It’s time at last to kick off my promised series, reading through Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster together. Ignoring two chapters of background material that’s not germane to our purposes, the meat of the book starts off in chapter 3 with a relatively easy question: Is the Old Testament God arrogant? Is he guilty of sinful pride?
Nobody likes to hang around someone who’s haughty, arrogant, or overly aware that he or she is better than you. We don’t like it even if in some ways it’s true.
Who’s really better?
When I was in music school I was surrounded by talent. Apparently I had talent myself. There were about sixteen of us studying the trombone my senior year, and I was at the designated top of the heap: principal trombonist in the trombone choir. What did that mean, though? The two players just after me were both sophomores. Both of them were more talented than me, and I knew that when they were seniors, they would be better than I was at that stage. My roommate was a violin/viola player who was probably more talented than any two of us trombonists put together, another trombone-playing friend was a gifted composer, and another one was knocking down top grades in the electrical engineering program.
You could add your own examples easily enough: the best, smartest person in one circle is low on the list in another circle. What’s more, the wisest among us know that they didn’t exercise any special wisdom before birth to get themselves born with the best genes and into the best life situations. That’s true even for those who claim to have done it on their own: for every “self-made” talent, there are undoubtedly thousands of others who could have done as well or better had they had better opportunities than they were given. It’s hard to be arrogant when you keep in mind how easily things could have turned out differently.
It’s hard, that is, but some people still manage to accomplish it anyway, and those are not the kind of people most of us prefer to be with. And have you noticed how much those people seem to need other people to prop them up with their praise? You can tell there’s something missing in them. There have been times when I’ve felt more sad for them than annoyed.
God himself is on record in the Bible as saying that kind of pride is wrong. So how does he get away with calling for worship and praise from the people he created?
Pride vs. praise
Copan answers first of all by clarifying terms. I’ve hinted at it here already. Sinful pride is about claiming more for oneself than is true, taking more credit than one deserves, vaunting oneself above others when those others are equally as good or better in many ways. God doesn’t do any of that. As God, he genuinely is stronger, wiser, more loving, more holy, and in every way better than humans, to a degree that the language I’ve used in this sentence to say so falls infinitely short. When others claim to be superior, they’re mostly wrong. When it is said of God, it is infinitely right.
Copan also speaks of worship as “getting in touch with reality.” I wrote about this once before, and I had my days as a trombone student in mind then, too. My teacher for the last two years in music school was Curtis Olson, a bass trombonist just out of the Eastman School of Music, and a truly great musician. As I wrote in that previous blog post,
He never called attention to his skills, but when he played, there was no doubt–especially when he played his first recital. It was pretty much perfect. I think the rumors we had heard were probably true–he was a tremendous trombonist, and every one of his students knew it. Our praise of his skills was perfectly fitting and right.
Suppose now that a trombone student there had been indifferent to Olson’s skills, or had thought him to be a mediocre player. What would that have meant to him as teacher? It might have been personally painful. The main thing it would have shown, though, is that the student knew nothing about the trombone. With so little discernment, that person would have no future whatever as a musician. To a teacher that would be a serious disappointment, because of the student’s loss.
Recognizing what’s real
There is something right and good about recognizing excellence where excellence exists. It’s not necessarily for the benefit of the person being praised. To fail to recognize and speak well of true, genuine excellence is to show that one doesn’t understand what’s real. It’s also a way to miss out on enjoying and experiencing excellence. Think of how you react when someone makes a great play on the athletic field. Is it more enjoyable to you, or less enjoyable, to shout, “Wow! That was great!” It’s more enjoyable, obviously.
Copan closes this chapter by reminding us that God gives himself for others. He’s not in relationship with us for himself. He’s self-sufficient; he has no needs that he depends on us to fulfill. Instead he gives to meet our needs.
Is God arrogant?
So in summary, God is not guilty of the kinds of errors that people make when we fall into pride or arrogance. He is globally, totally, completely good. He is good in himself, not by the luck of birth or opportunity. His excellence is real, and the more we recognize and praise his excellence, the more in touch we are with genuine reality, and the more joy we can have, too. And finally, he’s not asking for praise because he needs it. He has no needs of that sort; instead, he gives to us out of his vast surplus of resources.
This is neither arrogance nor sinful pride. It is God’s goodness, there for us to recognize, to praise, and to enjoy.
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