by Greg Spencer
An edited excerpt from his book “Awakening the Quieter Virtues”
At a worship service recently, when people in the congregation were told they were about to enter into the presence of deity, they audibly gasped. The glorious expressions on these worshippers’ faces revealed their deep longing for the supernatural, for something sacred and transcendent.
Then it happened.
The holy one descended—and the congregation erupted into screams of spontaneous joy. Yes, the object of adoration, the Handsomest Man Alive, walked in, said hello to the talk-show host and sat down. As women in the audience swooned, the actor signed a prop from a movie and gave it to a venerating soul trembling before him.
Such reverence! When I hear the word, I remember my days as a Boy Scout, when I pledged to be “brave, clean and reverent.” Sounds quaint, no? Yet good reverence is still with us. Worship music and worship ministers—more than in decades past—seem to call up a sense of awe and deference. At the same time, contemporary worship can feel like a show, too relentlessly upbeat to feel genuinely connected to the holy.
In general culture, when we aren’t revering celebrities and rock stars, we are going in the opposite direction, applauding stories of their disrespectful or morally shocking qualities. Movie critics say, “Go see this film. It’s sassy and irreverent.” We enjoy seeing the powerful knocked down. We also seem to be less and less awed by what we observe—or, at least, we don’t direct our sense of wonder to much of anything beyond the latest technological innovation. Ceremony is often ridiculed; traditions are diminished. Has our recognition of “the sacred” actually faded, or are we just searching for transcendence in different, more secular places?
What a Plant on Fire Has to Do with Going Barefoot
Moses understood something about reverence, but he needed help to get there. While tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, Moses encountered a freakishly burning bush. As he got closer, he heard, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Such an odd statement. What makes ground holy? And why didn’t Moses recognize the presence of holiness? Why is taking off one’s shoes (near fire!) the appropriate response? Is it that our shoes carry the dust of the world? Is it that we need to be more vulnerable, more fleshy, so we can feel what is underneath, the ground of God’s being?
Based on this passage featuring Moses, we might see reverence as “taking off our shoes in the presence of holiness.” That’s not a bad start. It speaks to the protective coverings we need to remove in order to expose our vulnerabilities: the sandals called accomplishments, the dress shoes of status or position. But perhaps this Moses orientation doesn’t tell us quite enough about reverence.
Reverence That Attends to Shoes and Knees
Whatever reverence looks like, it is not pious performance. It is not about seeking affirmation with pleading hands or sweet public prayers. Jesus is tough on public reverence: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:16). Reverence does not draw attention to itself by showing off or by being so stick-in-the-mud serious that others think we are being punished.
Lawrence H. Davis says that reverence is “a rational response to awareness of God’s exaltedness.” Paul Woodruff says it is “the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when they are the right feelings to have.” Whereas Davis emphasizes the importance of ways we think about the object of reverence, God, Woodruff highlights emotion and the experience of being reverent. To me, reverence combines all of the above. It is, in faith, kneeling before the sacred and standing up to the profane.
I live among people with calloused knees. Prayer warriors? No, surfers. They’ve knelt on their boards so often they’ve toughened up their knees. Some have gnarly knobs that look like volcanic malignant tumors, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. I’m impressed with surfers because kneeling hurts, yet they gladly endure the pain because of the glory they trust they’ll experience. And that’s really how they talk, as if riding a wave is spiritual. Like surfers, we need to know how to kneel and how to stand up.
Kneeling before the sacred. The reverent among us possess excellent vision. They have trained themselves to see God’s Spirit and his handiwork. They know the sacred when they see it, and the sacred is that in which God is found. With a finely tuned lens, there is much to see. Typically, we connect the sacred with holiness, righteousness, purity—and these are good associations— but we shouldn’t miss other aspects of the sacred: God’s love, light, meaning and goodness, the genius of human genomes, the beauty of an owl’s whispering flight, the privilege of practicing mercy.
Noticing the sacred is noticing all of God that we can see, especially his holiness. Sometimes the sacred is found because it is searched for. Sometimes it seems to crash upon us unannounced. Either way, reverence increases as we cultivate eyes and ears for the God who is there.
