Awful Worship

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Awful [aw – fuh’l] – 1. solemnly impressive; exceedingly
great; inspiring awe. 2. full of awe; reverential.[1]

Awe is the act of worship in response to the mystery of God. It causes us to respond with, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces” (Isa 6:5). Moses understood awful worship when he was instructed to take off his sandals as he was on holy ground, causing him to hide his face because he was afraid to look at God (Exod 3:5-6).

God is transcendent, both unknown and unknowable. He is beyond, above, other than, and distinct from all. Isaiah prophesied, “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans” (Isa 55:8-9). Consequently, a faith such as ours rooted in the infinite cannot be contained in our finite understanding. The paradox, however, is that this transcendent, unknown, and unknowable God is constantly revealing himself to us and seeking our worship. The unknown seeks to be known and acknowledged. There is certainly something awful about that.

Our culture, however, has responded by demanding the reduction of God’s mystery to something we can explain. We have transformed our response to the awe, mystery, and transcendence of God into a scheduled event. When we take surprise out of worship, we are left with dry and dead religion; when we take away mystery, we are left with frozen or petrified dogma; when we script awe, we are left with an impotent deity; and when we abandon astonishment, we are left with meaningless piety.[2]

A.W. Tozer wrote, “We cover our deep ignorance with words, but we are ashamed to wonder, we are afraid to whisper ‘mystery.’”[3] But then Scripture again reminds us of his mystery, “God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths! Who has known the Lord’s mind? Or who has been his mentor? Or who has given him a gift and has been paid back by him? All things are from him and through him and for him. May the glory be to him forever. Amen” (Rom 11:33-36).

My doctoral thesis advisor wrote, “The teacups of our thinking and language have not yet approached the capacity of holding the ocean of divine truth.”[4]

So, mystery is not just our limited capacity to understand and explain the entirety of God’s story; it is also the incomprehensible awe and wonder at being included in that story. That can’t always be scripted. If the awe and wonder of God can be contained in and explained in our limited understanding and expressions of worship, then he is a god who does not deserve that worship.

Michael Yaconelli wrote, “The critical issues today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment.”[5] He continued by stating, “The greatest enemy of Christianity may be people who say they believe in Jesus but who are no longer astonished and amazed. Jesus Christ came to rescue us from listlessness as well as lostness; He came to save us from flat souls as well as corrupted souls.”[6]

Contemplating the depth of God must include the mystery of God creating, the mystery of God incarnate, the mystery of the cross and empty tomb, the mystery of God’s presence in the church, and the mystery of Christ’s return to claim lordship over creation.[7] If the gravity of that mystery doesn’t continually inspire us with awful wide-eyed wonder, then no songs we select ever will.

Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place
till we cast our crowns before Thee
lost in wonder, love and praise.[8]

 TEAM DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How is it evident in our sermons and songs that we aren’t comfortable with mystery?
  • How do we keep from scripting awe out of our worship?
  • When was the last time our congregation was lost in wonder, love, and praise?
  • What should we be doing differently to make sure our worship services are well planned while still leaving room to be surprised by God?

 

[1] “Awful,” Dictionary.com, accessed April 21, 2020, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/awful?s=t

[2] Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1998), 28.

[3] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: Harper Collins, 1961), 18.

[4] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12-21, The New American Commentary. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 104.

[5] Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder, 23.

[6] Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder, 24.

[7] Robert E. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 87.

[8] Charles Wesley, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling,” Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ (London, 1747).

The above post is an excerpt from my new book, Better Sundays Begin on Monday: 52 Exercises for Evaluating Weekly Worship, Copyright ©2020 by Abingdon Press. Print and E-Version copies are available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodreadsBooks A MillionCokesbury, and Christian Book.

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