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Rules for Prayer: Be in Awe

In Timothy Keller’s new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, he highlights the importance of joyful fear of God in prayer.

Praying with awe
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From PRAYER: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Timothy Keller

A “master class” on prayer is found in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Perhaps the most distinct part of Calvin’s treatment is what he calls “the rules for prayer.”

Calvin’s first rule for prayer is the principle of reverence or the “fear of God.” Calvin calls Christians first of all to have a due sense of the seriousness and magnitude of what prayer is. It is a personal audience and conversation with the Almighty God of the universe. There is nothing worse than to be “devoid of awe.” We must instead come to prayer “so moved by God’s majesty” that we are “freed from earthly cares and affections.” Here, Calvin is touching on one of the most misunderstood yet important concepts in the Bible—the “fear of God.” The fear of God obviously means to be afraid, but afraid of what—and why?

It is natural to think that the fear of God means to be afraid He is going to punish us. 1 John 4:18, however, tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” and adds that the kind of fear it drives out has “to do with punishment.” Romans 8:1 teaches that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. From this we conclude that a Christian’s fear of God can’t mean we are constantly afraid of being spiritually lost if we don’t live just right. Other texts, like the surprising Psalm 130:4, says that the experience of forgiveness actually increases the fear of God.


What, then, should a Christian be afraid of regarding God? Think of it like this. Imagine that you suddenly are introduced to some person you have always admired enormously—perhaps someone you have hero-worshipped. You reach out to shake her hand and suddenly it hits you. You can’t believe you are actually meeting her. You discover to your embarrassment that you are trembling and sweating, and when you try to speak, you are out of breath. What is going on? You are not afraid of being hurt, or punished. Rather, you are genuinely afraid of doing something stupid or saying something that is inappropriate to the person and the occasion. Your joyful admiration has a fearful aspect to it. You are in awe, and therefore you don’t want to mess up.

That is something we experience even in the presence of an admirable human being. How much more is this a proper response to God.  

We could say that fear of punishment is a self-absorbed kind of fear. It happens to people wrapped up in themselves. Those who believe the gospel—who believe that they are the recipients of undeserved but unshakable grace—grow in a paradoxically loving yet joyful fear. Because of unutterable love and joy in God, we tremble with the privilege of being in his presence and with an intense longing to honor him when we are there. We are deeply afraid of grieving him. To put it another way—you would be quite afraid if someone put a beautiful, priceless, ancient Ming dynasty vase in your hands. You wouldn’t be trembling with fear about the vase hurting you but about your hurting it. Of course, we can’t really harm God, but a Christian should be concerned not to grieve or dishonor the One who is so glorious and who did so much for us.

Calvin says that this sense of awe is a crucial part of prayer. Prayer both requires it and produces it. The very fact that we have access to God’s attention and presence should concentrate the thoughts and elevate the heart. 

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