And what do we do when we see a burning bush? One way or another, we show our deference to Someone Greater. In four different stories in Matthew, people seek Jesus’ healing power by kneeling before him (8:2; 9:18; 15:25; 17:14). Both Jesus and Paul kneel in prayer (Luke 22:41; Acts 20:36). In Revelation, the New Testament book with perhaps the most references to worship, the angels, the elders and the four living creatures all fall down before the throne of God (Revelation 5:8; 7:11; 19:4).
Standing up to the profane. Such a nasty word, profane. It conjures up hateful little devils hissing curses or an arrogant Bible-banger blathering on about a blasphemous cartoon character. But if we care for the sacred, we care about what tears it down. Profane sounds ugly, as it should. The profane is that which intentionally dismisses, ridicules or destroys the sacred. When our loved ones are attacked or defiled, don’t we bristle and seek to defend them? Aren’t we saddened when they are misrepresented, ostracized or harmed? And so it is in our life with the Lover of our souls. Who cares about sacrilege these days? The reverent do.
Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, famously said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Though Pierce was referring to a compassionate response to hunger, I believe the application works well in relationship to the profane. Standing up to the profane means that we notice what breaks the heart of God and that we resist it. To put it another way, a nose for the profane sniffs out what smells to high heaven.
Of course, not everything that stinks to us is offensive to God. If the sacred is not violated in a way that grieves God, the situation is not profane. Who is more profane, an actress who claims to be “doing the Lord’s work” by portraying a seductress in her sin or a TV preacher who sells “holy fabric” so viewers can touch it and be healed? Is hunger in a wealthy country profane? What about flaunting a recent theft or allowing a defenseless person to be abused? And how we stand up to the profane matters. We should not put a tag on our chest that says, “God’s prophet for accusing others of ungodly acts.” The irony is just too obvious.
The Reverence Continuum
Back to surfers for a minute. All forms of good reverence, even trusting a wave, are expressions of faith, reverence’s parent virtue. Is God good? Will he carry us to the shore? How should we life-riders regard him? Reverence recognizes that the most appropriate response to the sacred is to kneel before it, and the most appropriate response to what destroys the sacred is to stand up to it. As I see it, reverence gets expressed in a kind of progression from fear to joy.
Fear -> Shame -> Awe -> Respect -> Gratitude -> Joy
It’s not hard to picture someone kneeling in a way that reflects each different aspect of the continuum, from a fearful criminal begging for mercy to a joyful daughter hearing that her mother’s tumor is benign. That’s one point I want to make: all six responses are appropriate in certain circumstances. Another way to think about the continuum is to see that the preferred movement is from left to right. In other words, though fear is at times the most fittingly reverent response to God, we should—on the whole—be expressing our reverence more and more in terms of gratitude and joy.
Reverence as fear. As I began graduate school, I was asked to take an exam to assess the strengths and weaknesses of my knowledge. When discussing one of my answers, a professor said disdainfully, “Greg, I thought your comments were interesting, and I’m being kind.” I was devastated. In that moment, I felt all my bones turn to mush, and I nearly slid off the chair into a puddle on the floor. Not surprisingly, for quite some time, I had a palpable fear of this professor.
When most of us think about fear in relationship to God, we usually consider the non-bone-melting qualities of awe or respect. Though I’ll get to these two areas a bit later, I’ll restrict the discussion here to genuine, afraid-of fear or I’m-falling-off-a-cliff-and-I’m-going-to-die fear. This is the fear we fear to discuss. We don’t really believe “being afraid” has any place in a Jesus-follower’s life because Jesus is a really nice guy and our buddy. We forget that, as Dan Allender and Tremper Longman put it, “exclusive emphasis on these truths about God robs us of the comfort of knowing that God is also . . . the Judge who determines who lives and who dies. . . . He is a being so far above us that we cannot even fathom him.”
I don’t know about you, but Jesus scares me with his warning about how he’ll separate the sheep and goats and send the goats, who did not attend to “the least” among us, to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46). He said this not long after he cursed a fig tree because it did not bear fruit—and the tree withered and died (21:18-19). Jesus may be the son of love, but he is also the one who told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). Would it be appropriate to stroll up to God and say, “Hey Big Guy, nice job on the giraffe”?
