Friday, October 23, 2015

The Object of Awe

One of my favorite works of C. S. Lewis is his autobiographical “Surprised by Joy” in which he describes how in great stories and poems and works of literature and sometimes in life itself he would experience a sort of enthralled delight and wonder that was not like pleasure or happiness, but rather something far deeper and grander and wholly different. He called it “joy.” In my own life, I called it “awe”, but I am very acquainted with what he means and his story resonated deeply with me. His life became, in part, a chase after this sensation, until finally in time he came to realize that one cannot find it by looking for it itself. It is necessarily a response to something else. This “Joy” was found only in its proper object. One might glimpse it in certain beautiful and splendid things, but even these merely pointed the way. Sadness was meant for tragedy and pain, happiness for times of favor, victory, and celebration of good fortune, affection for the company of a companion, and this joy or awe were meant for something to. It is conjured by a proper object and circumstance. About this, I once wrote these words:

“Why do we seek to stand amazed at vast things? What draws us to gaze in wonder from the shore of the ocean? Or to gasp as we look over the precipice of a canyon? Or to lie on our backs in the middle of the high desert on a clear night and stare at the countless stars as they can only be seen from that vantage? I like to think it’s because, deep down inside, we yearn to remember how small we are. We need to be diminished, and if only for one shocking instant, to stand fixated on something unimaginably vast and incredible; To be in total awe at something bigger and grander than ourselves. I think these experiences touch that nerve. They spark something in us, even if they can’t fan it full into lasting flame. They blow a brief glow into the failing embers of our souls and remind us, vaguely perhaps, of a forgotten essence of what it really is to be alive, to be human. But it doesn’t last. It can’t. I have a thought on that, too. I think it’s because these things are mere guideposts. They’re signs pointing us to the one and only true and natural object of our enduring reverence. We were made to worship.”

This joy, this awe, this wonder, this attraction to humbling grandeur, C.S. Lewis came to realize (as I also did) that this was longing inherent in man because man was meant for fellowship with God. Only in the incomparable, unspeakable majesty of the creator can we find the fulfillment of our deepest longings and our proper place in the world, and the great and beautiful and magnificent things in this life point us to that, if we do not get distracted by them and foolishly make them our idols. Paul pointed out to the Romans, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20) and preached to those in Lystra “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways;  and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:15-17) 

David also famously proclaimed, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; Their voice is not heard.  Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (Psalm 19:1-6) 

Everything good and beautiful and wonderful and amazing in life praises and points us to its maker, and we find true wonder when we are drawn to marvel and praise at Him ourselves! Christian worship has long recognized this, as can be seen in our own hymns:

“Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.”
“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, all they works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea”
“Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along, O praise Him! Alleluia! Thou rising moon, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of evening, find a voice! O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia!”
“Summer and winter and spring time and harvest, sun, moon, and stars in their courses above, join with a nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love”
“When through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze, then sings my soul, my savior God to thee, how great thou art!”

The Christian song writers I heard growing up seemed to find cause to echo this sentiment. Rich Mullins writes, “And the wrens have returned and they're nesting, in the hollow of that oak where his heart once had been. And he lifts up his arms in a blessing for being born again. And the streams are all swollen with winter, winter
unfrozen and free to run away now. And I'm amazed when I remember who it was that built this house, and with the rocks I cry out! Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands, suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land. Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made blue for the sky and the color green that fills these fields with praise.” I remember as young teen hearing my brother’s Geoff Moore album sing, “Every mountain, every valley, your creation it surrounds me, every breath I breathe, every heart beat, every sunrise that you give to me. These and so much more, tell a story we cannot ignore. Even our own lives testify.” Reese Roper penned, “The spring in Appalachia, with flowers swaying above the fields of green. It was beautiful. Driving in New England, the road littered with bright October leaves. It was beautiful.
Close to home in an ordinary room we felt You there. It's my favorite memory. You're so beautiful to me.”

The breathtaking expanse of nature, in the inexplicable and uniquely human awe that it touches as we observe it is meant to, and ought to, drive is the praise and to bow before the greater wonder and majesty of the One whose power brought it all into existence literally from nothing, and who breathed life into us in such a way that we have to capacity to delight in it. God is awesome! May we ever see how great He is, and how small and frail we are, and bow before Him in true and humble worship! We were made for this, and there is true joy nowhere else.

Luke Wayne is a bi-vocational Baptist missionary in Utah and the chief editor for Perilous Trails. He holds an MDiv from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and an MA in Theological Studies from Midwestern Baptist College. He has served as a church planter in Olathe, KS and a Homeless Shelter Manager in Kansas City, MO. He is also a husband, father, fisher, hiker, security officer, and raiser of livestock. 

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