My kids learned early in life not to use the word awesome around me. One of my pet peeves was their frequent description that everything was “awesome.” They might use the adjective to describe skateboards, cars, motorcycles, purses, actors / actresses, singers, bands, vacations…you get the idea.
English dictionaries describe awesome as causing or inducing awe, inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear. And most modern definitions will qualify the slang use of awesome the way most people use the term today.
My retort to my kids was always, “Only God is awesome.” (If you roll your eyes, you are in good company with them.) And if that weren’t bad enough, I was known to “correct” others when they would indiscriminately use the word with the same reply. Anyone who knew me could anticipate hearing it; even my kids’ friends knew it was coming.
Twenty-plus years later, I attended a wedding and a young adult re-introduced himself and reminded me, “When anyone says ‘awesome’ I always hear you in my head saying, ‘Only God is awesome.’” While I smiled outwardly, it pained me a bit that association has stuck so deeply. But perhaps it is not all bad?
Beyond my pet peeve, my objective was not to be some grammar or vocabulary cop (although I have been so accused); my hope was to instill a grandeur due to the Lord that’s been hijacked and turned into an overused adjective.
An Awe-Worthy God
We hear more about God’s love, God pursuing you, God inviting you, God cares about you messaging than the clear theological fact that we are desperate, wretched sinners in need of overwhelming help. Our position before a thrice Holy God is one of desperation and terror until and unless we are properly related to Jesus Christ. He is indeed awesome and we would do well to be mindful of His nature.
This does not mean God does not love us. But could the unintended consequences of calling anything and everything “awesome” somehow waterdown a unique word that may be best suited for the worship of our Holy God?
Certain passages stand out to give us some instruction and insight. Perhaps we might slow down when we read them.
In Exodus 19 Moses went up the mountain and spoke with God. A thick cloud enveloped the mountain. Israel was to consecrate themselves before the Lord who would come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. They were specifically cautioned not to go near the mountain, not even to touch it. “On the third day, when morning came, there was thunder and lightning, a thick cloud on the mountain, and a loud trumpet sound, so that all the people in the camp shuddered” (Ex. 19:16).
The account continues with the giving of the “Ten Commandments” (AKA the Decalogue) and after we read, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain surrounded by smoke. When the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. You speak to us, and we will listen,” they said to Moses, “but don’t let God speak to us, or we will die” (Ex. 20:18-19).
Don’t be too hard on the Israelites. They had come close to the Holy God who had delivered them from the slavery of Egypt … and when they caught the slightest glimpse, they backed away and were terrified. They pleaded with Moses, “We’re scared to death! You do the listening and tell us what God said!” (my paraphrase).
And we remember Jacob’s dream encounter with God’s angels and Yahweh standing beside him, telling him, “I am
Yahweh, the God of our father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Gen. 28:12). When Jacob wakes from his sleep he says,
“‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘What an awesome place this is! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:16-17). This defining moment in Jacob’s life results in his naming the place Bethel, the house of God. His dream-glimpse into heaven was indeed awesome.
David wrote, “Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth; sing praise to the Lord, to Him who rides in the ancient, highest heavens. Look, He thunders with His powerful voice! Ascribe power to God. His majesty is over Israel, His power among the clouds. God, You are awe-inspiring in Your sanctuaries. The God of Israel gives power and strength to His people. May God be praised!” (Ps. 68:32-35). The psalmist’s language is an excellent reminder of God’s power, grandeur, and awesome nature.
In a similar vein, throughout Scripture, most encounters with angels, including the Angel of the Lord, begin with the human character’s fear.
When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce he and Elizabeth would bear a son, he is “startled and overcome with fear” (Luke 1:12).
When an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, “they were terrified” (Luke 2:9).
When John saw the Lord on the island of Patmos, his vivid description ends with “when I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man” (Rev. 1:17).
Near the end of Revelation, with the presentation of God’s Savior Jesus Christ, the posture of worship will be to fall down and worship God (see Rev. 19:4).
A Right Understanding of “Awe”
Of course, God’s point is not to leave people stranded in a state of terror or fear. It is rather to realign them with Who this God is and how we as worshipers should respond. Reassuring words from a kind and loving God may bring these characters into an intimate realm. But if they do not respond by faith, they do well to be in fear. But do not miss the frequent response from a human when he or she is talking with an angel or the Angel of the Lord. They are terrified.
It makes me wonder if there is a good and holy fear or even dread? I suspect when you and I cross the threshold of this life to the next, we may well find ourselves face down at the feet of Jesus.
So could I suggest that the idea of “awesome” might be reconsidered as a holy, fearful, worshipful response to the person and work of Jesus Christ? Could I kindly suggest we reserve “awesome” for God alone?
Several years ago, on travel in Israel, I asked a jeweler to engrave a custom ring. When I showed him the text I said,
“I bet you’ve never put this on any jewelry.” He looked at me like, “I’ve seen everything.” But after reading my Hebrew scratching he looked at me, shook his head, and said, “No. Never.” The Hebrew is the last strophe of Isaiah 66:2, “Tremble at His word.” It reminds me that we have a holy and awesome God and He alone deserves our worship.
When was the last time you were truly awestruck about your Savior? He is, indeed, awesome.