Return to Awe

INVIGORATE YOUR PRAYERS WITH A FOCUS ON GOD’S MAJESTY.

I was late. I had stopped to get a vanilla latte and was now rushing into the Bible conference. The gymnasium was packed, and I grabbed the last spot on the floor. To my right were three university students who had brought their own seats. Each reclined on a neon-colored beanbag.

“I’m going to ask God to show up this morning,” the speaker said as he invited us to join him in prayer.
I wish my coffee were a little warmer, I found myself thinking. One of the girls in the beanbags was already nodding off .   After the conference, I kept thinking about the speaker’s bold request for God to show up. Did He? If He did, why didn’t I notice?

At ease or in awe?
Moses once made a similar request, but with different results.
“Lord, would You allow me to see Your glory?” he pleaded (see Ex. 33:18).
God’s response is remarkable: “Yes, you may see My glory.”Glory
Then God placed Moses in a cleft in the rock, covered him with His hand, and allowed Moses to see His back. Moses could not see God’s face because, as one theologian explained, “the human family cannot look upon Yahweh and survive. The gap between the finite and the infinite is too great.” But Moses did get a limited glimpse of God. What differentiated Moses from me was his view of God. Moses viewed God as holy and majestic; I viewed God as a gentle, soothing presence. Moses trembled when he thought of God;
I thought of God and was comforted. Moses was awestruck; I was at ease.

Feeling completely at ease with God was not wrong so much as it was imbalanced. In constantly relating to Him as my heavenly father and friend, I had forgotten that He is also, as the book of Hebrews states, “a consuming fire” (12:29). During my 30-year relationship with God I had slowly stripped Him of attributes that made me feel uncomfortable—holiness, sovereignty, omniscience— and fixated on the ones I took comfort in—kindness, trustworthiness, love, and patience. God had become reliable and reassuring.

Yet I knew that maintaining a sense of awe toward God was crucial. In 20 years of ministry, I’d both seen and experienced several repercussions of holding a diluted view of Him. For instance, lack of awe produces anxiety. Self-help books teach that success depends on the way I dress, the vocabulary I use, and the connections I make. In my efforts to make life work, I become like Martha, doing 10 things at once instead of resting at the Master’s feet. Lack of awe also results in powerless evangelism. Today, people seem so closed to Christianity. Without a high view of God, sharing the gospel feels hopeless.

Faithlessness is another symptom of an awe-deprived life. When I forget God’s greatness, I shrink life into goals I can manage. I pursue reasonable aspirations that require little risk. Accordingly, my prayers become calculated and timid. I’ve also noticed that when awe of God is absent from my life, sin more easily enters. I may begin to transgress His laws without hesitation. Or I become comfortable in my sin and, consciously or unconsciously, delete confession from my prayers.

The way back to wonder
Concerned that my concept of God had become unbalanced, I set out this past year to reclaim a majestic view of Him. I decided to focus on the aspect of my relationship with God that was the least awe-inspiring: my prayer life. Most of my praying happened during my 20-minute commute—while I was changing lanes, checking my rearview mirror, answering my cell phone, or becoming irritated at the person ahead of me. My intentions were good; my prayers were distracted and weak. Even when I set time aside in the morning to pray—sitting in my favorite chair with a cup of coff ee—I often felt that I was just talking to myself. I fought off sleepiness by off ering random requests, speaking to God as though I were conversing with another person.

