Recovering a Practice of Awe
At certain moments in my spiritual journey, Romans 1:24 has made me very anxious about my spiritual health and even about my salvation. What does it mean that “God gave them up”? What about “Once saved, Always saved,” or what we “good” Reformed kids learn as the ‘P’ in TULIP, “Perseverance of the Saints”? I know what it is to become so complacent that my “conscience” (or my ability to discern and obey the Holy Spirit’s leading) becomes weak and then silent. I have prayed many times–during moments of profound confession, conversion, and re-commitment–that God would not “give me up,” that His presence within me and His grace toward me and His plan for me would persist.
Romans 1:22-32 | “The Night: Its Operation”
Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Of all the places to find pastoral comfort and theological truth about Romans 1:24, I think I least expected it from Barth. But he writes:
The confusion [of Creator and creature] avenges itself and becomes its own punishment. The forgetting of the true God is already the breaking loose of His wrath against those who forget Him (i.18). The enterprise of setting up the ‘No-God’ is avenged by its success.
This seems to me to be a much gentler (though not less grave) interpretation of “God gave them up.” When I settle for a god who permits me to pursue my own course, and who sanctifies that course, then I have chosen “the ‘No-God'” and I am thus separated from God.
The dazzled eye is soon damaged…In the perversity of this relation to God there still, however, remains a relic of clarity of sight, a last, warning recollection of the secret of God that withstands the arrogance of religion. A reflection of this secret lies even in the deified forces of the world, even in the deified universe itself. From time to time this bare relic of the Unknown reasserts itself in the presentiment of awe. But even this can cease. The damaged eye may become blind…That is to say, they become no longer capable of serious awe and amazement. They become unable to reckon with anything except feelings and experiences and events.
Barth–so infamously opposed to any human ability to “know” God truly through personal, religious experience or through the witness of creation in “general revelation”–concedes that God can use our human capacity for awe and wonder to remind us that we are not masters or creators in our own right. I cannot stand in the place of God when I recognize His glorious handiwork in stunned, rapturous silence.
This is why it is so good for me to intentionally seek time and places that will remind me how finite, small, human I am: the vast horizon of Lake Michigan, or the Pacific Ocean; the wild (almost feral) flourishing of the Amazon Rainforest; the “Purple Mountain Majesty” of the Canadian Rockies. This is also why the God-glorifying, human-humbling language of the Psalms is so important for my own prayers: “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (Ps 96:4); “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1); “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8:4).
Here are a couple other great resources for practicing awe: