Wonder and worship


By Jesse Hill

Last week, Ami sang a very nice song in our worship service titled “Build My Life.”  Here are the words to the chorus (emphasis added):

Holy, there is no one like You  

There is none beside You  

Open up my eyes in wonder  

Show me who You are and fill me  

With Your heart and lead me 

In Your love to those around me

-”Build My Life” by Housefires

We also sang a song by Matt Redman called “Mercy” which includes the line “May I never lose the wonder, O the wonder of Your mercy.”  

I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of wonder.  More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a sense of wonder or awe in the context of worship.  What role does wonder play in our worship?  Should true worship instill us with a sense of wonder or does wonder prompt us to worship?

It seems to me that without a sense of wonder, worship would be a purely cognitive exercise.  Wonder is one of the elements which distinguish worship from mere understanding.  Worship happens when we allow ourselves to be in awe or wonder at the things we understand about God.  Wonder is the thing that makes it possible to sing about amazing grace instead of simply saying that God is gracious. 

Many of the truths of our faith are simple but have an unfathomable depth.  For example, we know that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love (Psalm 145:8).  We can state these things as basic descriptors of God, but we can also state these same attributes from a position of wonder.  It is one thing to know that God is compassionate, but it is another thing to have experienced his compassion and to state this from a position of awe or wonder that he could be so compassionate.  

To take another example of simple truth with great depth, consider the idea that God is holy.  Scripture describes God as being holy quite often, and today we often sing songs and pray prayers which say the same.  We know that God is holy, but there is a profound difference between knowing that God is holy and being in awe or wonder at his holiness.  Consider Isaiah’s response to God’s holiness: “Woe is me, for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”  (Isaiah 6:5). 

It is one thing to understand something about God, and another thing altogether to consider that same thing with a sense of wonder.  I don’t believe it is possible to worship God in spirit and in truth without some sense of wonder.  

In a culture that values analytical intellect in the forms of hard rules, statistics, and empirical evidence, we are unaccustomed to applying our imagination (or, our creative intellect) in worship.  As a result, we have developed a strong orthodoxy but have somehow disconnected this from the sense of wonder that orthodoxy should instill in us.  God is himself awe-inspiring, so if we are able to understand him without a sense of awe, there must be something awry.  

How can we develop a sense of wonder?  The most obvious answer is to have an experience with God that is somehow greater than learning about him, much as Isaiah did.  This is why both of the songs I referred to above are phrased as prayers asking God to open our eyes in wonder or to keep us from losing our sense of wonder.  If you do not have a sense of wonder at who God is, a good step would be to ask him to reveal himself to you in a greater way.  However, I believe there are also some spiritual practices we can make use of to help us better respond to God’s self-revelation.  

I believe we better develop a sense of wonder whenever we apply our full self (body, intellect, and emotion) in considering and responding to who God is.  A good starting point is to apply our creative intellect by imagining the truths we know about God.  We need to apply our imagination in worship, not by daydreaming and fabricating fictions, but by trying to apply and envision what we already know about God. 

Psalm 104 is an example of what I mean.  The psalm begins by describing God in his heavenly setting, saying that he is “clothed with majesty and splendor; he wraps himself in light as if it were a robe.”  And that he “makes clouds his chariot” and “flames of fire his servants.”  

If you asked me to describe God before reading this psalm, I might have given an answer based on my understanding or my concept of God.  If you asked me again after reading the psalm, my answer would be different, because the imagery in the psalm engages my imagination, and instills me with a sense of wonder at who God is.  It isn’t so much that the psalm helps me to understand something new, but more than it helps me to imagine or envision God. By engaging my imagination, the psalm helps me to experience a sense of wonder at the truth I already know.  

The remainder of Psalm 104 is a poetic description of God’s act of creation.  The psalm personifies many elements of the earth, saying that the waters of the sea fled and hurried away when God rebuked them.  The psalm says that the sun knows when to rise and set—as though the sun had some ability for thought.  Obviously, these descriptions are not meant to be taken literally, but to help us to better imagine and wonder at God’s real act of creation and at his continued work in the natural world.  

Psalm 104 and other passages like it help us understand how we can develop a sense of wonder in worship.  I imagine this psalm might have been written as the psalmist sat in a field imagining what it must have been like when God created the world.  Or perhaps it was written on the way home from a reading of Genesis or even Job at the tabernacle.  Either way, the psalmist clearly took great care to apply imagination and creativity in considering God as Creator.  

We can do the same thing in worship.  The next time you read scripture, or sing songs in church, or pray, try to apply not only the analytic part of your intellect but also the creative part of your intellect.  Try to apply your five senses to the truth you are contemplating.  If you are singing about God as creator, try to imagine some aspect of creation: what did it look like for God to create the moon by drawing dust and rocks together in orbit around the earth?  If you are singing about the sacrifice of Jesus, try to really imagine the horror of the crucifixion with all of your senses: what did it sound like that day?  What did the wood of the cross feel like?  If you are singing about the work of the Spirit in the global church, imagine the Spirit whispering truth to many people, and that truth echoing around the world with ever-increasing volume.  Imagine, as Paul did, the spirit forming the church into the image of Christ.  Perhaps, as you engage your senses in contemplation, you will find that the rest of your being is also drawn into worship and that you begin to wonder at who God is and what he has done.  

Wonder is an essential part of worshipping God. I pray you are able to experience God in a way that invokes a sense of wonder, and that you will be able to apply your whole being in responding to him in worship.  

May my meditation be pleasing to Him; I will rejoice in the Lord

-Psalm 104:34