The death of reverence

There’s an interesting scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that bears on one of my growing pastoral burdens. To sketch the burden first, I believe there are certain “pillar” virtues in a human life (and in a human society) which, when they collapse, bring down with them whole tenements of other virtues. One of these “pillar” virtues is reverence: a heartfelt fear and awe and respect in the presence of sacred things, in the presence of things loftier than oneself. This virtue has pretty well disappeared in North America. We tremble at little or nothing anymore, except the occasional horrific tragedy (before the media reduces it to banality), and perhaps the thought that Washington may take awhile restoring economic comfort. God doesn’t scare us; parents and politicians are a joke; goodness and truth are lost in cynical caricatures; beauty lies beneath airy subjectivism; evil fails to impress after eighteen thousand crime shows; and even death is blunted by agnosticism and rosy myths about a better place. Tradition is funny, marriage is passé, love is sex, and sex is cheap. There’s nothing we can’t blow off, nothing before which we fall on our faces, veil our eyes, lay our hands on our mouths. There is no holy ground. (In fairness, one does occasionally sense something like religious fervor in defense of the notion that everyone should be free – and subsidized – to do exactly as he or she pleases.)

As the death of reverence is particularly epidemic in the rising generation (people my age and younger), I have begun to judge the quality of a young person by what, if anything, awes them. I want to see what it takes to erase the James Dean gleam of insolence in their eyes (or the Jerry Seinfeld glint of mockery) and replace it with something like what one sees in the eyes of young soldiers before the battle of their lives, or the eyes of third world sufferers of famine, or the eyes of eastern mystics in the presence of their master. I want to see what produces fear, what evokes deep sobriety, what stirs something approximating humility.

Sadly, among the Christian youth I know the answer is not, by and large, the Almighty. Even if they display some attentiveness during the rituals of corporate worship (hardly a given!), God is no imposition on their thoughts and lives elsewhere (an occasional flicker of conscience doth not reverence make). What fear of God they possess they would cheerfully lay aside, at least to the extent it impinges on their freedom. This is not universally true, by any means, but it is far too much the norm among those whose defining mark is to be the fear of the Lord. But why is this?

I think the answer, in short, is that we presume on the patience of God. God is slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness; and while He stays His hand, we draw the wrong inference, and stop taking His majesty seriously. This is what happens in Narnia when Aslan lets himself be bound and dragged to the Stone Table. He makes his way toward the assembly of his enemies. “A howl and a gibber of dismay went up from the creatures when they first saw the great Lion pacing toward them, and for a moment even the Witch herself seemed to be struck with fear.” The evil rabble, like Lucy and Susan, hold their breaths, waiting for Aslan’s roar and spring; but it never comes. “Four Hags, grinning and leering, yet also (at first) hanging back and half afraid of what they had to do” approach him. As he patiently submits, the murderous crowd begins its task; soon they are so emboldened as to kick the Lion, hit him, spit on him, and jeer at him with “mean laughter.” And in the end, they seem to succeed.

Of course, we know the rest of the story. Aslan rises and triumphs over his enemies. And so will the Lord Christ over all of His enemies.

Now to be clear: I am not saying that lack of reverence among God’s people necessarily means we have gone over to the side of His enemies and will share their fate. But if it does not mean that, it is perhaps even worse, because we are failing to honor and love and stand in awe of the Lord who has claimed us as His subjects, His friends, His brethren, and His children – and if it is folly not to fear a great king who is one’s enemy, it is inexcusable wickedness not to fear a great and good king who is one’s father and benefactor. And this, sad to say, is where a lot of us in the North American church have arrived. We have no more respect for the Lord our God than for anything else in our shallow lives – and this in the teeth of His patience and kindness!

What might be done? I mention but two things, almost at random. First, it should be obvious that it all begins in parenting. A child who does not reverence his father and mother, who does not rise up before the hoary head, is a poor candidate for the fear of the Lord. Second, I think some attention need be given to details of corporate worship that cultivate reverence, such as kneeling for confession of sin. Our bodies were made for worship, so posture is not a light matter. When we physically bow before the Lord, it forms a habitual way of thinking about who He is and who we are in His Presence. (I ponder, incidentally, whether the more reverent worship in other faiths and communions might not explain why there is such a draw toward Roman Catholicism among evangelicals, and toward Islam in the broader culture. Say what you will about bowing toward Mecca five times a day: it’s a statement about authority, transcendence, history, and awe; and the yearning of the heart for these things will simply not go away.)

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