Proceed with caution.  The first thing I did to restore a sense of awe in my prayer life was to remind myself what prayer is—communication with God. “That,” Eugene Peterson explains, “is why so many of the old masters counsel caution: Be slow to pray. This is not an enterprise to be entered into lightly.” And yet I entered into prayer lightly on a regular basis. I would start my car, take a sip of coffee from a travel mug, and begin praying.  The was no pause, just a rush to engage God in communication. The same week I was thinking about my propensity to dash into God’s presence, I had lunch with a well-known Christian author and philosopher. On the day of the lunch I arrived at his office five minutes early. I stood outside his door feeling slightly apprehensive. How should I address him? What questions did I most want to ask? How much could I joke with a man of his reputation? I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

I was cautious to enter the presence of this well-respected man, yet where was my hesitation with God? Why no deep breath before entering His presence? I wondered. The most important thing about prayer, suggests Martyn Lloyd-Jones, is what you do before you pray. He advocates that we precede prayer with a time of introspection: “We should say to ourselves: ‘I am now entering into the audience chamber of that God, the almighty, the absolute, the eternal and great God with all His power and His might and majesty, that God who is a consuming fire.’”

We might also warm up for prayer by reading a psalm, such as Ps. 111:2-3 (NAS): Great are the works of the LORD; they are studied by all who delight in them. Splendid and majestic is His work, and His righteousness endures forever.  God, in complete righteousness, has created every majestic and splendid thing I can imagine. When I remind myself of this, I approach Him with greater awe.

A good place to start. As I thought more about my conversations with God, I realized that almost all my prayers focused on things that aff ected me—my family, my work, my hopes, and my aspirations. For example, six months ago my wife, three young sons, and I moved from North Carolina to southern California. The coast-to-coast move wreaked havoc in our lives, and my prayers during that time refl ected my state of mind:

Dear Father,
Thank You that You love me and are watching out for my family. Help Michael, Jason, and Jeremy make friends in their new school. Help Noreen find a Bible study that is as special to her as the one back home. Help me settle into my new ministry. And the cost of living is so expensive here . . .

Such prayers lacked a sense of the majesty of God. Between the “Dear Father” and the perfunctory “in Jesus’ name” was a litany of requests focusing on me and mine. How could I restore the awe?
“If we insist on being self-taught in prayer,” suggests Eugene Peterson, “our prayers, however eloquent, will be meager.”

I needed to be tutored by someone who had a clear picture of God’s majesty. My search brought me to John Baillie. Baillie was an accomplished teacher and preacher who mentored believers in the discipline of prayer. Since 1950 more than a million copies of his book A Diary of Private Prayer have been sold around the world. I was immediately impressed by the weightiness of his prayers. Here’s a sample: Here am I, O God, of little power and of mean estate, yet lifting up heart and voice to Thee before whom all created things are as dust and a vapor. Thou art hidden behind the curtain of sense, incomprehensible in Thy greatness, mysterious in Thine almighty power; yet here I speak with Thee familiarly as a child to a parent.

O God above me, God who dwellest in light unapproachable, teach me, I beseech Thee, that even my highest thoughts of Thee are but dim and distant shadows of Thy transcendent glory. Almighty God, who of Thine infinite wisdom has ordained that I should live my life within these narrow bounds of time and circumstance, let me now go forth into the world with a brave and trustful heart. Initially these prayers made me feel as if I were reading Shakespeare for the firsttime. The words seemed odd and forced. Yet in Baillie’s petitions I found an acute awareness of the majesty of God. Baillie was overwhelmed by God. Each of his prayers begins with the awesomeness of God, not Baillie’s personal requests. Baillie’s prayers gave me a starting point for my own. While I didn’t try to make my prayers sound like his, I did try to begin by lingering on God’s awe-inspiring attributes— wisdom, holiness, love, grace, sovereignty, omnipresence, and so on. I wanted to reach a point in my prayer where I—like the psalmist—simply said to God: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Ps. 139:6, NAS).

Standing at attention. Watching the final scenes of To Kill a Mockingbird inspired another way to recapture awe in my prayer life. In the film, Atticus Finch, a Depression era attorney in the South, defends a black man accused of rape. To no one’s surprise, an all-white jury convicts. As a dejected Finch leaves the courthouse, a group of African Americans stand silently in reverence for his courage and dignity.
Does God deserve any less? I wondered. I decided that when praying privately I would stand to express my awe toward a righteous and courageous God. I also began raising my arms as I addressed God—a response to Paul’s instruction to “lift up holy hands in prayer” (1 Tim. 2:8).

