Over the summer, during times I was exercising, I listened to The Boys in the Boat, a very well-written book on the 1936 USA crew team that won the Olympics in Nazi Germany.
It is an inspiring true tale of the quest for glory undertaken by a group of young men who rose from depression-era underdogs to icons of their sport and the American spirit. I loved the book, in part because it was a distraction from my own rather uninspiring antics which I was calling exercise, but mainly because the quest for glory taps into the deepest parts of what inspires and moves us.
However universal and relatable the idea of glory may be in sports, awards, coupon-ing, or any other human victory, it’s equally confusing and disconcerting when we talk about glory in the context of God: his demand for it, right to it, and the inevitability of him receiving it. Why is that?
To the best of my knowledge, I am not a glory-monger. And yet, while I can easily understand and relate to a human quest for glory, I have struggled with passages in Scripture that seem to suggest that glory is pretty much God’s domain.
The idea of glory in the Bible has different attributes. Glory can be a characteristic, an identifiable attribute of God. Glory can be a thing in and of itself, given and received. Glory can be both a manifest reality and an idea. However glory is spoken of in the Bible, it is clearly and consistently in, from, and for God, and the only glory given to others is through him and because of him. In other words, all glory is God’s.
Now academically that makes sense to me. I know me, and even by human standards I am very average in any category to which glory may be assigned. (For a time, I was able to beat my kids in board games and I revelled in that glory, but even that season has passed). I also know a bit about God, and he’s pretty great. By human standards, he’s incomparable, and even by divine standards he wins handily in any comparison. Being the creator and sustainer of the universe puts one pretty much in a league of his own when it comes to a legitimate claim to glory. This is all easy for me to see and agree with.
But then there’s the quiet voice that begins to question. I imagine it’s a very similar voice that whispered out in the garden of Eden.
Why does he want all the glory?
Isn’t that vain and selfish of him? He’s got everything else, why does he need that too? What is he holding back? Can I really trust that he has my best in mind?
Those questions, which tempt me to see myself as the underdog and God as the Goliath, begin to reveal the source of my discomfort when it comes to God’s glory. You see, the stories of glory that move me are always the underdog stories: King Henry on St. Crispin’s day, the boys in the 1936 Olympics, the 54th Massachusetts volunteer infantry moving on Ft. Wagner, Zach Van Dyke auditioning for a Summit band. All of these are underdog stories and all of them inspire me. Conversely, the wresting of and demand for glory by the strong is generally not glorified or inspirational. Though his quest for glory was insatiable, Genghis Khan taking down another defenseless city does not move me; it actually disturbs me.
So, how is God different in his demand for glory? What sets him apart from the human equivalent of a glory-monger? What in the glory of God moves and inspires us?
In answer to those questions, and in resolving that tension, we need look only as far as the cross. The cross—that paradox of shame and inglorious defeat—is also the place of God’s most glorious act and the most moving underdog story. On the cross, Jesus made himself the underdog, faced death to defeat all the sin and rebellion that mankind could muster from the beginning of time until the last minute of this world. At the cross was our ugliest act of glory-mongering and God’s most glorious moment. And unlike war or sport, where the victor gets the spoils, our Savior—the glorious one—invites us to the victory party and lavishes us with the spoils. We get full and unending grace, which is all for glory of God.