What was God doing before he created the world? Some guess that God was lonely and needed to fill that empty hole in his heart so he created the world. Now that the world is here, God is not so lonely anymore. Because of us, he feels fulfilled and whole.
This answer is not uncommon. It can be heard in many churches today by well-meaning Christians. Please brace yourself, because I have something shocking to say: God does not need you. He doesn’t need you, he doesn’t need me, and he doesn’t need anyone or anything in this world. In fact, he doesn’t need the world at all. Period.
God is not a needy God. It’s not as if he was bored, twiddling his thumbs, desperately lonely prior to creating the world. God is not dependent on the world for his existence, nor is he dependent on the world for his happiness and self-fulfillment. Instead, he possesses life in and of himself. More precisely, he is the fullness of life in and of himself.
Life in and of Himself
What we are describing is the attribute of aseity—a se being Latin, meaning “from himself.” As I argue in None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, to affirm God's aseity is to say, first and foremost, that he is life in and of himself, and on that basis, he must be self-existent and self-sufficient. It is because God is life in and of himself that there can be no sense in which he is caused by another.
There is, most fundamentally, a difference in nature between the Creator and the creature, the former having life in and of himself, the latter deriving life from the one who is life. We are born into this world totally dependent, finite in every way. Our existence is derived from our mother and father. If we are to continue living, the God of the universe must sustain us. We are dependent on not only our earthly father but our heavenly Father too. Our nature, our very existence, is contingent in every way.
Not so with God. His nature is not at all like our nature. He is incapable of being measured by the same standards of our human existence. Unlike everything in this world, his existence is not grounded in, derived from, or contingent on something or someone else. No one brought him into being, nor is he dependent on something or someone else to continue being. He is underived from and unconditioned by that which is finite, contingent, limited, and changeable. That much is evident in how he created the world. He did not depend upon some preexisting matter to create the universe, but he created ex nihilo, out of nothing.
Furthermore, only one who has no beginning or cause to his own existence can bring the world into existence out of nothing. His existence is grounded in himself alone. That means not that he created himself or caused himself to be but that he alone, as Anselm says, “has of himself all that he has, while other things have nothing of themselves. And other things, having nothing of themselves, have their only reality from him.”
That phrase “has of himself all that he has” handsomely summarizes aseity. The same cannot be said of objects in the created order. Placed next to God, observes Augustine, “they are deficient in beauty and goodness and being.” But there is no such deficiency in God’s being. Aseity defines God as a perfect being.
The Gospel Depends on a God Who Does Not Depend on You
In Isaiah 40 and 44 we learn that God is not like the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. These gods are fashioned by humans (40:19–20). Using satire, Isaiah explains that the wood humans use to keep warm and cook their food by the fire is the same wood they use to form a god so that they can bow down to it in worship, praying, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (44:17). Notice how irrational such people are: they think their god can save, but this god is something made by human hands (and out of everyday stuff). This god cannot save. Fittingly, God mocks these man-made gods, as well as those who worship them. This is not a god who saves but a god you must save.
In contrast, Paul describes the Lord in Acts 17 not as a creature but as the Creator. Paul is emphatic:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24–25; cf. Gen. 14:19-20; Pss. 24:1-2; 50:9-12)
Biblical worship is due to God not because he needs us but because we need him. When we lift up our voices, God receives our worship, yet we should never think that in doing so we somehow give to God what he otherwise would lack as if he needed us to make him complete. Consider the words of the twenty-four elders who fall down before the throne of God, worshiping him, casting their crowns before him, saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11)
If God were not life in and of himself, if he were not independent of us, then he would not be worthy, qualified, or able to save us, let alone worthy to receive worship and praise. If God were not life in and of himself, then he would be weak and pathetic, for he would be needy and dependent too. He would need saving, just as we do. He would be a God like us but not a God other than us. He would be a God in our world but not a God distinct from our world. “We might pray for this God, but definitely not to him.”
To conclude, it is precisely because God is free from creation that he is able to save lost sinners like you and me (Eph. 1:7–8). If God were a needy God, he would need our help just as much as we need his. What good news it is, then, that the gospel depends on a God who does not depend on us.
This post includes reflections based upon Dr. Matthew Barrett's newly released book, None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, available now at Amazon or wherever books are sold.