Reverence requires good fear when nothing else motivates us. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Sometimes the only thing that gets us started in the right direction is fear: the fear of getting caught or the fear of being embarrassed at poor performance. Fear may not be the end of wisdom, but it is often the beginning because it shows we recognize our impoverishment. If fear is the only thing that gets us to kneel, then being frightened by God’s power and holiness is meaningful, though being in this situation might reveal more about us than it does about God. Fear can be God’s alarm clock for those who aren’t sufficiently awake.
Good fear can also put bad fear in its place. If we worship the gods of acceptance, popularity and success, we will overly fear rejection, loneliness and failure. If we revere God more, we will fear these lesser gods less. Whom do we most fear to disappoint?
Reverence as shame. In the presence of holiness, Isaiah said, “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips” (6:5). The depth and passion of Isaiah’s conviction sounds like reverent shame to me, a recognition of unworthiness before God.
To Isaiah’s reference to lips, we could add Moses taking off his sandals and Joshua “[tearing] his clothes and [falling] facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord” (Joshua 7:6). There’s something physical in true reverence, something that involves our whole person, not just a mind saying certain things to itself or to God. More than other aspects of reverence, shame seems to move us bodily. We respond with our whole being—shaking, falling on our knees or crying—because we know who we are in contrast to a holiness that is so much higher and purer.
In many therapeutic circles, “good shame” is an oxymoron. Most counselors can’t bring themselves to bless any form of shame, because their offices are filled with folks who are tormented by it. And there is bad shame. Finger-wagging parents shame their children into good works. Some of us feel such self-contempt that we don’t believe we have anything to offer in a conversation. For those with eating disorders, candy bars and hamburgers prompt grossly exaggerated shame. When I call shame an appropriate manifestation of reverence, I am in no way blessing these misplaced accusations—and if you’d rather use the word guilt or conscience instead of shame, that’s fine with me.
But I believe there is reverent shame. If living every day in deep regret is destructive, might it also be harmful to never feel regret? Reverent shame—or guilt—says, “My Lord and God, I don’t deserve the grace you offer through Jesus. The gift of your love makes me want to live as well as I can.”
Shamelessness turns us into moral lepers. We lose our moral warning system. Because leprosy kills the nerves that tell lepers they are putting their hands on something hot or sharp, lepers get hurt. Without the good shame a strong conscience provides, we get hurt too. We become so accepting, so tolerant, that instead of stopping at envy, we go ahead and steal; instead of stopping at lust, we go ahead and flirt, meet for coffee and have an affair. Good shame reminds us to ask God for help so that we don’t wander from him.
Standing up to the profane sometimes begins with shame. Our conscience might lead us to resist deplorable advertising or a slanderous joke or a wrongheaded claim in a film. We might also feel ashamed of Christians who give Jesus a bad name. Some are self-righteous and too easily miffed—in part because their whole way of being seems to be “against”—against the political left or right, against cults or atheists, against evolution or the environmentally insensitive. Against, against, against. They criticize fanatical Muslim fundamentalists then lead jihads themselves. For shame.
Reverence as awe. Recently, when a waitress asked me what I would like to drink and I said, “Lemonade,” she responded with, “Awesome!” Even in our hyperbole-happy culture, this word struck me as ridiculously misplaced. Reverent awe, I think, is a sense of inspired wonder, of amazement at what is beyond us (God), or a blissful recognition of what is right in front of us (God’s actions). After Jesus healed a paralyzed man, Luke reports in his Gospel, “Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today’” (5:26). To be in awe is to feel the large goodness of God; it’s to get caught up in the gravity of a sacred moment. Lemonade is not awesome.
In addition to feeling awe at God’s works, we also praise him for his character: “Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11). One problem we have with praise-oriented Scriptures is that, as the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” We are so used to hearing God honored that it sounds like so much “blah, blah, blah” to us. Here’s one test: did you study the two Scriptures just mentioned, or did you skim them, thinking, “I already know all this”?
