One of my favorite shows is Highway to Heaven. In the series, Michael Landon plays an angel named Jonathan Smith, who helps people. He is assisted by an ex-cop, Mark Gordon, who is played by Victor French. I got the first season on Amazon for five bucks! Michael Landon had issues, but he tried to make the world a better place.
There is an episode that always gets to me. It is called “A Child of God.” In the episode, there is a woman who is terminally ill, and she has a daughter. She wants to reconcile with her parents so that they can raise the child after her death. Her father is a pastor, who does not forgive her because she had the child out of wedlock. When he discovers at the end that she is dying, he reconciles with her. He gives a sermon at the end in which he says that we should judge less and love more.
What always gets to me is this one part of the sermon. The pastor says that an atheist who does good deeds will go to heaven. According to him, God is not interested in receiving recognition, but he wants us to do good to others. I reckon that this part of the sermon was Michael Landon’s religion: God wants us to do good, whatever we believe.
I’ve had a variety of reactions to the sermon, some hostile (“that’s liberal hogwash!”), some sympathetic. My problem is that it’s not exactly what the Bible teaches. According to the Scriptures, God desires recognition. I’m reading Ezekiel right now. How many times does God say “And they shall know that I am the LORD”? Many.
On the other hand, I like the idea of a humble deity, whose sole aim is to teach us to do good. As I said before, the biblical God appears on the surface to be rather proud. The great C.S. Lewis himself wrestled with this issue.
Ezekiel 22 strikes me as relevant to this issue in two ways. First, let’s look at vv 6-12. God is lambasting the princes of Israel for various sins: murder, dishonor of parents, violation of sabbaths, slander, lewdness on the mountains, sexual immorality, usury, and extortion. Then, after this long list, God adds what looks like an afterthought: “and you have forgotten me, says the Lord GOD.” You would expect that to be first on the list. Instead, it is the last item. And there isn’t much drama attached to it either. The other sins are described elaborately, like they’re part of a powerful jeremiad (or Ezekiel-iad) against human vice. After all this thunder, you have the diminutive “and you have forgotten me.”
Then, there’s v 16. Based on certain manuscripts (Gk Syr Vg), the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse: “And I shall be profaned through you in the sight of the nations; and you shall know that I am the LORD.” The Hebrew says that Israel will be profaned. Whichever is correct, there is a sense in which God allowed himself to be profaned in the sight of the nations in order to teach Israel a lesson. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, other nations probably said that the LORD was not a powerful god. After all, his people lost. To the nations, that meant that God could not protect them. Moreover, God allowed the temple, his palace on earth, to be destroyed. The Babylonians were not showing the God of Israel any respect when they burned down his earthly house. God tolerated their brazen irreverence.
God suffered this indignity because he wanted to teach his people holiness. Sure, he was still concerned about his reputation, for he says throughout Ezekiel that he will restore Israel in order to magnify his name among the nations. But his reputation was not his only concern. He wanted to make known his character, not only his power and position. His goal was to do that through Israel, who would be holy as he was holy and demonstrate the justice of God’s ways. Unfortunately, the Israelites only demonstrated oppression, selfishness, greed, and moral laxity. God saw a need to correct this.
God put his reputation second place at another point in human history, when he became Jesus Christ. At the incarnation, God made himself of no reputation (Philippians 2:7). At the crucifixion, he endured mockery, disrespect, and indignity.
So when God appears to vaunt himself in Scripture, he’s not doing so out of pride. He does so because he knows that a relationship with him is an indispensable part of goodness. And he is willing to endure indignity to bring that relationship into existence.