Science has found physical benefits to having a sense of awe. But much more important are the spiritual benefits. How can awe inspire our relationship with God?
What gives you a sense of awe?
Some of my most awe-inspiring moments include:
- Seeing the panorama from the top of Mount Rainier.
- Hearing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
- Seeing, hearing and feeling the power of Niagara Falls.
- Holding my wife’s and my babies for the first time.
Examples of awe and wonder
Perhaps you resonate with some of these examples of awe and wonder shared by my friends:
John wrote, “Pictures from space, courtesy of the Hubble and Webb telescopes, are awesome!”
Michelle said, “Admiring God’s awesome creation all around us, including the precious design of a child growing inside the womb, the miracle of a child being born, how new life springs up after the dead of winter, the beauty of life in the ocean when you go snorkeling or scuba diving, admiring the beauty of the stars and the perfect peace and calm the sunsets bring.”
Rod said, “Old Faithful.”
Janel wrote, “Visiting many historic spots in Israel and keeping Pentecost in Jerusalem; going to operas at the Sydney Opera House and Covent Garden; seeing the Canadian Rocky Mountains for the first time (and every time after!); seeing Half Dome and El Capitan (Yosemite) and the giant redwoods of Tuolumne Grove . . .”
Sherrie wrote, “Giving birth is probably the most awesome experience I have ever had.”
Donna said, “Standing on a mountainside in the Swiss Alps; looking out on the ocean at sunset.”
Awe is related to the fear of the Lord, which the Bible says is “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) and is “strong confidence” and “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:26-27).Robert wrote, “I was filled with awe when I was blessed by being able to visit the American cemetery at Normandy, France. I was actually physically weakened with the awe that I experienced at that place. Upon viewing the acres and acres and thousands of tombstones all neatly and orderly laid out, I was in awe at the amount of death perpetrated in one place by mankind upon mankind. This sense of awe filled me with utter humility as I was allowed to sense my own insignificance compared to the events that caused all of that death.”
Alan said, “Visiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was an awesome and moving experience.”
Awe in the Bible
David, the shepherd poet who became king, wrote the quintessential song of awe in Psalm 8:3-4:
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him?”
Those many nights tending his sheep under the stars gave David a perspective that is too easily lost in buildings and cities of human construction. But what are we compared to the vastness of space?
Psalm 33 also calls for us to see ourselves from the perspective of the Creator of the universe.
“Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:8-9).
Psalm 119 also mentions awe:
“Princes persecute me without a cause, but my heart stands in awe of Your word” (Psalm 119:161).
The Hebrew word pachad here means “dread, be in dread, in awe” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon).
In addition to these two uses of awe, the English word awesome appears 38 times in the New King James Version, mostly describing God, His name and His works.
According to the Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, “There is no instance in the [Old Testament] or [New Testament] where ‘stand in awe’ could not accurately be translated ‘be afraid’ or where ‘awesome’ could not be translated ‘fearsome.’”
This shows the close connection between a healthy fear of the Lord and awe and reverence. Study more about this in our article “What Does the Fear of the Lord Mean?”
The Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words entry for “awe/awesome” also notes: “The awe felt by God’s people is an appropriate response to who God is. But awe does not drive us from God. We know that this majestic one whose being and glory are immense and awe-inspiring has chosen to love us and to invite us into the most intimate of relationships with him.”
The science of awe
Though the Bible talks about an awe that goes beyond the material world, there is a physical emotion included in it.
Dacher Keltner, author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, took a scientific look at this emotion.
In an excerpt of his book in The Atlantic he asked, “What gives you a sense of awe? That word, awe—the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world—is often associated with the extraordinary. You might imagine standing next to a 350-foot-tall tree or on a wide-open plain with a storm approaching, or hearing an electric guitar fill the space of an arena, or holding the tiny finger of a newborn baby. Awe blows us away: It reminds us that there are forces bigger than ourselves, and it reveals that our current knowledge is not up to the task of making sense of what we have encountered.”
One of the studies he cited compared two groups doing the same thing, but with a different mind-set.
“Along with Virginia Sturm, a UC San Francisco neuroscientist, I studied the effects of an ‘awe walk.’ One group of subjects took a weekly walk for eight weeks; the other group did the same but with some instructions: Tap into your childlike sense of wonder, imagining you’re seeing everything for the first time. Take a moment during each walk to notice the vastness of things—when looking at a panoramic view, for example, or at the detail of a flower. And go somewhere new, or try to recognize new features of the same old place. All of the participants reported on their happiness, anxiety, and depression and took selfies during their walks.
“We found that the awe-walkers felt more awe with each passing week . . .
“Over the course of our study, awe-walkers reported feeling less daily distress and more prosocial emotions such as compassion and amusement.”
Benefits of awe
Even on the physical level, feelings of awe have benefits.
Professor Keltner wrote, “A survey of relevant studies suggests that a brief dose of awe can reduce stress, decrease inflammation, and benefit the cardiovascular system.”
He also pointed out that “engaging with what’s overwhelming can put things in perspective.”
As Shahram Heshmat put it in Psychology Today, “A dose of awe may make your worries feel small” (“The Mental Benefits of Seeking Awe”).
Of course, the greatest benefits are the spiritual benefits.
As mentioned earlier, awe is related to the fear of the Lord, which the Bible says is “the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10) and is “strong confidence” and “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:26-27). Our loving God says He records those who fear Him in His “book of remembrance” (Malachi 3:16).
Such physical experiences can serve as a catalyst for deeper spiritual awe if we focus our minds on the God who created all of these things. The healthy fear of the Lord the Bible encourages is not terror, but reverence. In fact, it actually builds faith—belief and trust in the all-powerful and loving God. When we have this faith, other fears evaporate.
“For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6). (Study more about faith in our articles “What Is Faith?” and “Dealing With Doubt.”)
Awe is also an antidote to pride. Pride brings shame, strife and destruction (Proverbs 11:2; 13:10; 16:18). It is an underlying source of all kinds of sin, and an attitude emanating from the father of sin, Satan.
Awe promotes the opposite of pride—humility. Seeing how small we are in relation to God helps us to have a proper perspective of ourselves. And God will exalt and give grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-6).
“For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit’” (Isaiah 57:15).
Awe also provides the impetus for thanksgiving, praise and worship of the great and awesome God. (See more in our articles “Thanksgiving Prayer,” “Praise God” and “What Kind of Worship Does God Want?”)
Awe also is a key aspect of obeying the great commandment, which encompasses the first four of the 10 Commandments. (Learn more in our article “The Great Commandment.”) Awe helps us to put God first, to not put idols in His place, to reverence His name and to worship Him on His holy Sabbath.
How to experience awe
Dr. Heshmat wrote, “There are many ways for us to cultivate the experience of awe in our daily lives, whether through nature, music, art, sports, or witnessing the goodness of others. It is possible to find awe-inspiring moments in all different places. This capacity to step outside of oneself is a valuable skill.”
Such physical experiences can serve as a catalyst for deeper spiritual awe if we focus our minds on the God who created all of these things. Through prayer, we can praise Him and talk with Him. Through Bible study and biblical meditation, we can listen to Him and come to even deeper appreciation of what God has done, is doing and will do.
Focusing on God’s greatness, His love and His plan for us can bring us to the kind of awe that inspired these thoughts from the apostle Peter:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:3-9).
What could be more awesome than that?
Study more about God’s plan for us in the articles “Joint Heirs With Christ” and “The Gift of Eternal Life.”