If you skimmed these texts (as I often do), read this next one carefully: “‘Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me,’ declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty” (Jeremiah 2:19). I’m not equating our breezy reading with wickedness that deserves punishment; I want to highlight the expectation that God has to be regarded with awe. We should be in awe. If we aren’t, the problem is not with God.
Part of what diminishes awe is mindless repetition—and technology has greatly increased our ability to repeat what we enjoy. We can pause live TV. We can even replay a song we love until we are sick of it. In the novel “Perelandra,” the main character, Ransom, travels to Venus and tastes a fruit so delicious he realizes that, back on Earth, wars would be fought for it. Though his hunger had been fully satisfied by it, he reaches for another one and nearly plucks it. Then he sees that such a “repetition would be a vulgarity— like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.” Though liturgy can be evocative, thoughtless repetition can desensitize us. Kneeling can become rote. Genuine awe resists meaningless routine.
Reverence as respect. When I was a boy, I was told to wipe my feet at the door on the way into the house. Today our kids and their friends take off their shoes and leave them in a pile at the entry. Because a carpet is valuable, its beauty should be respected. It’s not holy ground, but it sure gets defiled easily. Too bad we don’t always treat God as respectfully as we treat carpet.
Respect has something to do with recognizing high status—and doing our best to honor that person or object. What do we respect these days? Uncommon courage and sacrifice. Wealth and power, to be sure. But in many ways, respect has fallen on hard times. Casual Friday has become Casual Week, Casual Year and Casual Life. For all the good change toward approachability and comfort, we struggle to give proper deference to the sacred. We are nice to God. We offer thanks before meals and go to worship once a week. But, I ask myself, do I treat God better than I treat the person on the planet I most respect?
In Malachi 1:8, God shows what this might mean. About bringing sacrifices to the altar, he says, “When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?’ says the Lord Almighty.” Giving our best to the Creator of the universe makes good sense.
Yet reverent respect is not absolute. We need not feel compelled to respect incompetent leaders or discriminatory laws, as if injustice should be treated well. Sometimes respect for God will look like disrespect to others. It’s called standing up to the profane, speaking in a loving but clear prophetic voice. Reverent respect means rejecting false claims to authority. It means gently, firmly and redemptively standing up to those who are given too much power in our culture.
One deity in our time that deserves opposition is the god of youth. Worshippers accept as true that each year over the age of 24 creates more distance from holy perfection. Believers in this cult follow the Doctrine of Adolescent Standards. What the young deem important is important; what they choose to buy is worthy of expenditure; the body should, no matter what age, conform to the physical features of these years; and all that really matters is “being in love.” Perceptively, my daughter Emily asked in sixth grade, “Why are all the songs on the radio about romance? Isn’t there anything else to sing about?”
Resisting the cult of youth would include highlighting and protesting the marginalization of the elderly, the denigration of parental authority and the pervasive sense of entitlement in the young. We need to encourage women to stop genuflecting before the altars of holy thinness, the makeup counter and the fashion sections of magazines. It’s time to tell men in their twenties to stop worshiping boyish irresponsibility and to cease their devotion to self-centered leisure. Like the old Chinese practice of foot binding, these choices can harm the body. They can also delay emotional and spiritual maturation.
Reverence as gratitude. Years ago, my wife and I were shopping for a large car for our family of five. Although we wanted a gas-saving, status-enhancing, newer foreign car, we searched for a wide-bodied cruiser. We discovered that a man in our church wanted to replace his two-shades-of-beige Chevy. So we discussed a price and waited for him to settle the transaction. But week upon week, we didn’t hear back from him. Since we needed the car for an imminent cross-country trip, I decided to ask again: “I don’t mean to put any pressure on you to sell your car to us, but because of our trip, we need to know if we can buy your car or if we should keep looking.”
He said, “Oh, we have no intention of selling you our car.”
My heart sank.
He took a breath and said, “My wife and I are going to give it to you.”
During the years we drove that car, every mile felt like an unmerited gift—and we were transformed by the experience. Gratitude is part of reverence because something in us needs to acknowledge God’s generosity. Mercifully, “he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14), and he sent his Son as a sacrifice for us. How can we not revere this Lord with gratitude?
