If you’ve seen the classic 1987 movie The Princess Bride, you can’t fail to remember the word inconceivable. The brainy Sicilian, Vizzini, overuses the word as he, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya, stealing away with Princess Buttercup, find themselves pursued by a mysterious Man in Black. Time and again, the Man in Black overcomes obstacles to close the distance, and each time Vizzini exclaims to himself, “Inconceivable!” Eventually, Inigo Montoya objects in his heavy accent: “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I worry that the same could be said of the present generation of Christians who use three altogether different words—to glorify God. “To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever,” answers the child, the class, or the congregation, reciting the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “This ministry exists to glorify God,” writes a group of founders crafting their mission statement. “I just wanted to glorify God,” explains an individual when asked about a milestone achievement. In a myriad of ways, we keep on using these words, but do we know what they mean? And if we settle into the habit of employing these words without understanding them, are we reducing them to an empty catchphrase that fails to penetrate our deepest drives and desires?
According to James Montgomery Boice, “Few words in the distinct biblical vocabulary are less understood than the word ‘glory.’ ”1 Let’s look at six ways God is glorified (the sixth may surprise you) so that we can not only understand what “to glorify God” means but set our hearts on glorifying Him.
First, God glorifies Himself intrinsically from all eternity within the Trinity (theologians call this the essential or intrinsic glory of God). God’s essential glory is perfectly enjoyed within what C.S. Lewis calls “the happy land of the Trinity.” Jesus mentions this intrinsic glory when he prayed to the Father concerning “the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Such intrinsic glory far surpasses our understanding, but the Scriptures witness to it so that we will take God Himself as the starting point for our understanding of “glory.”
Second, God has glorified Himself outwardly in His works of creation and providence. The sun emits rays that speed across our solar system, traveling for eight minutes at the speed of light before reaching the earth, where they break over the horizon, warm the earth, penetrate the seas, bathe our skin, and make the multicolored world visible to our eyes—that is God displaying His glory, as well as His goodness, wisdom, and power (WCF 1.1). John Calvin calls the creation “the theater of God’s glory,” and indeed, Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world in terms of God’s creating a cosmic temple for His glory, with human beings, His unique image bearers, crowned with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5).
Third, God has glorified Himself outwardly in His work of redemption. This begins in the old covenant of promise, embodied in God’s choosing Israel and saying of them, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa. 49:3). In acts such as their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, singular reception of the law at Sinai, divine establishment in Canaan, precise and purposeful chastisement culminating in Babylonian exile, and providentially orchestrated return to rebuild Jerusalem, the old covenant people of God were a uniquely fashioned instrument through which God wielded His glory—revealing Himself as infinitely superior to the loftiest wisdom and powers of a Pharaoh, a Sennacherib, a Nebuchadnezzar, even a Solomon.
Yet for all this remarkable history, the old covenant was only a narrow glimpse of God’s glory, a sliver of light seen through a cracked door. But that door was opened wide when the Son of God came down from above. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory,” witnesses John (John 1:14). The infinite and personal divine attributes of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, grace, and truth were majestically concentrated in the singular person and work of Christ, who was “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3)—first in a veiled fashion during His state of humiliation (virgin conception to cross), then in an unveiled fashion in His state of exaltation (resurrection through His final return in glory). We find the emphasis on the “radiance” or “shining out” of the glory of God in His works of creation and redemption, manifested supremely in Christ, in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
How then do we, in response to the revelation of God’s glory in His works of creation and redemption, glorify God ourselves? This brings us to our fourth point: we glorify God in Christ. “I glorified you on earth,” Jesus prays with human lips to the Father (John 17:4). His whole life was a faithful and flawless fulfillment of what we have since called “the chief end of man.”
This means two great things for us. First, it means that when we conceive of a life that “glorifies God,” we must begin with the life of Jesus Christ Himself, in whose shadow and footsteps every other God-glorifying life—that of an Augustine, an Abraham Kuyper, an Elisabeth Elliot—has ever lived. Second, it means that we never attempt to live such a life apart from His power in us. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said (John 15:5). The Heidelberg Catechism captures this beautifully when it confesses, “Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholehearted willing and ready from now on to live for him” (Q&A 1, emphasis added).
That brings us to the fifth way God is glorified, which is not in parts, but in the whole of our lives. Just as God’s own glory is the fullness of His being, so must our response of glorifying Him be found not in limited actions but in the whole fabric of our lives. “We may think that God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort,” C.S. Lewis wrote. In other words, we glorify God by consecrating the whole of our lives—every hour, every relationship, every conversation, every possession, every endeavor, with faith and repentance, starting and stumbling and beginning ever anew—to Him. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31, emphasis added). This was Adam’s call as God’s image bearer, and it is our call as those being restored in God’s image through Christ.
Sixth, until Christ returns or calls us home, we glorify God by renouncing our boast. It’s been said that much spiritual growth is a matter of subtraction, and that is perhaps nowhere truer than here. As the One who glorified God par excellence, Jesus said, “I do not receive glory from people” (John 5:41). Through Jeremiah the Lord declared, “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me” (Jer. 9:23–24). This means identifying and surrendering our desire to draw praise, honor, and recognition from others or even from ourselves in the secret places of our hearts. The Scriptures teach that we will lose our boast one way or the other: either we will renounce it, or the Lord will strip it from us (Isa. 17:4; Dan. 4). Do we yearn—outwardly or secretly—for recognition from others for our minds, gifts, work ethic, accomplishments, sacrifices, looks, possessions, families, connections, or even good works? Let us learn now to pray the words of the hymn:
May his beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only him.2
The day is coming when the intrinsic glory of God will find its flawless reflection in all of His restored creation (cf. Hab. 2:14). Until that day, let us strive not only to say that “man’s chief end is to glory God, and to enjoy Him forever,” but also—as far as our finite minds can take us—to understand what those words mean. Let us meditate on God’s glory in prayer and worship (Ps. 63:2). Let us study God’s glory in the creation (Ps. 19:1). Let us search for God’s glory in the record of redemption in the Holy Scripture. Let us set our eyes on the Savior to see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And let us, in grateful and considered response, seek God’s glory after the pattern and power of Christ Himself, offering ourselves whole and entire to God through faith and lifelong repentance, vigilantly renouncing our boast.
In this way, we will not only know what these three words—“to glorify God”—mean, but we will also save them from becoming an empty catchphrase in Christian parlance and restore them to their rightful place as “man’s chief end.”