glory by our obedient trust in Him. And I think that is true. A child trusting their parent in scary circumstances does make their parent look good! I think where we both would differ from Piper is the motivation for our trust. For a child it is that He is convinced that his Dad does love him, knows best, and is competent to care for him. The witness that this trust has in the eyes of onlookers is a byproduct. Sure, if I love and trust my dad I might want other people to see that trust and therefore honor my father(as a Christian this is indeed the case! especially because I hope they will get to experience this trusting, caring relationship themselves). However, in the storms of life I cling to my Father’s love for me to go down paths I feel Him calling me that don’t look so easy.
I see the value in this example to explain how our faith and trust in God in really difficult sitiuations bring Him glory. But I think it misses another point: God is lifted up in my own eyes as I trust Him. As I(not onlookers) see God’s goodness, trustworthiness, and love I bring Him glory by obeying Him despite difficult obstacles. The analogy misses this point: If I have come to know the love, and trustworthiness of God why would making God look good even cross my mind? It seems to make me more a fan of my Dad then relationally connected to Him. I obey in tough circumstances because I KNOW Him and trust in Him and His love.
One thing I find quite interesting about Calvinist thinking is God’s glory as an object in itself. I am created for His glory, all my life should bring Him glory, I need to lift Him up. I believe all this but I prefer to focus on WHY God should be glorified. He saved me, is changing me, makes all things new, creates beautiful things, heals the world, IS Love, brings joy peace, etc. Explaining things in terms of God’s glory isolated from the things that make God so glorious just seems odd and disconnected to me.
On the flip side, we do have to realize that God’s glory is a legitimate motivator for God Himself. And that is a hard concept for us to accept.
Yes, I think you make a number of valid points here, Carl. I especially appreciate your questioning of the motivation of the behaviour (to make God look good or out the context of an existing relationship of trust?). I also think you ask good questions about the odd disconnect between God’s glory as an abstract “something” and the things that make God glorious.
Even having said all that, though, the way Piper framed this story seems just terrible to me. I would be quite angry if I had a small child who was listening to that. It just seems to present God and faith in such unhelpful and unhealthy ways—especially for young children. Well, probably for most adults, too. I don’t recognize a God whose primary concern in the situation of human existential need is his own reputation. It just doesn’t square with the Jesus I have encountered in the Gospels.
Re: God’s glory being a legitimate motivator for himself… Sure. But it still seems to me that some (not all) of the really vocal Calvinists out there are quite a bit more concerned about God’s reputation and glory than God is (or was, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth).
(I think there will always be a fundamental tension between the claim that God’s primary concern in all situations is HIS glory and the reality that God’s primary orientation toward the world, in the person and work of Jesus, is to give himself away for the sake of others.)
Great post. I agree completely. I am mildly perturbed, though, that the full text of your posts have stopped showing up in my RSS reader – are you trying to get more hits for your advertising? 😉
Hmm, that’s strange. I shouldn’t have any advertisements on this site since I PAY to keep them off. It’s more than “mildly perturbing” to hear that they are still showing up…
I’ll see what I can do about the posts showing up in the RSS reader :). Good to hear from you, Michael.
Interesting post, Ryan
I have to work at understanding the human side of the illustration: a kid being frightened about jumping into water somehow makes the kid’s father “look bad.” but here I’m wondering if the disconnect is because the illustration comes so strongly from the perspective that emphasizes God’s glory. when I focus on that emphasis I can see the point, but I have to work at seeing the point. (And this is what I see happening so often when people in different silos try to communicate with one another).
On God’s glory – reading the sermon illustration I had this thought: we worship a God who was willing stripped down to his underwear and washed feet …. was willing to be stripped naked, nailed to a cross in front of everybody, which is quite a shameful thing. So GLORY gets redefined a bit when it has skin on it.
A caution: I went to the Internet Monk link, then back tracked to his source, then back to what looks like the primary source: Desiring God sight. and I see we are faced with a sermon download. So I have to trust that someone with a lot of time on his/her hands accurately transcribed Piper’s sermon. All I’m saying is we have to trust someone’s transcription unless we want to listen to the sermon ourselves. Perhaps Piper supporters can say we’ve somehow missed context.
I appreciate the caution, Larry. I was aware that the Internet Monk posted a transcript of the audio, but I didn’t bother listening… so I was probably a bit too impulsive in posting something like this. It’s hard not to filter everything I read from/about/attributed to John Piper through past things he has said, but this is no excuse for not doing a bit of homework.
So very well said. Thanks, Larry.
This is a perfect example of the type of psychological manipulation and coersion techniques being used by self appointed professional preachers in pulpits across america today…..”The Glory of Preaching”….you go girl!
I totally get what Piper is trying to say, though I agree with what others are saying about his example being off. But even though my motive may not be to make God look good to others, when I trust God, I am in fact affirming his holy, faithful character both to Him and implicitly to anyone else who is watching. That must bless God just as it blesses and honors me to be trusted by my own children.
To me the real significance of faith as the basis for entering into relationship with God is that it is a rejection of the first lie in which the serpent impugned God’s truthfulness and love. The sad history of the human race has simply been the outworking of that lie as distrust made any relationship with God impossible.
Nothing brought more glory to God’s character than Jesus did when as his Father’s image and surrogate he demonstrated God’s holiness in humility and self sacrificing love and obedience. Philippians 2 tells us that this demonstration is the reason why God exalted him so highly, so there must be an important principle here.
I think the principle is this: just as the fall was tied up with the slander of God’s character, It only makes sense that the restoration of all things would be somehow bound up with God’s vindication in the sight of all. When I think of the throne scenes in Revelation the words that jump out to me are “worthy” and “holy”. Creation will not be what it was meant to be – and my own life will not completely be what it is meant to be either – until God’s worthiness is held up and known as its central truth.
I agree with much of what you say here, Phil. I completely agree that we bring honour and glory to God when we trust and obey him. I also agree with your last paragraph, God’ vindication, worthiness, etc. I think all of these are part of the benefits of human beings who are properly oriented in their relationship to God.
For me, the main issue is how Piper framed this for children. To talk about a God whose primary concern in the midst of human crisis/need is (or at least seems to be) his own reputation doesn’t square with the character of the God I see revealed in Jesus Christ. It just doesn’t. And I don’t think children (or adults) are helped by framing things in this way.
I share your concern with how Piper framed the issue. Maybe one way of squaring the circle is to agree with Calvinists that our purpose is to glorify God but then to ask what that glory best consists of? Is it primarily the glory of a monarch among his subjects or a selfless one as of a father who glories in his children’s glory? I see both in Scripture but for me the arc of salvation history points to the latter; however in Calvinism it seems to be more the former.
Well said, Phil. I like that very much.