Flippancy and Reverence

We live in a horizontal society as opposed to a vertical one.  “That all men are created equal” from the United States’ Declaration of Independence has been ingrained is us so deeply that we think of egalitarianism as an absolute truth.  However, it is – as CS Lewis says – a necessary fiction created to prevent men from treating one another with cruelty.[1]

Our egalitarian mindset – rather than stimulating love for our equals – leads us to being critical, especially of those in authority.  Our lack of respect for leadership has warped our perception of God and how we relate to Him. Because we can’t respect those who are higher than us, we pull God down to something lower than what He is. When I listen to many pop-worship songs on the Contemporary Christian Music radio stations, I have mental images of God being a flower-wearing hippy who dances around with his children in meadows filled with butterflies.

But what does the Bible say about people who encountered God or some sort of heavenly being?  Their experiences varied depending on what degree God revealed Himself.  When Moses met Him on the mountain, he had to hide in a cleft of a rock so that he would not die from looking upon God (Ex. 33:19-23).  The Prophet Daniel, when experiencing a vision of an angel [2] was filled with horror, all his strength left him, and he collapsed like a dead man (Dan. 10:7-9); another prophet, Isaiah, cried out, Woe is me, I am destroyed! Because I am a man of unclean lips… For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isa. 6:5).  The disciples fell to the ground in fear, hiding their faces from hearing the Father’s voice (Matt. 17:6).  Our Lord Jesus said, I am He and the mob fell to the ground (Jn. 18:6).  Likewise, the Apostle John fell to the ground like a dead man when the Lord revealed His glory (Rev. 1:17).  Our God is described as a consuming fire in many places (Ex. 24:17, Deut. 4:24, Heb. 12:29) and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10).  This God doesn’t sound like a hippy who dances around in flowery meadows.

If we do not know God as a fearful and dread Being, we can never actually know Him as a loving Father because we are setting up a one-sided idol of what we want God to be.  God is multi-faceted.  He is the lover described in the Song of Songs and in the works of St. Symeon the New Theologian, and He is also the jealous God, who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him (Ex. 20:5).  He is the merciful one who desires that all may be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and He is the terrifying judge who will hold us accountable for every idle word (Matt 12:36) and sin (cf. 1 Peter 4:5, Romans 14:12).

Niagara Falls, a colorful sunset, and the majestic Sequoia redwoods in California all fill us with awe because they are greater than us. We stand in their presence, recognizing our lowliness before these great and powerful things, some of which could easily crush us. In a similar way, if we lack fear of God then it is impossible to worship Him with reverence and awe. Fear is not being scared of God but a reverent devotion that wells up within us when we recognize His majesty.

There is a solution to our lack of reverence.  Having practice with earthly things aids us in heavenly things.  Bishops and clergy teach us how to respect those who are “higher” than ourselves, sacred objects teach us to treat all matter with a degree of veneration, and holy days teach us the sacredness of time.  For most Americans, however, all those things have been stripped from our lives: there are no godly authorities, nothing is sacred, and there are no special days.  Because we have no living tradition of veneration in our culture, we denigrate God into something that appeals to our modern sensibilities. But a loving fear can be restored to our experience through the Orthodox Church.

The practices of Orthodoxy can aid us greatly in our spiritual lives if we fully embrace them without turning them into mere superstitions. Reverence, awe, beauty, veneration, intimacy: these are all words that describe the ethos of Orthodox worship, which is a living tradition of fearful love and fiery mercy.  May God guide us in truly knowing Him more deeply and worshiping Him with awe.

[1] See Lewis’ essays “Equality” and “Membership.”

[2] Some may argue this was the pre-incarnate Christ. While that may be a point worth arguing, by writing angel I am playing it safe by going with St. John Chrysostom’s interpretation in Homily III in the book On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 103-105.

Featured image comes from a 14th century manuscript.

3 thoughts on “Flippancy and Reverence

  1. Great article, Jeremiah. Much needed. Also reminded me of what I love about Orthodoxy.

    1. Indeed, Hal. Comparing my own background in Evangelical Christianity is what inspired me to write this article.

  2. Glory to God for all things.

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