I do it all of the time. Maybe you do it too. I misuse the word awesome. Someone tells me about some minor accomplishment and I respond, “That’s awesome.” An athlete makes an outstanding play on the field and I respond with, “Awesome!” In many ways, we have lost the true sense of awe. We use the word awesome for so many things that it has become meaningless. We are exposed to so many stimulating experiences that we fail to be moved anymore. We have lost the feeling of wonder that stops us in our tracks and overwhelms us.
The Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary defines awe as “a mixture of wonder and dread.” It goes on to expand that definition in this way. “A feeling of amazement and respect mixed with fear that is often coupled with a feeling of personal insignificance or powerlessness.” Most of the times we use the term awesome today don’t even come close to this definition.
Sadly, one of the places where we have lost a true sense of awe is in worship. Much of our worship is far more entertainment than standing in awe of God. We focus on pleasing the people in the seats; making it a comfortable experience. There is very little in the way of true awe and wonder. I confess that I am guilty at times of being more concerned about how people will respond to the service than if they truly encounter God.
After Communism collapsed in Ukraine, people began to flock back to the church. They didn’t come to be entertained or comfortable; they came to encounter God. In the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, there are no seats. When people come in for worship, they stand. No one even thinks about making the environment more comfortable for the congregation. The services are long, the worship space is cramped and crowded, and often it is hot and stuffy. Few people complain. They are not there to be comfortable. They are there to stand in awe of God.
I am not suggesting that we get rid of all the seats in our churches or make them as uncomfortable as possible. I am suggesting that we have put our emphasis in the wrong place. We have shifted our focus away from the awe of standing in God’s presence and placed it on our personal experience.
Throughout the Old Testament we see many examples of God’s people standing in awe of Him. One good example is when the people of Israel encounter God at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God led the people Mt. Sinai to receive the Law. In Exodus 19-20 we read about their encounter with God. It is an excellent example of genuine awe.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Exodus 19:16-17 (NIV)
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning." The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. Exodus 20:18-21 (NIV)
I am not sure what we would do today if God revealed Himself in a similar way in our church services. I’m sure that we would experience the fear of the Lord in all its fullness. Some people would run away. Some would faint dead away. If we stayed put, we would all fall on our faces before God. That is true awe.
We have lost our understanding of what it means to fear the Lord. The fear of the Lord does not mean to be afraid of God, in the same way that pagans are afraid. Their fear keeps God at a distance. They want to appease God so that He will leave them alone. For the true believer, there is no place for that kind of fear. In over 70 passages of scripture, we are given the command, “Do not be afraid.”
Genuine fear of the Lord is wrapped up in the word awe; wonder mixed with dread. We are to acknowledge God’s authority, power and majesty. We should never presume upon God or treat Him as our “best buddy.” We have no right to even come into His presence, but we are invited to come. When we encounter God we are struck by His overwhelming beauty, holiness, and splendor. We are breathless in His presence. We can bring nothing to the table. We have nothing to offer God, except our genuine gratitude, admiration and worship.
The Grand Canyon is a good example of genuine awe. It is both beautiful and dangerous. It is overwhelming and inviting. It is accessible and inaccessible at the same time. Few people take the Grand Canyon lightly. If they do, they do it at their own peril. Most people give the Canyon the respect it deserves.
On an infinitely highly plain, our worship of God should reflect that kind of awe and wonder. God is both beautiful and dangerous. He is approachable yet overwhelming. We can encounter Him, but we will never fully understand Him. We owe God our amazed wonder and our humble respect.