Last Saturday night I preached a message on missions at a father and son banquet at a nearby church. When I finished and sat down, a familiar dread settled in upon my heart and soul. It is extremely difficult to describe this dread, but I feel it important to attempt to do just this and record this sense of fearful awe for further meditation and study.
This dread is not something that is unhealthy or wrong. It is a dread grounded in the eternal majesty of God. And it is a dread that recognizes exactly what I am (and am not) in the face of such fiery Perfection and raw Power. It is a recognition of powerlessness in the face of Omnipotence. It is a Spirit-prompted acknowledgement of finiteness in the presence of an awful Infiniteness.
The closest thing I have ever read that accurately describes this feeling is what C. S. Lewis (1940) calls “the experience of the Numinous” in The Problem of Pain:
Those who have not met this term may be introduced to it by the following device. Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told, ‘There is a ghost in the next room,’ and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny, one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply, ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking – a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it – an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words, ‘Under it my genius is rebuked.’ This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous” (pp. 5-6).
Perhaps it is that I feel closest to the triune God when I have just preached from His Word. Perhaps it is this awareness of my proximity to Him Who is Omnipresent that prompts my fearful awe and a desire to lay flat on my face upon the ground in His presence.
After I preach a message from God’s Word before others, upon departing the pulpit and reclaiming my seat with the congregation, I am always prompted by the Spirit to hang my head in my hands and contemplate what I have just done. I have just handled the sword of the Spirit in the company of others (Eph. 6:17). This is not something to be done carelessly or frivolously. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12, ESV). It is no dead and dusty book that I have handled. It is a weighty, heady, active, fiery, living sledgehammer of a tome (Jer. 23:29) that is bristling and bursting with the words of ultimate truth and eternal life.
Whenever I am asked to preach or teach God’s Word, I undertake the task with great seriousness and solemnity. I do this with full apprehension of the teaching of the Holy Spirit through our Lord’s brother James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1).
This judgment speaks not of condemnation or punishment for sin, for we know that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). However, we do know that Christians will be judged in some fashion when we stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10) so that “each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). This judgment occurs when we, as Christians, depart our earthly bodies (or “tents” in 2 Cor. 5:1) in death and go to be “home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). It is in the presence of the Almighty Creator and Jesus Christ that we will receive our due. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience” (2 Cor. 5:11).
Perhaps it is that this dread originates in my conscience. Only I and the Lord know the horrific sins that I have committed in this lifetime. It is only He who knows me completely and fully. It is only He who knows the secrets of my wicked heart. We both know how utterly inept and disqualified I am from preaching His Word before others.
John Piper (2002) once said:
I was amazed once to hear a seminary graduate say how adequate he felt for the ministry after his years of schooling. This was supposed to be a compliment to the school. The reason this amazed me is that the greatest theologian and missionary and pastor who ever lived cried out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Not because he was a bungler, but because the awful calling of emitting the fragrance of eternal life for some and eternal death for others was a weight he could scarcely bear. A pastor who feels competent in himself to produce eternal fruit – which is the only kind that matters – knows neither God nor himself. A pastor who does not know the rhythm of desperation and deliverance must have his sights only on what man can achieve. But brothers, the proper goals of the life of a pastor are unquestionably beyond our reach. The changes we long for in the hearts of our people can happen only by a sovereign work of grace (p. 54).
A desperate acknowledgement of my utter dependence upon a fearful and holy God. Perhaps this comes close to describing how I feel after preaching the Word. Perhaps I should feel this way more often, even when I am not preaching.
Hebrews 12:28 (NLT) Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001, reprint from 1940).
John Piper, Brothers, We are not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2002).