“The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.“
– Albert Einstein
The words of the famous theoretical physicist may strike the reader as a bit harsh. Still, there are parallels with the wisdom of Scripture. Those who cannot stand before God and Creation in awe, in reverence and in humble wonder, are in a very real sense, spiritually dead (language that we find Paul using in the New Testament).
Fear, reverence, wonder and awe are all interrelated and in Hebrew the word most often associated with awe comes from yare, which is actually closely linked with fear and reverence. Yare’ at its most primal root means to “stand in awe,” “to be afraid,” “to cause astonishment” or to “inspire reverence or godly fear.”
The Old Testament describes numerous instances in which someone is struck with a holy fear in the presence of God or one of God’s deeds. This holy fear instills something that is not purely terror or fear. At the same time, this experience is not simply joyous wonder or inspiration either. Instead, it is something in between. It is a mixture of trembling inadequacy, humility and shock. A reverence, a wonder and a sense of awe before the majesty and grandeur of something bigger than yourself. At its fundamental root, awe is this submission to that which is greater than oneself. An acknowledgement of the difference between the finite and the infinite. A holy humility.
In the Psalms, we encounter the concept of awe, perhaps more than anywhere else. Psalm 33:8, for example, states, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.” Psalm 2:11 describes worship of God as a reverence that rejoices and simultaneously trembles. Therefore, worship is, in part, a recognition that we are not God.
In the New Testament, awe and fear are again completely intertwined. In Acts 2:43, during the fellowship of believers, there comes a moment when signs and wonders suddenly manifest among the believers. “There was coming then coming upon every soul awe many and both wonders and signs through the apostles were taking place.” As with the Hebrew yare’, the Greek phobos brings the notions of fear and awe together. Phobos, also contains ideas such as reverence, respect, panic and feelings of inadequacy.
But this kind of fear or awe does not lead to withdrawal or retreat. Instead, it leads to a sort of willful and unwilful paralysis or inertia, wherein one is rendered immobile, fixed and transfixed before the divine.
Awe, like last month’s topic (joy), is both experienced and practiced. We are exposed to awe both willfully and unwilfully. The sight or proximity to something of wonder in life, in nature or in our hearts/minds, can activate such a feeling. Yet, our will is often involved in our ability to experience wonder too. It is something that strikes us in its spontaneity and yet we must also yield to this feeling, letting the full gamut of emotions play out in our being.
Proverbs 9:10 informs us that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Verses 10-12 in their entirety read as follows:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years of life will be added to you. If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, and if you scoff, you alone will bear it.”
What is meant by this passage? How can fear produce wisdom? How is fear the beginning of wisdom?
To start with, we find that the idea that fear is a conduit to or a catalyst for wisdom is repeated elsewhere in Scripture. In fact, the same exact words are used in Psalm 111 and Proverbs 1:7, among other places. In Proverbs 14, the fear of the Lord is described as a ‘fountain of life, which helps one avoid the snares of death.’
What we can see when contextualized, is that the fear of God is related to instruction and to understanding. When someone fears (which entails a healthy degree of respect) or remains in awe of something, there is an openness that rises up in one’s spirit and consciousness. This openness allows God to push through the cracks of our ego so that God may teach us something. Thus, the fear of the Lord is a bit like humility because it demonstrates that we are willing to acknowledge that we don’t know it all. It is an acceptance that God’s ways are not our own ways. In short, this fear is the necessary first step towards and into wisdom. Without this fear, this humility and this awe, we are not able to comprehend the value of God’s wisdom, because simply put, we don’t believe we need it.
In life, encounters with the mysterious and the unknown can bring about feelings of awe and wonder. These experiences can transfix us, should transfix us. Imagine yourself standing in a field as a mighty storm tears across the horizon. Suddenly a section of the cloud front begins to swirl, creating a vortex that forms a funnel cloud. Stunned by the development, you stand still, caught in total fixation at the sight before you; a tornado begins to emerge. If you can envision this scenario, you might agree that the concurrent feelings would be something like a blend of awe and fear.
In a practical sense, awe is the recognition (experientially and intellectually) of the grandeur, majesty and power of God. It is an assent to the fear of the Lord. This fear recognizes that we are finite and God is infinite. Fear and awe teach us to perceive and appreciate the mystery of God and His creation. Humans are often so fearful of the unknown and so we endlessly strive to account for it, to explain it and to comprehend it. This natural inclination is without fault. For we are inquisitive beings, who have been given a mind by God, who commands us to love Him with all our being. Sin, however, blinds us and builds up our ego. It replaces humility with certainty. The absence of awe or fear, gives way to the totalitarian instinct of man. All that is left is the imposition of will. This is the story of human history. When we lack a fear of God, we make ourselves the center of the universe. The results of this man-centered philosophy have wreaked havoc on people and nature. Humans are, of course, prone to the tendency to systematize and theorize the mysterious parts of life, whether through science or theology. But there will always be a need for humility and uncertainty.
In Isaiah, the prophet rehearses the words of the Lord stating:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts [and] neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways…” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV).
The moment we think we have it all figured out, is the precise moment that we start to believe that we no longer need God. The moment we reject the fear of the Lord, is the moment that we no longer need God’s judgment or God’s wisdom. This is why Proverbs reminds us to “Make your ear attentive to wisdom, [to] incline your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2). Awe is therefore fundamentally about humility, about reverence and about appreciation. It occurs when we allow ourselves to revel in the grandeur and splendor of God, His creation and His design for human prosperity as modeled in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Awe compels us into a recognition of the distance between our often-fallible knowledge and God’s infallible knowledge.
Some psychologists have proposed that awe/wonder can take on spiritual and religious functions for many individuals. Some have even made the case that awe is one of the fundamental roots of spirituality and religion. Studies have shown that those who ‘experience wonder and awe on a regular basis, experience higher levels of emotional wellbeing, mindfulness to nature, compassion for others and a sense of meaning in life.’ Awe then, has both pragmatic and spiritual benefits.
The question then remains for us. Is there still room for awe in our modern lives? When we experience wonder will we allow ourselves to be transfixed? Will we allow ourselves to appreciate the vast unknown that is God and will we humble ourselves before His omniscience? When graced by the presence and the touch of the Most High, will we follow in the steps of Moses, who barefooted removed his sandals out of respect for God? What do each of us need to stand in awe of in order to humble ourselves before God? Pride? Arrogance? Certainty? Surely the removal of such barriers will fill us with a holy awe. The kind of awe that both Scripture and Einstein speak of!