I am concerned about the way we talk about God’s glory in the modern church. Not because there’s something wrong with wanting to pursue God’s glory, but because I think the focus we have on God’s glory skews our theology in problematic ways.
I began preparing for this post by studying the Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible translated into English as “glory”. I thought to go through each of them, but they are similar enough in meaning as to be amendable to summary. The Hebrew words (Strong’s H155, H1926, H1935, H1984, H3367, H3519, H6286, H8597) translate to “glory, splendor, dignity” in most senses, but occasionally “reverence.” There is a strong intimation in the Hebrew (at least for H3519, the most commonly-used word) of importance and weight, as in when we say that something has “gravity” in English. The Greek words (Strong’s G1391, G2744) include “a high opinion” and “splendor or brightness, as of the stars,” in addition to the specific meanings “the majesty belonging to God (or Jesus)” and “an exalted state or glorious condition to which Jesus was raised after the crucifixion and to which true Christians shall enter after the return of the savior from heaven.”
In much of the Bible, when the “glory of God” is mentioned, the intended understanding is that “glory” is an attribute of God, something that is revealed to humanity in the presence of God. I would venture to speculate that “glory” is our crude way of describing the existence-altering experience of a confrontation with the all-powerful and loving uncreated creator of all things. In other places, we are told to “give glory to God.” When the words are used in this fashion, the intent, I think, is to give reverence and deference to God, not to attempt to add to the majesty of God.
I want to dwell on that last idea for a moment, because I think that’s what’s held in mind in the modern usage of doing something “for the glory of God.” God is. When God tells us that God’s name is “I am,” we need to read the full mystery into that precise but expansive statement. God is complete in and of God’s self. Part of the theological definition of God (as omnipotent and sovereign) is that God does not need anything and is self-sufficient. By that understanding, God’s glory is something that simply is, that cannot be added to by humans, because if it could, it would no longer be complete within itself. So, to be clear, our actions do not give God glory in the sense that we add to God’s glory. And so, we must be very careful when we say that we are doing something “for” or “to” the glory of God.
The word “glory” functions in the Gospels in much the same way; when God’s glory is spoken of, word “glory” seems to signify God’s awesome (in the classical sense) and transformative presence. On the other hand, when the words appear to “give glory” to God, the meaning is to praise. A very notable exception that seals this interpretation for me appears in John 17:24, when Jesus asks that the believers see the Glory which God has given to Jesus. This exception proves the rule because the meaning of the given glory is Jesus’s exultation and divinity, not praise or fame or reputation. The use of the same word (in Hebrew, English and Greek) for two very different ideas is confusing.
Looking at Romans, Paul seems to have the same understanding of the usage of the word “glory,” as when he says that men “…exchanged the incorruptible glory of God for an image in the form of corruptible man…” Romans 1:23. Likewise, in Romans 4:20, Paul uses the phrase “giving glory” in the sense of praise.
In Romans 2:9-10, he states that “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. I believe that what Paul has in mind here is a promise of glorification in the same way that God glorified Jesus. But the inclusion of the words “honor” and “peace” make us think of glory in the context of fame and reputation—the human understanding of the word. And therein lies the real problem.
In the scriptures, as a descriptor of God, “glory” is ontological: it is an aspect of God’s being. In human uses, “glory” is teleological: it is based upon achievement and reputation. Thus it is that Indiana Jones speaks of “fortune and glory,” the rewards of the treasure hunter—er, archeologist.
The first entry under “glory” on www.dictionary.com says: “very great praise, honor or distinction bestowed by common consent; renown.” Only farther down the list do the Biblical definitions occur.
The linguistic mistake, then, comes with the assumption that all glory comes from the opinion of others. Were that the case, we could add to God’s glory by changing the opinion of others. But, as I said above, God’s glory simply is. The pursuit of God’s glory is a pursuit of God’s presence and being, not cheerleading, or marketing or (as is the sexy term these days) “branding.”
In a sense then, it is entirely appropriate to do something for the glory of God—if the meaning is that one is moved by the experience of relationship with God to do something. But when I hear the phrase used, it seems that the usage of “for” means “for the benefit of.” And in this sense, the phrase “doing something for (or to) the glory of God” is not for God, it is for self.
Such a statement must of course be defended. Let me use an example—sports teams. When fans talk about a sports team they favor, they usually don’t say, “the Patriots won;” they say “we won,” or “my team won.” Psychologists and sociologists attribute this to a pleasure derived from associating oneself with success. Sports on some subconscious and abstract level allow us to appropriate the human glory of others and to claim it personally. This thought is supported by the prevalence of fan superstitions: lucky underwear, ritual action, or even whether one must be watching (or attending) a game in order to assist the team’s chances of success. These superstitions allow us to rationalize our appropriation of the glory of the team; we can tell ourselves that we personally (in some supernatural way, perhaps) contributed to the team’s victory.
Let’s take that back to God. If we believe that God’s glory is in the opinion of others, then by raising God’s reputation we are raising our own reputation as God’s children. There are two fallacies here: that God’s glory becomes our glory by anything other than grace and that God’s glory is dependent on something outside of God.
I’ve been working on this post for a few days now, mulling it about in my head (it still seems clear as mud). Last night I attended a non-study study group at my church led by a young pastor I greatly admire. The subject for that night and several weeks to follow was “Christian Words”: those words we use so commonly as Christians but often fail to think about what they mean, leading to shallow or misguided theology. Use of the word “glory” fits squarely on this list, I think.
So perhaps we are misusing words when we talk about God’s glory. That could perhaps be a minor thing except for the emphasis Christians (particularly American evangelical Christians) place on God’s glory. If we’re going to emphasize God’s glory, we’d better make damn sure we use the words right.
What I see is a belief that, perhaps second to going to heaven, our focus is mainly upon God’s glory, but understood under the human definition as reputation. This idea is so pervasive that I have spoken with many Christians who, some avowedly, believe that the purpose of humanity’s creation was “to give glory to God.”
This is not attractive to the unchurched. In one sense, this can be construed as postmodern—God is only as powerful as we all agree God is. Hmm. Worse, we get the image of a narcissistic God who cares only about being praised. Thankfully, neither of these ideas are theologically sound.
We need to be clear to ourselves and others about the place that God’s glory has in our theology. God does not need our praise and we cannot add to God’s glory. Therefore, God’s own glory is not God’s purpose in creation, nor some demanded obeisance from us.
Of course, it is just and right and proper for us to “give glory” (in the Biblical sense of acknowledgement and praise) to God—God has given us much to be thankful and grateful for. More important, I think, is that one who has a personal experience of God cannot but be in joyful awe.
We ought, then, to focus on helping others to experience God’s glory; that is, to have a personal experience of the transformative glory of God. It is in relationship with Jesus that God’s glory is experienced—once experienced one’s opinion is forever changed. That relationship, I think is God’s purpose in creating us and should be our purpose in making disciples of others.