Does God hear me better when I stand with my arms raised?
No. But I become more attentive to what I am doing. In the communication courses I teach, I tell students that the goal of a good communicator is mindfulness. Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment. Standing with my arms raised helps me remember that I’m communicating with a God who deserves my attention and respect.
No distractions. As I pursued the majesty of God, I realized that I needed to devote time specifi cally to prayer. Praying in my car or on an exercise bike is not wrong.
Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1  ess. 5:17, NAS). However, if I only pray while I’m doing other things, then my prayer life is unbalanced.
It’s great that my wife and I can have quick conversations during a hectic day. But if that’s all we do, it becomes a problem. We must cultivate times when the television is off , the kids are in bed, and we can have uninterrupted fellowship.
The same is true with my communication with God.  ere are times when I need to close out the world and give the majestic King my full attention and adoration.

His excellency, our Abba
While my quest to restore awe to my walk with God continues, I have already noticed some changes. First, on some days I’ve felt the Holy Spirit convict me not to pray for myself or my family. “Rest in the awesomeness of God today,” He seems to say. On these days I do not ask God for anything. Putting aside my concerns to “be still, and know that [He is] God” (Ps. 46:10) can be difficult. Yet after spending the bulk of my prayer time praising an almighty God of infinite wisdom, it seems reasonable to trust Him rather than to worry.
Second, I’ve discovered that my faith in God is proportional to my view of Him. As I develop a deeper awe for God, I more regularly anticipate—and experience—the kind of supernatural power Paul described to the Ephesians: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20, NKJV).
For example, on the first night of a marriage conference at which I was speaking, I stood at the elevators with a couple. It was obvious they weren’t doing well.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Not too good,” the man said. His wife stood to the side, waiting for the elevator doors to open, tears running down her cheeks.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” he said.  There was an awkward silence. Their situation seemed hopeless. Yet Scripture says that in the hands of an almighty God, human hearts are like channels of water. In His power He can turn them as He wishes (Prov. 21:1). That night in my hotel room I prayed a bold prayer: I asked God to save that couple’s marriage during the weekend.  Sunday morning as I walked to the podium to speak, I saw a couple hugging each other and laughing. It was the couple I had spoken with at the elevators.
“God is getting hold of our hearts,” the wife told me after the conference. Without a high view of God, I would not have believed such transformation were possible.

Finally, as I pursue the majesty of God, I’m learning how to approach Him with both awe and intimacy. My friend’s close relationship with the United States ambassador to a small island nation provides a picture of this balance. In addition to two drivers, a butler, three housekeepers, 24-hour security personnel, and a personal chef, the ambassador’s staff includes a protocol officer. This officer explains to people how to relate to the ambassador: They should refer to her as “Her Excellency” or “Madam Ambassador,” and they should limit physical contact to a handshake unless she initiates an embrace.

My friend can’t help but chuckle when he hears these instructions—because “Her Excellency” is his mom. While he stands in awe of his mom’s accomplishments and title, he is also amazed by his special relationship to her.
For believers, Jesus is our protocol officer. He shows us how we should relate to God. In the first six lines of His model prayer, Jesus tells us that God is a king who resides in heaven with all authority and power. Yet He is, and will always be, “our Father.” As His children, we must never lose our sense of awe at our special relationship to “His Excellency”—our Abba.

about the author
TIM MUEHLHOFF serves with Grad Resources, helping prepare graduate students to thrive in higher education. He also teaches communication courses at Biola University. In addition to being a passionate fan of Detroit Red Wing hockey, Tim enjoys playing baseball with his three boys.

Copyright © Discipleship Journal. Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © Sept/Oct. 2006, Issue 155, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com

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