In my last post, I tried to make the case that God does not “need” our praise. I acknowledged that He does expect it, because praise naturally flows to a perfect being. But is it fair to say that he actually “demands” it? And will punish us if we refuse?
In raising this challenge, a skeptic quotes from the Ten Commandments. Doesn’t God say that man should not bow down and worship false idols? Does He not describe himself as a “jealous” God? What then are we to make of God’s position? The skeptic concludes his challenge:
"So, whilst you state that god doesn't demand worship, he DOES threaten dire punishments to those who don't worship him!
'You don't have to worship me, and I'd never ask such a thing of you, but if you don't I'll crush you, and your kids, and THEIR kids, just to make sure my message is clear' seems to be the way god is saying things are.
So, here we have a supposed perfect being, in a supposed revelation in his supposed holy book, saying that he'll be angry if he isn't worshipped!
We come back to the question - why would a perfect demand worship?"
These are good questions, and they deserve an answer. But the questions reveal quite a bit about the skeptic and the reasons he cannot make sense of the Biblical model for right relationship with God. It is apparent that the skeptic refuses to, or cannot, recognize that:
1) God is not our equal. As our creator, he has absolute right to do what he wants with us. We have no more basis to complain than would a computer animation to the computer programmer, or to use a more ancient example, the pot to the potter. This is an unpleasant thought, especially for Americans steeped in the tradition of equality. But equality refers to the relationship between people, not the relationship between God and his creation. A child does not dictate to his parent what fairness is. Nor does the robot tell the supervisor to take his place on the assembly line. If you persist in thinking that a being capable of thinking this universe into existence somehow must answer to you, or justify himself to you, you will never gain the answers that you claim to be seeking;
2) God is not emotional. While He is “personal,” and while he inspired the Biblical writers using emotional imagery, He is not a histrionic drama queen ready to throw tantrums. Selectively quoting Scripture to paint such a picture distorts what the Bible teaches about God's true nature. Negative emotion, after all, is a characteristic of a limited being that has fears, wants and desires. It is a failing. More precisely, negative emotions like jealousy, lust and greed are perversions of the good. Like evil generally, base emotions are a departure from the standard that God is. A limitless, timeless God doesn’t “hope” for a good outcome, or “fear” that he will not “get the girl” or seethe with “envy” against a rival. He has no needs, lacks nothing, and has no rivals. He is all good. So, why then does God use emotional language? Probably for the same reason that I speak one way to adults in a courtroom setting and quite another way if I’m talking to children at a daycare center. The style and content of the conversation is tailored to the needs and capabilities of the audience. Using emotional language conveys God's message much more vibrantly than simply setting forth instructions.
3) The Biblical reference to jealousy, like all Biblical texts, must be taken in context. The usual connotation of "jealousy" is quite negative. It conjures up images of a jilted boyfriend stalking his girlfriend as he suspects her of infidelity. But the actual definition is more varied; under “biblical” it includes: “intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry.” As I argued in the previous post, God's self-assessment is accurate. He has every right to expect worship from His creation, because praise and worship are what perfection merit. Equally, He knows the harm it does us when we worship a lie as opposed to the truth. It is, then, an expression of love for him to desire that we return to right relationship with him.
Consider an analogy. A town doctor spends years earning the trust of his patients. One day he learns that an untrained quack has begun tending to his patients, pretending to be him and doing much harm with his medications and treatments. The doctor loves his patients and wants what is best for them. How, then, should he react? I submit that anger and jealousy – an intolerance of the harmful “rivalry” – would be an appropriate response. So too with God. He loves us enough to warn us against the danger we face when we persist in our rebellion against Him; He loves us enough to be angry when we turn away.
In sum, the skeptic wants to claim equality with God and expect God to view things the same way. He does not want to give God the love and respect to which He is entitled, by His very nature. And he wants God to accept this disrespect as appropriate. But God, by His nature, will also demand the response to which He is entitled. Think of it this way. Why does a judge demand respect? Why does he have a bailiff ready to establish order if a heckler decides to interfere? If a human judge can demand that to which the law entitles him, how much more can the ultimate Judge, the Creator of all that there is, demand respect from his creation? After all, we are subject to His law. What should that respect look like? Well, for the judge it means being addressed with a proper tone of voice, proper language and proper behavior. But what about for the ultimate judge? What does a perfect being deserve? Simply this: to be recognized accurately for what he is. And when we do that, we see that worship and praise are the appropriate way of responding to Him.
The point of this excursion has been to show that there is a rational way to reconcile God's goodness and perfection, on the one hand, with the Biblical references to God's "jealousy," anger and expectation of worship, on the other. While on the surface these things may seem inconsistent, on deeper reflection a fuller picture of God begins to emerge. For this, we are indebted not just to the Biblical writers but to the pillars of Christian philosophy, giants such as Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Somehow, though, I doubt the skeptic will accept their views, or these. By his very nature, the skeptic will continue to do what he does best - believe in nothing. One wonders why he cares to write at all.