Defining Awesome


“You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness, O God our Savior. . .”  Psalm 65:5

Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but familiarity has, it seems, taken the awe out of awesome. The thesaurus built into my software offers these synonyms: overwhelming, grand, breath-taking, splendid, tremendous, remarkable, and awe-inspiring, most of which seem superlatives. We don’t normally put an adjective with any of them—as in “more splendid.” Like unique, most of those words are intended to reach as far as we can go into the realm where there are no words.

What’s worse, contemporarily at least, is that awesome is a word that has been rather fashionably hijacked by idiomatic usage, by Valley-girl slang, its intent bushwhacked by simple overuse. If a monster dunk is awesome, can we still use the word to describe the creation of the world? 

I once heard an interview with Rich Mullins, the songwriter who penned “Our God is an Awesome God,” one of the original praise-and-worship winners. It was memorable, really. But the song itself—perhaps simply by repetition—has eviscerated what it was meant to vivify. “When He rolls up His sleeves/He ain't just putting on the ritz”—the opening line—may be commendable in its efforts to be relevant; but an argument could be made that the line does more to bring God to our level than it does to bring us into a sense of divine eternity.

The King James has “terrible” where the NIV has “awesome,” and I’m at a loss to determine which one I prefer. It seems utterly out of the question for any good evangelical soul to use “terrible” as an adjective describing God or his wonders; but “awesome,” at least to me, has lost its awe. Awesome sounds like bubble-gum. “By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us” is the way the KJV reads. And I suppose I sound like Jonathan Edwards if I say I prefer it. 

I don’t believe my preferences have to do with wanting to worship a God of wrath. They have more to do with believing that awesome is just plain worn out. 

But then, who knows what word David used, and whether his arsenal of synonyms could possibly have been big enough either. Our language is severely limited by our imaginations; and our imaginations, despite what we might believe of them, remain solidly “of this world.” God’s acts—like Jesus’s own mixed-blood character—remain, sadly enough, beyond our ken, beyond our words, beyond us.

But then that’s why we worship him. That’s why he likes us on our knees.

Our words can’t reach him. Only Jesus, the God/child, does and can.  And, okay, I give up—that’s awesome. 

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"Amazing" and "life-changing experience," among others, I suppose, are as shopworn as "awesome." Maybe we should retire "Awesome God" and some others to the songbook shelf for a while. It's sad that words--which are gifts from God--can so readily inflate like grades and the Venezuelan Bolivar. Thanks, Jim.