Awe in Worship
By Stuart Briscoe
In a scene from the Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech the wife of the Duke of York (King George V’s second son) visits a speech therapist. To hide her identity she assumes the pseudonym “Mrs. Johnson.” The Duke, who is destined to become Britain’s war-time King George VI, suffers from a debilitating speech impediment and his wife is anxiously seeking help. Unaware of his visitor’s true identity the therapist casually extends his hand in welcome. The Duchess promptly withdraws her hand and takes a step backwards. He is taken aback! She is “royalty” and that means she expects commoners to approach her with diffidence and courtesy and to “keep their distance.”
There are two words used in the New Testament that literally mean “to approach cautiously” and “to take a step back.” They appear in Heb. 12:28-29, “Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”
Reverence (to approach cautiously) and awe (to take a step back) are dominant aspects of acceptable worship. I know that worship styles vary dramatically. My earliest days were spent in a Brethren assembly gathered around the Lord’s Table Sunday after Sunday spending time in “reverent silence” which to this young boy seemed like an eternity of nothing happening. Once I started preaching in Methodist chapels, worship certainly became a lot livelier as “hallelujahs” and “amens” regularly rent the air. Then I worshipped in the Church of England where services were conducted in sonorous tones by gentlemen clad in medieval vestments beneath soaring arches where a sense of the mysterious and wonderful was almost palpable. Nor will I forget times of worship with clandestine groups of believers meeting in secret in cellars or boisterous times with Congolese believers dancing in the aisles in a shack.
Talking to believers about these differences I have concluded that all of them can find a rationale for their worship styles in Scripture. The Psalms alone give plenty of encouragement to those who prefer, for instance, joyous celebration, quiet meditation, deep reflection, loud music, orderly ritual, lengthy intercession, heartfelt confession, or liturgical familiarity. But should “prefer,” however biblically authenticated be the operative word? Worship activities reflect personalities that in turn are a reflection of culture and environment. This brings me to the 21st century Western church and its evangelical expression of worship, which I know best. My experiences have led me to ask, “I wonder what happened to reverence and awe?” There is an intentional connection in my thinking between “wonder,” “reverence,” and “awe.” They are closely related. In fact in Scripture “fear” is also regularly found in the same context. The Old Testament is full of stories of people being confronted with God’s power, glory, character, and being overwhelmed. Adam wasn’t at all anxious to rush into God’s presence in the garden – he preferred hiding. Moses saw a burning bush and realized he was on holy ground. David caught a sense of majesty in the night sky and wondered why such a Creator bothers with men! In the New Testament we read repeatedly that Jesus’ actions, presence, and words resulted in “wonder.”
We might say, “But they saw all these things and if we had been there we would have the same sense of wonder, awe, and reverence.” But the writer to the Hebrews was not admonishing his readers to worship acceptably because they were eye witnesses. They were to worship reverently and in awe in light of what happened centuries before and would happen in the unknown future. So what happened? Here are a few observations.
The loss of mystery.
G.K. Chesterton got it right when he said, “This world will never starve through lack of wonders, only through lack of wonder.” Before they become sophisticated, children have no problems with wonder but when they discover a scientific rationale for everything the wonder disappears and skepticism becomes cool. We may have rationalized biblical truth to the point that we are so ignorant of it that we don’t even know that we should be wondering!
The neglect of the divine character.
In the movie, the Australian therapist would have behaved differently when meeting the Duchess had he known who she really was. Our writer in Hebrews talks about the Lord as a “consuming fire” who will eventually “shake” the created order so that only His kingdom will remain. Holiness, power, and righteousness predominate in this portrait. A healthy biblical view of these divine dimensions goes a long way toward creating a spirit of acceptable worship.
Over-familiarity with God.
Towards the end of the movie there is a touching scene where the King (formerly the Duke) says to his therapist, “Thank you, my friend,” to which the therapist replies quietly, “Thank you, your Majesty.” During therapy their relationship had been fraught with tension and conflict. But after the King, with the therapist’s help, had delivered his speech he called him friend. The therapist called him “Majesty.” We must get the balance right. We come to God in all His majesty not as equals, but as undeserving sinners whom God chooses to call His friends. He is God and we are not. He says “Friend;” we say “Majesty.” Over-familiarity with God robs Him of the reverence that is His due.
Churches can take on the same characteristics of businesses. Both are put under pressure to compete for and satisfy customers. I hope I am not being unkind when I say there is a tendency in the modern church to be so intent on attracting the uncommitted people and addressing their needs that worship can become man-centered rather than God-centered. Should this happen, men and women may arrive for worship not focused on God and approaching Him in reverence and awe; rather they come thinking of their needs and what they want God to do about them.
Related to the above perhaps a word about worship style might be appropriate. During the heady days of the Silicon Valley “dot.com” boom, college dropouts became billionaires seemingly overnight having a profound influence on culture. They showed up for work dressed in sneakers, jeans with holes in the knees and with shirts hanging out. Amazingly, 40-and-50-year old men followed suit and in no time “casual” became the buzz word. The church followed. I am well aware that God looks on the inside, not the outside, so dress may not be a big issue with Him, but dress reflects attitude and when “casual” is the dress of worship, “casual” easily becomes the attitude of worship. Then there’s a big “reverence and awe” problem.
So what should we do?
We need to present a full-orbed portrait of God so that, like Lionel, the therapist, if we don’t know who we’re approaching we may not approach God appropriately.
We should look realistically at the way we do things, noting what is a hindrance to acknowledging who God is and responding accordingly. But before revolutionary zeal overtakes us, let’s listen to some more wise words from G.K.Chesterton, “Never take down a fence without discovering why it was erected.”
We should bear in mind the words of author Dean Inge before we become so “contemporary” oriented that we head in directions that may prove counterproductive: “He who marries the spirit of the age will be widowed in the next.” Change is seductive; innovation is appealing. The one may be necessary, the other advantageous. But there is also the possibility that the upside may prove in the long run to be a downside – an innovation a short-lived novelty, a change but a change for the worse.
We must recognize the value of contemporary art forms, modern technology, and innovative communication techniques as aids to arresting attention, maintaining interest, and effectively communicating, while not ignoring the danger that they can become so absorbing that they become counterproductive. Instead of pointing people to the Lord they draw attention to themselves, leaving people in awe of a preacher, musician, or lighting technician.
Let’s avoid at all costs giving people the impression that God’s main objective is to make us comfortable and happy. His Son did not die and rise again with that in mind. He had redemption, re-creation, and an eternal kingdom in mind, and He calls men and women to join Him in the outworking of His purposes. We “commoners” have become His co-workers - more than that, we have been installed as His friends, His servants, and His adopted sons and daughters.
And this is truly awesome!