What would you do if you slipped on a roof and rolled down, screaming toward the edge, only to fall into someone’s arms? Well, I knew what to do. I looked up at my dad and said, “Thanks!” Then I called my relatives and my friends. I told anyone who would listen. Gratitude seeks expression. Many psalmists say something like, “Sing to the Lord with grateful praise” (147:7). Jonah 2:9 says, “But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. . . . ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’” And in Colossians we read that worship includes sing-ing with “gratitude in your hearts” (3:16). If I overflow with praise when saved from a roof, how much more so when I know I’ve been forgiven?
Reverence as joy. In “Telling the Truth,” Frederick Buechner discusses the gospel as tragedy, comedy and fairy tale. The tragic truth is plain enough: We all have “evil in the imagination” of our hearts, and we are all “at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob.” The gospel as fairy tale is Buechner’s way of talking about eternal life, the “happily ever after” of God’s design for our lives. But the “gospel as comedy” can cause some confusion. The comedy is that, despite our wrongdoing, we are “loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for.” Buechner says that this fact can be seen as a kind of splendid joke, a comedy that should lead to smiles and outright laughter.
When I teach from Buechner’s book, my students and I often stumble over the idea of the gospel as holy humor. We feel unsettled, disturbed. Since many punch lines have an element of ridicule, Buechner’s proposal seems, dare I say it, irreverent. However, after 20 years of thinking about this concept, I think I am beginning to get it—and “getting the joke” is an important step along the continuum of reverence.
The gospel is funny, in a that’s-so-ridiculous-I-can’t-help-but-laugh sort of way. Buechner imagines Abraham and Sarah receiving the news that she would conceive and bear a child—at age 90. In that pre-Viagra era, their laughter must have filled the tent. The whole idea of it is sincerely laughable—and seriously reverent. In fact, I’m ready to say that not to see the humor in it may be irreverent.
Our view is often too somber. We hear “reverence” and think of monks chanting around the cloister or Puritans sternly proclaiming a holy God. Why should we think otherwise? No one smiles in a “holy” painting. But a fuller view would also imagine monks smiling over a novice’s silly mistake and Puritans offering a toast at a harvest party. Sometimes, when I am grieving or depressed, I feel the beginnings of joy springing up. In my darkness, one impulse I have is to suppress the joy, reasoning that things are just too bleak for it. Joy seems inappropriate, as if it doesn’t grasp the magnitude of the pain. But if present circumstances are too dreary to permit joy, then joy has never been permissible, for surely every age before us has suffered as much or more than ours. I don’t begrudge others their joy; neither should I oppose it in myself. Years ago, I heard that the great Ugandan bishop Festo Kivengere said that one of the marks of followers of Jesus is that they laugh easily.
Reverence finds its end in joy. That’s where it most feels at home. Fear may be the beginning, but “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). In this life, we never lose all cause for good fear, but as our knowledge of and relationship with God mature, we will know the love of God and find ourselves expressing joy more and more often. How preposterous is this: The Son of God becomes an infant who giggles and needs his diapers changed. The Creator of fir, cedar and oak is the Father of an ordinary carpenter from a poor, obscure village, a man who dies on a wooden cross. This same God makes us the beneficiaries of his trust fund. We, the morally impoverished, are in line for an inheritance so rich, billionaires would be embarrassed. We’ve won the spiritual lottery! Ha, it’s all a joke, right? Yes, but a true one.
How can we possibly do justice to all of this outlandishness? With a joyful reverence. Psalm 5:11 says, “Let all who take refuge in [the Lord] be glad; let them ever sing for joy.” And Psalm 126:3 says, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” Should all this good news fill us with sorrow, dreariness and horror? Why not a beaming grin?
Luke reports in his Gospel that Jesus felt this kind of reverence:“Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure’” (10:21, italics mine). To be sure, Jesus was a Man of Sorrows, but he also was—and is—a Man of Mirth. He knows he can heal the brokenhearted,and one day he will return to set things right again. So, we smile and feel joy—and joy is usually expressed in praise. Joy expresses reverence because when we see that a holy God loves us, we know how laugh-out-loud merciful he is.
Taken from “Awakening the Quieter Virtues” by Gregory Spencer. Copyright(c) 2010 by Gregory H. Spencer. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.