Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the deeds of the Lord!
They are studied by all who delight in them.
His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures forever.
He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
He gives food to those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works
in giving them the lands of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;
all his commandments are sure.
They stand fast forever and ever,
because they are done in truth and equity.
He sent redemption to his people; he commanded his covenant forever;
holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act
accordingly have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.
– Psalm 111
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10) To paraphrase, standing in awe of God puts us in a position where we can begin to see and understand things in their proper perspective. To stand in awe of God – this is what the Bible means by the fear of the Lord. It’s not about being afraid of God. When we are afraid of something, we want to get away from it; we don’t want to have anything to do with it. But when we stand in awe of something we are drawn to it; we long to experience it more fully.
“Great are the deeds of the Lord! They are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor.” (Psalm 111:2-3) Modern science shows that the universe is truly full of majesty and splendor in ways that no one could have imagined 100 or even 50 years ago. Perhaps the greatest misconception about science is that it removes the sense of mystery and wonder from the world. In reality, the opposite is true. Science reveals more and more the depth of wonder and mystery which permeate all creation. This is because scientists have discovered that what they encounter in the world are not just problems to be solved, or riddles to be puzzled out, but true mystery and wonder.
It’s important to understand what mystery is, in contrast to a problem or riddle. A riddle can seem quite baffling, until you figure it out or are given the solution. Once you understand a riddle, or have solved a problem, everything is clear. There is nothing left that is mysterious or baffling. But with mystery, the more you study it and understand, the more you realize that it opens up into more and more that you don’t yet understand. Mystery in this sense is truth that is bigger than us.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is John 16:12-13. Jesus is with his disciples, the last night before his arrest and execution. He tells them, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can bear now. But when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” I love that image of being guided into truth. We need to let that image speak to us, because, I believe, too often we are tempted to think of truth as being smaller than us, something we can tie up into neat little packages which we then arrange upon the shelf. But this image of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, guiding us into all truth speaks of truth as being so much greater than us that we need a guide. Think of the Rocky Mountains, stretching for hundreds of thousands of square miles. You could spend a lifetime exploring them with a helicopter, four-wheel drive, pack mule, whatever. And after a lifetime of exploring, you would still have only scratched the surface. We are not bigger than truth. We are not the masters of truth. Rather, we have been granted the privilege, the joy of exploring the truth and growing in it. It is the joy of exploring mystery, truth bigger than us, which is the essence of science.
Erwin Chargaff, a biologist, writes “it is the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, drives the true scientist. If (a scientist) has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with an immense, invisible face, whose breath moves him to tears, he is not a scientist.” (Michael Reagan, The Hand of God, p. 89) Perhaps Albert Einstein, generally regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century, said it best, in a statement entitled “My Credo”: “The most beautiful and deepest experience a (person) can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and in science. . . He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is. I don’t know if Einstein realized he was using the same metaphor Paul used in I Corinthians 13:12, “now we see in a glass darkly”, or now we see only dim, blurred reflections. Paul adds the promise that God will bring the day when we will see face to face and know fully, even as we are fully known by God.
Science reveals a world filled with wonder and mystery. Many scientists see their work as driven by a deep sense of wonder and find that their work inspires in them an even deeper sense of wonder. Yet as a pastor, one of my great concerns is that so many Christians nowadays seem to lack a lively sense of awe and wonder in their faith and life. “Been there, done that” seems to better express their feelings. Too often we become comfortable with our image and understanding of God, forgetting that God is always so much greater than our image or understanding. The results of this lack of awe are devastating. Without a sense of awe towards that which is greater than ourselves drawing us out of ourselves, our vision seldom goes much further than our own interests, experiences and struggles. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who writes more powerfully and insightfully on awe than anyone else I have found, said, “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of being is the root of sin.” (God in Search of Man, p. 43) I have come to believe that awe is a vital dimension of faith and life. Faith calls us to encounter the living God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Mysterium tremendum et facinans. Without a sense of awe and wonder, without recognition of the depth of mystery which pervades creation and our lives, without “the fear of the Lord”, faith loses depth and vitality; it is at risk of becoming a one-dimensional caricature of itself.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Standing in awe of God puts us in a position where we can begin to see and understand things in their proper perspective. A prayer from the Jewish Prayerbook, Gates of Prayer, expresses powerfully and profoundly our need to be open to awe:
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it! Blessed is the Eternal One, the Holy God! (p. 170)