Reverence, amongst Christians, is rather like intelligence. Most believe they themselves have it, while disputing that others do. Everyone is certain he has all the marks of it, while seeing in others all the signs of its absence.
Although reverence is hardly on hipster pastors’ Top 10 Sermon Topics list, few would be brash enough to deny its importance or essentiality. Hebrews 12:28 is simply too clear, and even the most dynamic modern translation still retains the word “reverence” (or a cognate, like fear, respect or awe). Further, Hebrews can’t be dismissed with the callous “Well, that’s in the Old Testament” remark, as some will do with the many “fear of the Lord” passages in Proverbs. Apart from those many texts, the Bible also uses the words tremble, dread, awe, awesome, and honour. Scripture records responses to God such as astonished, actions like fell on his face, bowed, was afraid. Over 600 texts speak of revering God. Christians agree that reverence before God is commanded and commended. The disagreement begins over what exactly reverence is.
It’s a noteworthy thing that God commands certain affections without defining them for us. We’re commanded to rejoice, fear, be angry, delight, hope and sorrow, but we are never told in exacting terms what those mean, or how they are to be expressed. Scripture certainly contains narratives where characters express these emotions, but even here, we are limited in our understanding of what were the tones of voice, the bodily postures, the gestures and facial expressions. Most of these our imaginations assume and fill in when reading the narratives. When it is expressed, we’re not sure how many of these were cultural idiosyncrasies, unique to that time, place and ethnicity.
This silence over the expression of affections is taken in two virtually opposite ways by different Christians. One party assumes Scripture’s silence communicates the amorality and neutrality of the expression of affection. That is, if God were displeased with certain tones of voice, non-verbal gestures, musical combinations or bodily postures, He would have said so. The silence means that a kind of Romans 14 ethic reigns over expressions of affection: opposite and virtually contradictory expressions of affection can equally please God, as long as they are done in sincere faith, without a doubtful conscience.
The other party takes God’s silence on these matters not as indifference, but as a refusal to state the obvious. In other words, God did not spell out what reverence looks like because He expects that we already know, just as He does not explain in His Word how to move your lips so as to smile, or how to furrow your brow when you frown. God’s Word does not stoop to becoming pedantic. It expects you are able to read; it does not contain a phonics course. It expects you understand words; it does not contain a glossary. And it expects that you already understand these affections; it does not define and demonstrate them.
In fact, we have an example of the second view in the book of Malachi. The priests of Judah were committing acts of great irreverence in offering God the very leftovers: bruised and blemished animals. They disputed the charge, feigning bewildered shock: “In what way have we despised your name?” (1:6) The Lord’s response did not detail what reverence feels like and looks like. Instead, He pointed to the universally understood respect between children and parents, and servant and masters, and stated that He had not received anything like that from them (1:6). He exposed their disingenuous denials by challenging them to offer the same kind of reverence to their Persian governor. (1:8) “Give him your three-legged lamb as a gift. Give him your blind and toothless goat, and see if he thanks you for your reverence.” Every Judean understood that such a gift would be an insult; an offensive gesture tantamount to cursing your superior to his face. Put simply, Malachi said to the Jews: you already know what reverence is; stop pretending you possess it when it comes to God.
But let’s imagine the response of the “the expressions are amoral” party. Were we to time-warp some 21st-century sentiments into the Jews of Malachi’s day, the argument might have gone on something like this: “Well, maybe a spastic goat seems insulting to you, but not to me. In my heart, I sincerely feel reverent when I offer it. And God looks at the heart, not at the outward appearance. Why are you so judgemental about these externals? Why are you forcing your livestock preferences on others? What matters is the reverence in my heart.” Of course, God had explicitly forbidden the offering of bruised or torn animals, so this was more than just a violation of propriety; it was disobedience of the law. But curiously, Malachi does not quote the relevant texts from the Pentateuch. He refers them to natural law: you know reverence from cultural life, why do you feign that your worship is reverent?
Modern-day denials of the expression of reverence seem just as disingenuous as the ones the priests offered, for the same ones arguing for the amorality of their outward expressions towards God behave very differently if called to an interview with the president, or jury duty, or attendance at a funeral or memorial. They know what reverence is, and practise it with human authorities infinitely inferior to God in dignity, power and majesty. For some reason, just as in Malachi’s day, we live with a strange double-standard, which we justify to ourselves.
How can we then rescue reverence? First, we can have no profitable discussion with those who do not take Malachi’s rebuke. If you cannot confess your double-standard, you remain in the grip of a pleasant and comforting self-deception. When we admit that our unbelief abuses God’s invisibility, pretending He is indifferent to our irreverence, we are ready to explore what reverence looks like.
Second, we must understand the inner affection of true reverence, distinguishing it from unbelieving dread or from overfamiliar collegiality. We must study the texts of Scripture to arrive at a clear understanding of reverence, that captures the universally-felt affection of a worshipper before God.
Third, we must carefully navigate the matter of how different ethnicities express this affection. Whether it be facial expressions, gestures, bodily postures, poetry, musical forms, custom or etiquette, we must explain the variety without surrendering to complete subjectivity or amorality. We will attempt these answers in this series.