I’ve said it before, and most likely, you’ve said it too.
- After a great time of singing: “Wow, worship was AWESOME!”
- Someone delivers a near faultless performance: “She was AWESOME!”
- A message that stirred your heart: “Oh, that message was SO AWESOME!”
- After a retreat or camp: “We had such an AWESOME time!”
- A child does well for his exam: “You are AWESOME!”
- Sampling the latest culinary fare: “That was AWESOME!”
- Seeing a breathtaking view: “Whoa, AWESOME!!!”
It seems that these days, anything good, beautiful, pleasant, satisfying, exciting, emotional qualifies to be AWESOME. As long as things are going well for you, and life appears to be good, we can boldly sing along with Emmet Brickowski of the LEGO Movie fame, “Everything is AWESOME!”
Yes, AWESOME is the new buzzword and the Church has had no problems Christianising it and claiming it as their own. After all, it does sound spiritual, so I suppose that makes it par for the course.
But is today’s AWESOME what AWESOME really is? Do we even understand what AWESOME means?
Of the 37 Old Testament verses* that AWESOME appears in, only 8 verses use words that may also mean ‘wonderful’, ‘powerful’ and ‘glorious’. But for the majority, in the other 29 verses, the original word used is ‘yare’, derived from ‘yirah’, meaning ‘fear’. In the New Testament, AWESOME appears only once, in Acts 2:20, where Peter quotes Joel 2:31 (addressed below). From these, we also note that AWESOME is always used to describe God, His word and His works; never man or the works of man.
In Psalm 33:8, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.”, fear and awe are mentioned together. In Psalm 119:161, “Princes persecute me without a cause, but my heart stands in awe of Your word.” can be literally translated as “my heart trembles in fear at Your word.” Persecution may have been unbearable but the psalmist would not compromise God’s word not only because it was beautiful and glorious (although it most certainly is), but for fear of the consequences of dishonouring God through disobedience.
When Jacob encountered God at Bethel, he declared, “How awesome (yare) is this place!” For sure, it wasn’t merely goosebumps Jacob experienced because of the angelic worship team and the latest LED widescreen; it was fear, for Genesis 28:17 clearly records that Jacob “was afraid (yare)”.**
This should not surprise us one bit for our God is an AWESOME God. Indeed, He is glorious, magnificent, wonderful and powerful, and most have no issue with that at all. However, may I suggest that we have not even begun to understand how very, very, very glorious, magnificent, wonderful and powerful He is, to a point of terror and fear!? We have all had our personal experiences of entering the presence of one of higher authority and greater power – principal, commanding officer, prime minister, president. To a certain degree, we experienced fear. How much more the God of heaven and earth?
In Psalm 111:9, the psalmist declares, “Holy and awesome (yare) is His Name!” The KJV translation reads, “Holy and reverend (yare) is His Name!” Keeping in context, the next verse proclaims, “The fear (yirah) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” God’s holiness and AWESOMENESS is not to be trifled with, but to be feared and revered. No wonder Isaiah fell flat on his face (Isaiah 6:5)! No wonder the Apostle John fell as dead when Jesus revealed Himself to him (Rev 1:17)!***
Real AWESOMENESS is when you haul in a miraculous catch of fish and are immediately convicted of your own sin! In Luke 5:8, Peter didn’t go, “Wow, cool! That was really AWESOME, Jesus! You, the Man!” Not at all! Instead, Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” – yes, Peter responded in fear! Which explains why Jesus had to comfort him with the words, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 5:10)
In Joel 2:31, the prophet Joel described the Day of the Lord as “great and awesome (yare)”. Just in case you think it will resemble something of the closing ceremony of the Olympics to take your breath away, note Joel’s earlier mention in Joel 2:11, “For the day of the Lord is great and very terrible (yare); Who can endure it?” In other words, AWESOME means ‘very terrible’ or ‘fearsome’.
How far we have departed from the true meaning of AWE and AWESOME. According to the Online Slang Dictionary, AWESOME means “very good, excellent, fun, or otherwise appealing”. Sadly, in Christian circles, that is also the definition we have accepted. Without realising it, we have conveniently taken this descriptor, meant only for God, and applied it to everyone and everything. What is even worse is that we have adopted this slang and applied it to God. With this narrow, shallow, cutesy understanding of AWESOME, we have turned a truly AWESOME God into a pop idol that is only fun, entertaining and appealing.
I don’t think this little article can do much to change the way we use our language. When I have a positive experience, the word AWESOME may still roll off my tongue automatically. Likewise, I won’t hold it against you for proclaiming AWESOMENESS on your favourite ice cream flavour.
But let’s make AWESOME AWESOME again in the way we view God and relate to Him. Let’s put the AWE back into AWESOME for He is a holy God to be revered, honoured and yes, feared! Because I know that God is good and that He loves me, I have absolutely no problems with the words ‘fear’ and ‘terror’. Redeemed by the blood of Jesus and clothed in His righteousness, the fear I have for the Lord does not involve torment at all (1 John 4:18), but love, obedience and submission to His will and ways. At the same time, I heed seriously the warning of Hebrews 10:31 where the writer exhorted believers to examine their lives and conduct, for “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
The next time we sing, “Our God is an AWESOME God!”, let us truly, rightly and fully ascribe the AWESOMENESS that is due to Him and Him alone!
* New King James Version.
** This was way before the law was given.
*** John was a New Testament believer under grace.
Related Post: Who Says Faith And Fear Cannot Co-Exist?